LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - When a lifelike figure of Bruce Lee was unveiled at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum in Hollywood earlier this year, his only surviving child noted that he died shortly before the 1974 premiere of “Enter The Dragon,” the movie that made him a global superstar.
“I think my dad definitely dreamed he would make an impact like this,” said Shannon Lee, who was three when her father died of a cerebral edema aged just 32. “I’m very sorry he didn’t live to see it, but it’s nice to see those dreams come true.”
Thirty-seven years after his sudden death, Lee’s dream has been fulfilled not only in Hollywood but all over the world.
The San Francisco-born, Hong Kong-raised actor has become an iconic figure alongside the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and James Dean. His influence as an actor, fighter and philosopher has been recognized by stars like Jackie Chan and rapper LL Cool J, creators such as Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee, and movie directors John Woo and Brett Ratner.
What is particularly interesting about the posthumous evolution of Bruce Lee is that he is not only remembered for the handful of movies and TV show in which he starred but also for breaking racial barriers, helping erase stereotypes and his contributions in such areas as mixed martial arts, fitness, health and a philosophy that recognized the commonality of all humanity.
While a wax figure of Lee in Hollywood or a memorial in Hong Kong are not big surprises, there is also a life-size statue in Mostar, Bosnia erected in 2005 as a symbol of efforts to heal ethnic tensions in a place that suffered from civil war in the 1990s.
“The reason they chose him is not because he’s a martial arts star,” said Shannon Lee shortly after the bronze was unveiled, “but he represents somebody who had a lot of ethnic struggle in his lifetime and overcame it. So, to them, he is a unifying force and representative of somebody who overcame that.”
In the first years after his death, numerous imitators sprang onto the screen, often with confusingly similar names like Bruce Li (who was really Ho Chung Tao of Taiwan), Bruce Le (a Hong Kong actor) and Dragon Lee (from South Korea). They were part of a movement called Brucexplotation, a reference to the fact they traded on Lee’s fame. In reality, the impact of these low budget, action heavy movies was to dilute interest in the entire genre.
The next wave brought Jackie Chan and Jet Li and others who offered their own variation on Lee’s legacy but still never quite replaced him as a martial artist or a movie icon.
But that was only part of Lee’s legacy. His impact was greater than movies. As the first Asian international action star he smashed the Western stereotype of the Chinese coolie, and provided reason for a whole generation of young Asians, as well as other minorities, to be proud of their heritage. Comedian Margaret Cho has said it was seeing Lee that made her realize her own possibilities in life.
Until Lee, martial arts was a rigid system of schools and styles that fiercely competed to be called the best. Lee created his own style, Jeet Kune Do, which not only took the best of what the Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other martial arts offered but added in elements of boxing, wrestling and even the idea that weight lifting could be part of the system. His approach included health foods, running, aerobics and even electrical stimulation of muscles — all of which are common today but were radical in the 1970s.
His movies stimulated the worldwide growth of martial arts of all kinds, but it went beyond that. There is a clear line from what Lee wrought to the invention of mixed martial arts, which flourishes today in multiple forms, such as the Ultimate Fighting Championships.
Lee’s Jeet Kune Do has also been carried on by his students and their students and is considered a legitimate fighting art on its own today. It is taught on the university level in China.
Interestingly, the acceptance of Lee as a hero was not instant in the People’s Republic of China. At the time Lee died on July 20, 1973, China was only beginning to open up to the West and Lee was seen as a symbol of decadent Western influence. As China has become more involved with the rest of the world, the Chinese have seen the value of using Lee as a symbol.
That was most obvious in 2008 when CCTV, the state TV channel, ran a 50-part series on the life of Lee that had the same title as this writer’s 1974 book, “The Legend Of Bruce Lee.” It became the highest rated series in the history of the channel.
The Chinese government has backed a Bruce Lee museum in an old teashop in Shunde in southern China, and a Bruce Lee theme park. Shunde is where Lee’s family came from although he was only there once, when he was five years old.
That project is being done with involvement from Bruce Lee’s surviving brothers and sisters, but not his widow Linda Caldwell or Shannon, who is now head of a foundation in her father’s name, as well as a for-profit partnership, Concord Moon. Concord Moon has been developing Bruce Lee media projects such as a CGI movie, an animated film, a TV series and a Broadway musical in the final stages of creation by David Henry Hwang, author of the 1988 Tony Award winning play “M. Butterfly.” The CCTV series was done with the approval of Linda and Shannon.
After Bruce Lee died, there was a split between Lee’s widow, who controlled his estate, and the Lee family, who she cut out of most of the revenue from his movies and ongoing licensing. Linda Lee said at the time she needed the money for her own family, including her son Brandon, who also became a movie star, but then died in a tragic on-set accident in 1993 at age 28.
A tense detente exists today between the Lee family and the estate. Linda and Shannon worry that Lee’s image could be tarnished by licensing of such items as tobacco products.
However the family, led by Bruce’s younger brother Robert, has shown it too cares about Lee’s legacy. One project the family has approved is a trilogy of movies on Lee’s life by China’s J.A. Media Group, with the first installment due around the time Lee would have turned 70 on November 27, 2010.
Lee as a youth is also being portrayed in the Mandarin Films Distribution Co. sequel to the successful Chinese movie “Ip Man,” about Bruce Lee’s teacher, due for release later this year.
After years of biographical movies that didn’t get made by Hollywood, there was “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” released by Universal in 1993 starring Jason Scott Lee (no relation) as Bruce Lee. It cost about $14 million to make and grossed $35 million in the U.S. but drew mixed reviews. Director Rob Cohen, while a Lee fan, took many liberties with the story for dramatic effect.
Linda and Shannon Lee authorized that movie, but bought back the Bruce Lee life rights from Universal a few years ago. So the legend of Bruce Lee truly is going to continue through movies, TV shows, a musical play, books, licensed merchandise, martial arts, physical culture and much more.
“Like everyone else you want to learn the way to win,” Bruce Lee is quoted in the 2000 documentary “The Warriors Journey,” directed by John Little, who devoted years to creating books and media from Lee’s legacy. “But ... to accept defeat — to learn to die — is to be liberated from it. Once you accept, you are free to flow and to harmonize. Fluidity is the way to an empty mind. You must free your ambitious mind and learn the art of dying.”
Or in Bruce Lee’s case, the art of how to live on even after you have died.