Things You Never Knew About Bruce Lee
Did you know his father was a famous opera singer?
The legacy of martial arts icon and actor Bruce Lee has spanned decades and touched the lives of countless people around the world. Lee dedicated his life to martial arts, and he shared this passion with a global audience through various films and TV series.
From his very early days on movie sets to his sudden and untimely death, Lee made a tremendous impact over just 32 years on earth. Keep reading to learn some fascinating facts about this powerhouse fighter-performer.
He Was Born In America
Bruce Lee was born Li Jun Fan on Nov. 27, 1940, in San Francisco, California. The name “Bruce” was actually given to him by a nurse at Jackson Street Hospital. It wasn’t until later in life that he began to use his now-famous moniker.
His Father Was A Star In China
Bruce Lee’s father, Lee Hoi Chuen, was a famous opera singer and film actor in his native Hong Kong. As an actor, Hoi Chuen amassed nearly 70 film credits in a career that spanned from 1939 to 1961. Hoi Chuen and his wife, Grace Ho, were on an opera tour in San Francisco in 1940 when Grace gave birth to their second son, Bruce. The family would return to Hong Kong just a few months later.
He Was A Child Actor
Though films such as “The Big Boss” and “Enter the Dragon” made Lee a star, he began his acting career much earlier. Perhaps thanks to his father’s influence, Lee appeared in around 20 films starting when he was just a baby.
As he got older, kung fu took precedence over acting, and he would train in earnest. Lee would not return to acting until years later, after moving back to the States.
He Was A Street Fighter
Being the son of a famous performer did not exempt young Bruce from bullying. To protect himself, he joined a gang called the Junction Street Eight Tigers.
“I was a punk and went looking for fights,” he told Black Belt magazine in 1967. Lee became a student of sorts of the Hong Kong street fighting culture, which was born partly out of a concentration of rival kung fu schools. He would use what he observed to develop his own style.
He Danced The Cha-Cha
Fists of fury are less impactful without some fancy footwork. A teenage Lee studied dance and won the 1958 Hong Kong Cha-Cha Championship. While studying dance, Lee kept a meticulous notebook, detailing more than 100 dance steps. One of his first jobs upon returning to the U.S. was as a dance instructor.
He Trained With Legendary Master Yip Man
At age 13, Lee trained in the Wing Chun style of kung fu under Master Yip Man. Revered in his time as a teacher, Yip gained even more widespread fame when actor Donnie Yen played him in the 2008 film “Ip Man,” along with its sequels. Another bio-pic titled “The Grandmaster,” starring Tony Leung, was released in 2013.
He Was A Philosopher—And A Dishwasher
Lee left Hong Kong for Seattle and found work in the restaurant of a family friend. Lee worked as a dishwasher and even lived above the restaurant while finishing high school. He would go on to study philosophy at the University of Washington.
He Loved Seattle
Bruce Lee opened the first of his kung fu schools in Seattle. It was in one of his classes there that he met his wife, Linda, and they married a year later. After his death in 1973, the Lee family chose Seattle as his final resting place, as it was where Linda believed they had been happiest. There are plans to open a museum in his honor there.
He Trained Many Celebrities
Several stars of the ’70s could boast that Lee was their personal kung fu instructor. Steve McQueen, “Magnificent Seven” star James Coburn, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Garner were among the big names to employ Lee’s services. Lee grew quite close to McQueen and Coburn, and both actors were pallbearers at his funeral.
He Had A ‘Showdown In Oakland’
Bruce Lee once fought a rival Wing Chun master Wong Jack Man in an event dubbed the “Showdown in Oakland.” A popular version of the story is that Lee ran afoul of the Oakland kung fu community by teaching non-Chinese students, which was forbidden. Another is that Lee’s brashness and bravado, on display in local demonstrations, was seen as an insult. The resulting fight, though oft-mythologized, saw Lee and Wong spar for roughly 20 minutes. Afterwards they agreed to never speak of it again. The incident was dramatized in the 2017 film “Birth of the Dragon.”
He Created His Own Form Of Kung Fu
Bruce Lee combined what he learned from his years of street fighting and arduous study in Hong Kong to create his own martial art form: Jeet Kune Do. Jeet Kune Do, or “way of the intercepting fist,” was coined by Lee in 1967. The concept behind the art is that an individual should be both physically and mentally prepared for any situation that arises. “JKD” is still taught all over the world and by instructors who worked with Lee himself.
Physicists Have Studied His Fists
Lee’s famous and powerful “1-inch punch” has captivated fans and students alike since he debuted it in 1967. The short-range strike was once described by a kung fu TV show host as having “more force behind it than a car moving at 48 kilometers-per-hour.” In 2014, a group of biomechanical researchers studied footage of Lee, as well as live subjects, using motion-tracking cameras and brain scans to determine how it was so effective.
He Only Made 4 Films
Despite his massive impact on popular culture and his many onscreen appearances as a youth, Lee himself only made four films. A fifth, 1973’s “Game of Death” was unfinished prior to his death. The film was completed using old footage from previous films as well as the roughly 40 minutes of footage shot for the film.
He Was An Author
The “Tao of Jeet Kune Do” was written at a frustrating time in Lee’s life. Laid up due to a back injury in 1970, Lee spent his time writing this book, which expands upon the philosophy behind Jeet Kune Do. Though Lee’s life and career would be the subject of numerous works, this is the only book he would author entirely by himself. Lee wrote most of “The Tao of Gung Fu” before his death, but it was published in collaboration with martial artist John Little after he died.
One more publishing note: Though “kung fu” is a common spelling for the discipline in the U.S., Lee himself spelled it “gung fu” — hence the spelling in the book’s title.
Chuck Norris Taught Him How To Kick
Bruce Lee faced off against Chuck Norris in the 1972 film “Way of the Dragon.” In real life, Norris and Lee struck up a friendship. The two sparred together, and according to Norris, he was the one who changed Lee’s mind about kicking. Norris says he told Lee, “You should be able to have the ability to kick anywhere … if there’s an opening high then you should be able to take advantage of that.”
He Lives On As A Video Game Character
If you ever dreamt of seeing Lee go toe to toe with the likes of mixed martial artists Conor McGregor or Georges St-Pierre, you’re in luck. Bruce Lee is a featured character in the UFC video games by EA Sports.
Films Were Slowed Down So You Could See His Punches
Lee would often have to do multiple takes while filming, as cameras at the time were unable to capture his compact, lightning-fast moves. In some cases, his co-stars wouldn’t even have time to react. Early shots of “The Green Hornet” even had to be refilmed because the cameras couldn’t capture Lee’s movement. It looked like his opponents were falling down while he just stood there, appearing to do nothing.
He Inspired The Cult Hit ‘The Last Dragon’
Berry Gordy’s 1985 cult classic is an homage to Lee and both the kung fu and Blaxploitation genres at once — all set to the music of Debarge. The film follows Leroy Green, who is dubbed “Bruce Leroy” by both friends and neighborhood bullies for his idolization of the late icon.
Not only was the film full of references to Lee, it also followed the same basic plot as Lee’s films. Leroy is an innocent young man who happens to be a highly skilled martial artist, forced to defend himself, his family and town against a vicious gang. According to screenwriter Louis Venosta, “The kung fu movie structure was obvious. It was one of the easiest things, honestly, I ever wrote.”
He Made His Hollywood Debut As A Sidekick
It’s hard to imagine a star of Lee’s magnitude being anyone’s second banana. However, his big break came when he played Kato, sidekick to the Green Hornet, in the 1966 TV series. The show debuted as a spinoff of the popular “Batman and Robin,” starring Adam West.
He Created The ‘Kung Fu’ TV Series But Didn’t Star In It
According to legend, Bruce Lee conceived of the premise behind the series “Kung Fu,” pitching the show to producers with himself in the lead. Fearing American audiences would not accept an Asian actor as the hero, he was turned down. “Kung Fu” went to series in 1972 starring David Carradine.
Carradine would later dismiss Lee’s claims, saying, “[W]hat I know is that I was sent a script and I said yes … I didn’t even know at the time that Bruce Lee had been considered.”
His Son Died While Filming A Movie
Lee’s son, Brandon Lee, would follow his father into the movie business, starring in action films “Showdown in Little Tokyo” and “Rapid Fire.” Unfortunately, Brandon would die in a tragic accident on the set of “The Crow” when a prop gun used on the actor accidentally fired a real bullet, striking him in the abdomen and ultimately killing him.
Much like his father’s last film, “The Crow” would be completed using existing footage and released in 1994. It was a hit, spawning multiple sequels, with different actors in the lead.
A Third Bio-Pic About Lee Is In Production
Bruce Lee’s life has been the subject of two Hollywood films. The first, “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” was based on a book by his wife, Linda. The second and most recent film, “Birth of the Dragon,” was made without the cooperation of the Lee family. A third film, titled “Little Dragon,” is said to focus on Lee’s childhood in Hong Kong.
His Marriage Was Technically Illegal
Linda and Bruce met in 1963 when Linda was a student in one of Bruce’s kung fu classes, and the two were married in 1964. Linda’s family did not approve at the time, and technically, neither did the law. It would be three years before a U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalized interracial marriage.
Conspiracy Theories Surround His Death
Bruce Lee’s sudden death shocked the world and has been the subject of conspiracy theories ever since. Officially attributed to cerebral edema caused by an allergic reaction to painkillers, a new biography offers another theory. The book’s author, Matthew Polly, contends that the star died of heat stroke. Lee had the sweat glands in his armpits surgically removed in the months prior to his death. His body’s inability to cool itself off led to a fatal case of heat stroke, the author alleges.
An Organization Was Founded In His Honor
Founded by Shannon Lee, Bruce’s daughter, The Bruce Lee Foundation was created as a way to honor the legacy of her father. The organization offers scholarships and martial arts training to at-risk youth in California.