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November 27, 1940 – July 20, 1973
Was an American-born martial artist, philosopher, instructor, martial arts actor and the founder of the Jeet Kune Do combat form. He is widely regarded as the most influential martial artist of the twentieth century and a cultural icon. He was also the father of actor Brandon Lee and of actress Shannon Lee.
Lee was born in San Francisco, California and raised in Hong Kong. His Hong Kong and Hollywood-produced films elevated the traditional Hong Kong martial arts film to a new level of popularity and acclaim, and sparked the first major surge of interest in Chinese martial arts in the West. The direction and tone of his films changed and influenced martial arts and martial arts films in Hong Kong and the rest of the world as well. Lee became an iconic figure particularly to the Chinese, as he portrayed Chinese national pride and Chinese nationalism in his movies. He primarily practiced Chinese martial arts (Kung Fu).
His first introduction to martial arts was through his father and he learned the fundamentals of Wu style Tai Chi Chuan. Lee was introduced to Yip Man in early 1954 by William Cheung, then a live-in student of Yip Man. Like most Chinese martial arts schools at that time, Sifu Yip Man’s classes were often taught by the highest ranking students. One of the highest ranking students under Yip Man at the time was Wong Shun-Leung. Wong is thought to have had the largest influence on Bruce’s training. Yip Man trained Lee privately after some students refused to train with Lee due to his ancestry. Bruce was also trained in Western boxing and learned western fencing techniques from his brother Peter Lee, who was a champion fencer at the time.This multi-faceted exposure to different fighting arts would later play an influence in the creation of the eclectic martial art Jeet Kune Do.
Lee began teaching martial arts originally trained in Wing Chun Gung Fu, Lee called what he taught Jun Fan Gung Fu. Jun Fan Gung Fu (literally Bruce’s Gung Fu), is basically a slightly modified approach to Wing Chun Gung Fu. Lee taught friends he met in Seattle, starting with Judo practitioner Jesse Glover as his first student and who later became his first assistant instructor. Before moving to California, Lee opened his first martial arts school, named the Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, in Seattle. He also improvised his own kicking method, involving the directness of Wing Chun and the power of Northern Shaolin kung fu. Lee’s kicks were delivered very quickly to the target, without “chambering” the leg.
His Hoi-Chuen was a famous Cantonese Opera star and through his father, Bruce was introduced into films at a very young age, by the time he was 18 he had appeared in twenty films. While in the United States from 1958–1964, he abandoned thoughts of a film career in favor of pursuing martial arts. However, after a high-profile martial arts demonstration at the 1964 Long Beach Karate Tournament, he was seen by some of the nation’s most proficient martial artists—as well as the hairdresser of Batman producer William Dozier. Dozier soon invited Lee for an audition, where Lee so impressed the producers with his lightning-fast moves that he earned the role of Kato in the TV series The Green Hornet he also played Kato in three crossover episodes of Batman.
Not happy with his supporting roles in the U.S he returned to Hong Kong and was offered a film contract to star in his first leading role in The Big Boss (1971) which proved an enormous box office success across Asia and catapulted him to stardom. He soon followed up his success with two more huge box office successes: Fist of Fury (1972) and Way of the Dragon (1972). For Way of the Dragon, he took complete control of the film’s production as the writer, director, star, and choreographer of the fight scenes. In the demonstration in Long Beach, California, Lee had met karate champion Chuck Norris. In Way of the Dragon Lee introduced Norris to moviegoers as his opponent in the final death fight at the Colosseum in Rome, today considered one of Lee’s most legendary fight scenes.
In 1973, Lee played the lead role in Enter the Dragon, the first film to be produced jointly by Golden Harvest and Warner Bros. This film would skyrocket Lee to fame in the U.S. and Europe. Enter the Dragon would go on to become one of the year’s highest grossing films and cemented Lee as a martial arts legend to date, Enter the Dragon has grossed over $200 million. However, only a few months after the film’s completion and three weeks before its release, the supremely fit Lee mysteriously died on July 20, 1973.
Doctors announced Lee’s death officially, it was ruled a “death by misadventure.”