When I wrote the first book about the first international kung fu star less than a year after his death, I never imagined how it would impact my life or that he would still be a pop culture icon 45 years later. Now he is the subject of a first rate new biography
Alex Ben Block (on the right) touring a movie studio in Hong Kong in 1973 while researching his international bestseller, "The Legend Of Bruce Lee," which went on to sell over 4 million copies in nine international editions
Matthew Polly, author of the new acclaimed biography "Bruce Lee"
A NEW BOOK EVOKES MEMORIES OF THE FIRST ASIAN SUPERSTAR
‘Bruce Lee’ is the simple title of a complex, detailed, and well-written biography by Matthew Polly. It tells the most detailed version of the story of the life, death and importance of the first Asian movie superstar, who died suddenly 45 years ago this July.
Reading the biography has been a trip down memory lane for me because I have had such a long association with Lee, his career, his legacy and his legend.
In this article, I will share with you the question I was asked again and again about Bruce Lee, but never wanted to answer.
Polly finally answers it in his book, which is earning rave reviews.
Separately, I am reposting a slightly revised version of an article I did in 2010 which explains why someone who had such a brief career has become a cultural and social icon whose name lives on in popular history.
When I wrote the first major book after Bruce Lee's sudden death, it became an international bestseller with nine editions and over four million copies sold worldwide, published in July 1974.
It has been translated and republished in China, Japan (both hardcover and soft cover editions), Germany, France, Spain, Taiwan and Korea, and a separate English edition was done for the United Kingdom and Ireland.
HOW I CAME TO WRITE "THE LEGEND OF BRUCE LEE"
I had written an article about Bruce Lee for Esquire magazine and the week it came out in 1973, Lee suddenly died.
The late wonderful columnist Liz Smith told me at the time to do a book, and she got me an agent within two days who got me a publishing deal in a week.
I was off on a life changing adventure that has enriched my life for many years since.
It has been an honor over the years to be on the edge of the Bruce Lee phenomena, and to have gotten to be friends with Bruce’s brother Robert and other members of the Lee family, as well as many of his friends, associates and fans.
I hope you will enjoy Matthew Polly’s book as I have and come away with a better understanding of who Bruce Lee was and why he still matters.
The Jeet Kune Do logo designed by Bruce Lee. His type of kung fu took the best forms of unarmed combat and melded them into one school of martial arts
A minor movie star in his day, Bruce Lee has remained in the public consciousness since his mysterious death (at age 32 in 1973) in a way that insures his memory and image are eternal.
Instead of fading after his death like so many others, Bruce Lee not only lives on, but his image - under the control of his widow Linda and daughter Shannon - has become a big business, licensing everything from animated movies to the use of Bruce’s image in 30 sec.
TV ads to sell all kinds of products.
Forty-five years after his death, Bruce Lee is still part of pop culture.
He has meant many things to many different people.
Many females have admired Bruce and cool guys wear Bruce Lee t-shirts.
Millions have practiced some form of Jeet Kune Do, the kung fu style Lee invented by merging the best of all the American and Asian fighting styles.
There have been dozens of Bruce Lee movies and documentaries, some of which I can be seen speaking in. One of my favorites is the 1993 documentary, “Bruce Lee: Curse Of The Dragon,” created and directed by the late producer, Fred Weintraub, who also brought Lee’s one big American blockbuster movie, Enter The Dragon,” to the screen.
Throughout the years, as I have spoke about Bruce Lee, the question I was most frequently asked was, "how did Bruce Lee really die?"
When Bruce Lee died, we could only speculate on why a physically fit athlete who worked out for hours most days, who ate a special health food diet, and who was slim and muscular, dropped dead only weeks before the opening of the movie that would turn him into an international superstar overnight.
To have been in the auditorium of a theater in 1974 when “Enter The Dragon” was first released, to see the young boys bouncing in their seats with excitement, was to understand the passion that Lee wrought up in people. But, it is still mind boggling that we are discussing him nearly half a century later.
There are more than 50 books about Bruce Lee, dedicated completely or in part to his life and death - from biographies to volumes on Lee’s philosophy, lifestyle, fighting system and fighting style, much of it based on notes and writings he left behind.
Several English-language, American-made movie bios have been made, including the 1993 Universal release, “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” a sanitized version that took great liberties with the facts about his life.
Most recently, there was a terrible movie that degraded Bruce Lee’s memory, called “Birth Of The Dragon.” It's an action movie about a kung fu battle between Bruce Lee and a rival martial arts master that may or may not be based on a true story. It is a disappointment because it is not a Bruce Lee movie, even though that is how the advertising sold it.
Bruce Lee is the third most important character, and the movie lacks the elements that made his movies great – starting with the fact his movies, even the crude early Chinese ones like “The Big Boss,” always start with the murder or rape of a sister, lover, friend, which is so awful it makes it OK with the audience for Lee to “chop socky” the baddies endlessly and in creative ways.
In “Birth of A Dragon,” Bruce Lee is much more unsympathetic than the guy he fights, and his spiritual side is not part of the plot. He is just another martial artist. It doesn’t give him credit for his innovations in the sport/craft/fighting arts.
It does mention that Bruce Lee was one of the very first in the 1960's and 70's willing to teach Chinese martial arts to white men and women and not just to pureblood Asians who were part of the historic tradition. Because of this, in his day, elders of kung fu schools denounced Lee as a traitor.
Bruce Lee broke the rules.
Today it is common for anyone who wants to study Chinese kung fu to find a teacher and learn the craft, and eventually earn a black belt - but until Lee it was heresy.
The Chinese purists felt only a full blooded Chinese should be allowed to learn the secrets of the martial arts. They even tried to stop Bruce Lee as a child from studying because he was a Eurasian.
IF HE HAD LIVED
The shame, of course, is that he did not live to hear the standing ovation “Enter The Dragon” got when it opened before a packed house at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood only two months after his death.
The shame is that we never saw what this brilliant, talented, creative artist might have done as an actor, writer, director, producer and spokesman.
Instead he left questions.
As mentioned, one of the biggest is how he could have died while resting in actress Betty Ting Pi’s HK apartment.
That has been the subject of considerable controversy.
In my book, I floated some of the fantastic theories I had heard during my research as I traveled to Los Angeles, Seattle and Hong Kong.
The most incredible theory of what killed Lee was called the vibrating palm. That theory held that every person’s body has a certain vibration and a kung fu villain who had learned the secret way to bump into you, could change your vibrations and then at a specified time later, you would drop dead.
That got some headlines and even had a British author complaining several years after Lee died in his book that my reporting set off a chain reaction of incendiary, phony stories in endless Asian tabloids, all of it based on my speculative theory.
After my book was published, I did read the autopsy reports and research about how Lee might really have died.
People wanted to hear an explanation out of James Bond, but what I came to believe is that Lee was dehydrated and over worked as he finished “Enter The Dragon” in the hot Hong Kong summer (he died July 20, 1973), and he died of heat stroke.
He had an early warning the previous May when he was checked out at UCLA Hospital. He didn’t know it but he was a ticking time bomb.
That weakness, along with crazy long hours working on the movie, often stuck in a dubbing booth in record heat without AC, led to his tragic end.
Now Matthew Polly has come to the same conclusion, but he has convincing evidence in his book, where he dedicates a chapter to Lee's mysterious death.
I give Polly great credit. He not only is a Princeton grad and Rhodes Scholar, but he spent two years of his life studying kung fu at the Shaolin Temple in Henan, China, a story he tells in his book, “American Shaolin.”
He is a currently a fellow at Yale University and lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
For the Bruce Lee book, Polly did research over a period of seven years and got close to many of the original players in the drama.
Polly and I spoke, and he was very kind, calling me the "Dean" of Bruce Lee book authors.
Polly has put it all together in a smart, interesting narrative that deserves the kudos he has been getting.
As Publisher’s Weekly put it earlier this month, “Polly wonderfully profiles the man who constructed a new, masculine Asian archetype and ushered kung fu into pop culture.”
Polly writes about how Lee, who was an alpha male most of the time, often found people who allowed him to be a disciple and could teach him things he wanted and needed to know.
Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee circa early 1970s
One of those was the late movie star Steve McQueen, who Lee studied, trying to understand what it took to be a star.
This week, the Hollywood Reporter published an excerpt from Polly’s book about the time McQueen taught Lee a lesson - about how to drive a fast car.