Bruce Lee (born Lee Jun-fan, November 27, 1940 July 20, 1973) is the quintessential martial arts film star, particularly for action films set in contemporary times, a breakthrough star for Asian actors in Hollywood and is widely considered one of the most influential martial artists of the 20th century.
Born in San Francisco on the 27th of November 1940 (in a Year of and at the hour of the Dragon, appropriately), he was raised in Kowloon, Hong Kong. He had a strong command of English that helped him break away from the "halted Asian accent" stereotype and had the lean good looks to match any action star. He was trained in martial arts first by his father, and then by the Wing Chun grandmaster Yip Man.
He married Linda Emery, who was one of his martial art students, in 1964 and had two children with her, Brandon and Shannon.
His first real break came when he was cast as Kato in The Green Hornet TV series as a Hypercompetent Sidekick. Kato became a Breakout Character; in Asia, the show was renamed The Kato Show. Lee auditioned for the leading role in Kung Fu but lost to David Carradine for several reasons including race and accent. He developed a television series, Ah Sahm, later retitled The Warrior, that he intended to star in, but after the success of The Big Boss, he focused on his movie career. His original concept would finally be produced in 2019 as Warrior on Cinemax. Returning to Hong Kong, Lee proceeded a series of acclaimed and extremely popular martial arts films there that foster a strong international fanbase for Asian Martial Arts Movie films until he was made an international star with the (internationally-produced) Enter the Dragon.
Time named Lee a person of the 20th century as the shining example of personal improvement through physical fitness, and he is universally recognized as one of the ultimate film star "tough guys". He achieved this status with only one TV series, a scattering of TV guest appearances, and five martial arts films done in his adulthood, one of which (The Game of Death) was unfinished by the time of his death. The affectionate biographical film Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, where he was played by Jason Scott Lee (no relation), suggests that his success in America helped to reduce the offensive levels of the Engrish-speaking, Asian and Nerdy, and rude Asian stereotypes — though Lee's work did help grow the All Asians Know Martial Arts stereotype as a result.
Lee was, and still is, a revered figure in the world of martial arts. He espoused a Combat Pragmatist fighting style and created his own approach, Jeet Kune Do (Way of the Intercepting Fist), in order to create more practical martial arts. This style and the philosophy behind it (the most well-known tenet being "Absorb what is useful") has led some to call him the founding father of Mixed Martial Arts, though the sentiment is hardly unanimous. The popularity of nunchaku ("nunchuks") is directly tied to his use of them in several films, including Enter the Dragon. And his skill as a martial artist doesn't mean he was a slouch in intellectual matters: Lee studied drama at the University of Washington and also studied philosophy extensively. He used the knowledge gleamed from those philosophical studies to write a book about the philosophy behind his martial art. In short, this Asian man embodied the Greek ideal of having a sound mind in a sound body. He trained several people in Jeet Kune Do, including basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, George Lazenby, James Coburn, Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen, Sharon Tate, and Roman Polański.
Lee died tragically young (32 years old) on the 20th of July 1973, reportedly from a cerebral edema caused by an allergic reaction to an ingredient in an equagesic painkiller. He was on his way to have dinner with his friend George Lazenby when he decided to take a nap, but he never woke up and was pronounced dead in the hospital. His sudden death combined with his young age sparked urban legends about the "true" cause of his death — these range from suicide to his being a target of the Triads. Much like Elvis Presley, there are those who believe he faked his own death. His death devastated the Hong Kong film industry to the point where producers began casting numerous Bruce Lee Clones in their movies; they hoped that audiences starved for more Bruce Lee would simply accept the poor imitations. While, by and large, it didn't work, there are a few renowned martial arts stars who managed to get their first break during this period (notably Jet Li and Jackie Chan, the latter of which worked as a stuntman in Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon).
- The Green Hornet: Kato
- Batman (1966): Kato (in three Crossover episodes with the Green Hornet)
- Ironside (1967): Leon Soo (episode "Tagged For Murder'')
- Marlowe: Winslow Wong
- Blondie: Mr. Yoto, Karate Instructor (episode "Pick on a Bully Your Own Size")
- Here Come the Brides: Lin Sung (episode "Marriage Chinese Style")
- Longstreet: Li Tsung (in four episodes)
- The Big Boss: Cheng Chao-an
- Fist of Fury: Chen Zhen
- Way of the Dragon: Tang Lung note
- Enter the Dragon: Lee note
- Game of Death: Hai Tien/Billy Lo note
- Tower of Death a.k.a. Game of Death II: Lee Chen-chiang/Billy Lo note
- The first film to feature Bruce as a character is the Hong Kong film Fist of Unicorn (1973, released a few months before his death), in which he has a cameo, portrayed by an unknown actor.
- Danny Lee Sau-yin (no relation) played Bruce in the 1976 Shaw Brothers film Bruce Lee and I (also known as Bruce Lee: His Last Days, His Last Nights).
- He's portrayed by Jason Scott Lee (no relation) in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993). His daughter Shannon had a cameo.
- He is played by Aarif Rahman in Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010), which was produced by his younger brother Robert.
- A fictional version of a young Lee Jun-fan (nicknamed "Siu Lung") appears in the Ip Man film series, which is very loosely based on the life of Lee's martial arts master, Yip Man. He's played by Jiang Daiyan as a child in Ip Man 2 (2010) and by 40-something year old Danny Chan Kwok-Kwan as a young man in Ip Man 3 (2013) and Ip Man 4 (2019).
- Philip Ng Wan-lung played him in Birth of the Dragon (2016).
- He's played by Mike Moh in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). His scene proved quite controversial.
Tropes associated with Bruce Lee's body of work include:
- Action Fashionista: His only turn as an antagonist is when he played Winslow Wong in Marlowe in two different but equally stylish suits.
- Action Hero: His standard character is a mighty martial artist.
- Artistic License Martial Arts: In spite of his reputation as the world's greatest martial artist, Lee's movies feature a lot of this. He admitted that jumping high kicks are only good for movies, and he would never use them in a real fight. On the other hand, Lee's films did not rely on the Wire Fu and hyperactive pace that was strongly associated with the genre at the time.
- Asian and Nerdy: He also does a bit of it in Fist of Fury, when he impersonates a telephone repairman to infiltrate the enemy headquarters. As the Rifftrax guys point out, he seems like a Chinese man doing Jerry Lewis doing a Chinese man.
- Big Ol' Eyebrows: An unintentional example, given that Lee was born with them.
- Bittersweet Ending: Characters played by Bruce tend not to have happy endings. Of the four films Lee starred in, the happiest ending his character got was a Save the Day, Turn Away.
- Blood Upgrade: Blood is a mainstay in his fight scenes. Drawing blood from Bruce Lee's character tends to end poorly for his opponents.
- B-Movie: His early movies were treated as B-movies in America. That soon changed.
- Brick Break: Lee would demonstrate his famous "one inch punch" on boards, though he would criticize board breaking later on. "Boards don't hit back".
- Briefer Than They Think: His film career included work as a child and teenager, as well as many bit parts in Hong Kong, but he only starred in four complete films over a three-year period (plus Game of Death, which was unfinished) as an adult.
- Bring It: Common in his movies, and frequently homaged.
- Bullying a Dragon: He was a constant victim of this.
- Combat Pragmatist: Lee often staged his fight scenes to show his character's more fluid and practical moves in comparison to an enemy's formalized and rigid movements based on tradition rather than functionality, which reflected his own personal philosophy on martial arts.
- The Comically Serious: Once or twice. Especially here. Notably, it was the lack of humour/comedy in his roles which prompted Jackie Chan to develop his own brand of action comedy in order to step out of Bruce's shadow.
- Conservation of Ninjutsu: Cuts through crowds of chivalrous mooks, usually with only a few blows each, but his one-on-one fights last much longer.
- Dead Artists Are Better: Dying in his prime almost certainly aided his legendary reputation.
- Does Not Like Guns: Inverted! Despite his impressive martial arts skills, Bruce Lee was known for possessing a personal collection of firearms for self-defense purposes, and even a couple of his martial arts movies have his character requesting to use a gun.
- Early Installment Weirdness: His first "big" film, The Big Boss, is very different from his other films. It's a little more cartoonish (cut-out wall punch), cheesey (the big bad's demise), and very bloody in an over-the-top way.
- Fighting with Chucks: He made the nunchaku famous with sequences such as the big fight in Han's basement from Enter the Dragon. He also fought with both double nunchaukus and a single Chuck in Way of the Dragon.
- Finger Poke of Doom: Lee popularized the "one-inch punch" technique, which can generate a surprising amount of power over a short distance, enough to push a man with his feet squared up off balance.
- Fountain of Expies: He has so many copies that they got their own trope.
- Genius Bruiser: His characters are always as intelligent as they are powerful. In real life, Lee studied philosophy in addition to ways of making himself stronger.
- Good Old Fisticuffs: While much of his movements are more along the lines of Lightning Bruiser territory, he dabbles into this at his slowest moments. A good example would be the Chuck Norris fight, where — after a series of rapid punches and kicks — Lee knocks Norris over with haymakers.
- Guns Are Worthless: Lee averted this trope, as he had no illusions about the supremacy of an armed man against an unarmed one. One of the reasons he signed on to Enter the Dragon was the possibility that, since he was playing a badass Secret Agent, he might get to carry a gun in a few scenes. He was disappointed when he learned how the script required his character to go in unarmed, so he changed the script slightly to have his character's annoyance at those rules reflect his own.
- Hidden Depths: Aside from his kicks and punches, he loved grappling, and even trained extensively in judo. However, he never went for it in movies or TV because he knew people wouldn't understand the holds and would consider the action boring.
- He was also an accomplished dancer, considering it a natural extension of his martial arts prowess. He even won numerous cha-cha-cha competitions with his wife.
- I Am Not Leonard Nimoy: Throughout his short-lived acting career, the audience almost never remembers his characters' actual names.
- I Have Many Names: Bruce Lee, Lee Junfan/Li Zhenfan (李振藩), Sai-fon, Li Yuanxin (李源鑫) note , Li Yuanjian (李元鉴)note and Li Xiaolong (李小龍). The fact that he has so many names just boosts his legendary status.
- Iconic Outfit: The yellow tracksuit with black stripes that Lee wore in Game of Death. Practically every self-respecting Bruce Lee Clone is required to wear one if they want to pay proper homage.
- Invincible Hero: At least, when it comes to fights. His opponents rarely truly endanger him and the best of them end up as Curb-Stomp Cushion.
- Kiai: Lee's whooping kiais were intended to convey the power of his attacks and became a signature part of his fight scenes. Anyone who parodies kung-fu films will likely imitate them.
- Lightning Bruiser: Lee made good use of his speed when filming fight scenes, and usually portrayed his strikes as sending his opponents flying.
- It is heavily rumoured that Bruce Lee had to actually slow himself down alot when filming fight scenes, as the cameras at the time apparently couldn't keep up with his speed.
- Martial Pacifist: Especially a Papa Wolf one.
- Mook Chivalry: Lee's films include lots of scenes where mooks surround him and attack one at a time.
- Mr. Fanservice: Has quite a following of fangirls for being athletic and good looking, particularly in his younger days.
- Pint-Sized Powerhouse: At 5'8 and about 145 pounds, he was hardly a large man, and didn't look all that imposing, until he took his shirt off and you could see how muscular he was.
- Punched Across the Room: Stuntmen usually weren't shy about throwing themselves backwards when struck by Lee's character.
- Race Lift: Bruce Lee auditioned for Kung Fu, but David Carradine was cast instead because they didn't want an Asian cast in a lead role on American TV, among other reasons. In 2019, Cinemax launched a series based on Lee's similar but original project, Warrior (2019).
- Rapid-Fire Fisticuffs: Most of his fight scenes focus on the speed at which Lee could deliver his attacks. Ironically, he sometimes had to slow down quite a bit from his normal punching and kicking speed so that the camera (shooting 24 frames per second) could capture the movement.
- Rated M for Manly: Most of his movies are about martial arts, and can get pretty violent.
- Shirtless Scene: Every single one of his completed movies has at least one. You can count on him kicking a lot more ass if his top is torn or removed.
- Short-Lived, Big Impact: Lee didn't star in very many films, and died at the age of 32, but he is widely credited with introducing martial arts films to the United States and popularizing East Asian culture. His philosophies on both martial arts and life live on to this day, and his films inspired dozens upon dozens of Bruce Lee clones.
- Start My Own: Lee created Jeet Kune Do because he felt he could have won a fight in seconds instead of minutes were it not for the then-current styles of martial arts holding him back.
- The Silent Bob: In most films, you could always tell what his character was thinking without him saying anything. In real life, however, Lee was incredibly eloquent and could speak with great wisdom, particularly evident in his appearance on the Pierre Berton show.
- Tranquil Fury: Most of his films often portray his anger this way; the only time he ever expresses a berserk style reaction is when he strikes a blow to someone.
- Typecasting: Lee all but became the Asian version of John Wayne.
- World's Best Warrior: Lee's characters are all portrayed as the world's best martial artist.