Bruce Lee was an enigma, and when he suddenly passed away in 1973, he left behind plenty of unanswered questions. Here’s a look into what the last 12 months of Bruce Lee’s life were like.
WORKING ON FILMS
In the early 1970s, Lee was occupied with several film projects. He was at a point in his career when he was consciously trying to make a name for himself in Hollywood, a space that had often felt elusive to him. Bruce was no stranger to acting in general and had started appearing in Hong Kong films as a kid. It also helped that his dad was an established opera celebrity and an actor. His first American breakthrough was as Kato in the action TV series ‘The Green Hornet’ in 1966, and he earned both fans and acclaim for his work. But Bruce wanted to be taken more seriously and not be reduced to a caricature. He worked on several films to make that happen, including ‘The Big Boss’, ‘Fist of Fury’, and the highly successful ‘The Way of the Dragon’. The movies got plenty of attention and turned the spotlight on Bruce and his promising on-screen persona. He was soon caught up with a few projects including ‘Enter the Dragon’, a movie that was released mere days after his sudden death in July 1973.
JUST GETTING STARTED
Lee was nowhere close to where he wanted to be. He was an achiever and envisioned greater successes for himself. While he was just getting started in mainstream cinema, he was also cultivating his personal brand in a bid to reach out to more audiences globally. He was, of course, also considered a martial arts expert, but he was looking for ways to expand his reach and influence, especially in relation to popular culture. He was still mostly anonymous in the U.S. and only really gained fame after ‘Enter the Dragon’ made its way to international cinemas after his death. Author Matthew Polly, who wrote ‘Bruce Lee: A Life’ in a bid to offer readers and fans a deep dive into Bruce’s journey, believed that Lee was just getting started on his path to becoming a household name. At the time of his death, Bruce had several projects up his sleeve, including an animated show, a clothing line, and offers from film studios. He was also set to make an appearance on ‘The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson’. Lee knew stardom was coming and was ready to make the most of it.
INSPIRING JACKIE CHAN
Martial artist Jackie Chan was at the beginning of his professional journey in the 1970s and got a chance to work with Lee. Their first film together, ‘Fist of Fury’, gave Chan a glimpse into Bruce’s way of doing things. Chan found him incredibly inspiring to work with. Lee was insistent on treating all staff on set, including stuntmen, as equals – something that stayed with Chan long after work on the movie was completed. Bruce would often have his meals with the stuntmen and engage them in conversation. He was proactive and always willing to help out with things like footing someone’s medical expenses. Chan later called Lee one of his greatest influences, and not just because of martial arts. While filming a fight scene for ‘Enter the Dragon’, Bruce unintentionally whacked Chan in the face with a stick. Chan reflected on the incident later and described Bruce’s reaction.
“Oh my God! He run to me and lift me up. I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
AN INDIVIDUAL IDENTITY
Lee found himself at a crossroads in the final year of his life. Even though he was reasonably successful and was on his way to becoming world-famous, he wished to be known for the man he actually was – and shatter records while he was at it. According to ‘The Ringer’, his 1972 movie ‘Way of the Dragon’ did manage to gain popularity for Bruce’s brawl with Chuck Norris and broke box office records. It was also the first Hong Kong production to be filmed in the West. However, he was still struggling to make an indelible mark in the West and to secure his individual identity as a martial arts genius, actor, and entertainer. While Lee didn’t see international fame during his life, his individual identity gained cult-like status after ‘Enter the Dragon’. Even decades later, he retains an almost superheroic persona among many fans.
DIFFICULTIES DURING FILMING
When filming began for ‘Enter the Dragon’, the crew had to be flexible with Lee’s demands. For instance, he wanted screenwriter Michael Allin to be fired. According to the South China Morning Post, Bruce was of the opinion that the film’s story didn’t represent his Chinese roots accurately and wanted to avoid bias. However, the tweaks he suggested to the story were dismissed, so, he requested that Allin be replaced. Additionally, the movie had a fixed budget of five hundred thousand dollars, which was abysmally low, so the crew and the producers had to make do by compromising. Plus, while some crew members were from Hong Kong, others were from the U.S., which caused a bit of conflict when work first began on the film. Bruce was aware that this movie was a significant milestone for his career and wanted things to align with his vision, something that didn’t go down too well with the producers.
“We need emotional content.”
Thankfully, Lee’s vision for the film paid off. When it was finally released shortly after his death, ‘Enter the Dragon’ was a massive success, and drew cheering crowds in packed theaters in the United States. Despite all the production trouble, Lee was proven right about what fans wanted to see.
FOCUSSED ON FITNESS
Bruce Lee was, on account of his work and fitness regime, a fanatic when it came to looking after his health. His sudden death at such a young age prompted plenty of speculation about his health habits, but he reportedly stayed away from things like alcohol, tobacco, and even coffee throughout his life. Despite the speculation, he was by all accounts healthy and focused on fitness. According to Entertainment Weekly, Bruce once famously said in an interview with Fighting Stars magazine that he wasn’t fond of alcohol at Hollywood gatherings, which he called, quote, ‘many times senseless’. His friends would later reveal that he suffered physical reactions after partaking in booze, including nausea, excessive sweating, and turning red. In other words, Bruce exhibited the alcohol flush reaction and couldn’t tolerate most drinks. It’s also worth noting that Bruce exercised diligently and made sure he worked on his strength as well as conditioning. He had a bit of everything in his regime: boxing, running, jumping rope, and weightlifting. He was also a huge fan of protein drinks and health supplements. Lee was extra conscious about his physique because he needed to maintain it to make it big in cinema.
AN ALLEGED AFFAIR
The fact that Lee wasn’t entirely faithful to his wife was hardly a secret. He was known to have indulged in several affairs in the course of his marriage with Linda Lee Cadwell. According to author Matthew Polly, Bruce was quite the playboy and was involved with many women, including various actresses in Hong Kong and Hollywood. On the day of his death, Bruce was with one of his lovers, actress Betty Ting, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by the public and the media. However, his wife defended him in a letter published by the Los Angeles Times in 1998, meant as a rebuttal to previous articles about her husband’s death. Cadwell used the letter to refute claims that Lee had died from too much aspirin, and also noted that she was well aware of the gossip surrounding her late husband and dismissed it as just that. Gossip, and nothing more.
ILLNESS BEOFRE DEATH
It is worth noting that several reports, including one by Newsweek, indicated that Lee became ill about two months before he died. He suffered from headaches and seizures and was even taken to a hospital after passing out. Bruce was diagnosed with cerebral edema, swelling in his brain, and was unconscious for a whole day. Afterward, he flew to the UCLA Medical Center for testing. Author Matthew Polly’s book ‘Bruce Lee: A Life’ later revealed that doctors had concluded that Bruce had experienced a grand mal seizure. However, they weren’t sure about the cause and discharged him when he seemed better. His swelling had disappeared. On the surface, Bruce appeared healthy, and no one was expecting anything out of the ordinary to happen. He even went to Hong Kong for a long visit this turned out to be his last excursion to his homeland before his untimely demise.
HIS FINAL DAY
Lee was geared up for a productive day on July 20, 1973, mostly involving work on his upcoming film, ‘The Game of Death’. According to ‘The Ringer’, he also wrote to his attorney about his pending business deals. Bruce had a lot of plans in terms of work and was pumped to see them executed. After writing the letter, Bruce left for Golden Harvest’s studios and spoke to actor George Lazenby and film producer Andre Morgan to brainstorm for ‘The Game of Death’. He then met with producer Raymond Chow and told him that he wanted Lazenby to be a part of the film. After this meeting, he swung by Morgan’s office to discuss logistics before visiting the apartment of his alleged lover, Taiwanese actress, Betty Ting. Chow joined them in the evening and would later recall that Lee didn’t seem to be feeling well, but that didn’t stop his enthusiasm. Bruce was excited and acted out several ‘Game of Death’ scenes during his discussion with Chow. Later, the martial arts star complained that he had a headache. He took a painkiller and went to Betty’s bedroom to rest. At around 9:30 PM, Betty went to check on Bruce and noted that he was unresponsive. She called Chow in a state of panic. When Chow returned to the apartment, he realized that Bruce was gone.
Bruce Lee’s fans were heartbroken when news broke that the movie star and martial arts icon had died unexpectedly at the age of 32. Rumors spread like wildfire, and reporters were initially lied to in order to avoid controversy, especially considering the fact that he had died in Ting’s home. According to Newsweek, Bruce’s death was attributed to cerebral edema. However, what caused the edema was unclear. An autopsy that was conducted at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Hong Kong identified the edema but couldn’t pinpoint the reason for Bruce’s condition. Bruce had taken hash during the day, and lots of people assumed that the incident was triggered by his consumption of the drug. Dr. Peter Wu, one of the doctors who’d treated Lee during his earlier hospital visit, later said that he’d cautioned Lee against taking drugs due to his low body fat. Other theories range from blaming the painkiller Bruce was given at Ting’s place, which the actor could have had an allergic reaction to, to the idea that he was struck down by a curse. Many initially speculated that the death was a ruse and simply a promotional tool for ‘The Game of Death’. Scientists speculated in 2006 that Bruce could have had an epileptic seizure. Author Matthew Polly suggested another idea: heatstroke, something that could have been avoided.
A SOLID LEGACY
What has made Bruce Lee continuously relevant after all these years is the fact that he was an enigmatic superstar who died far too young. He has since achieved much posthumous recognition in the West. During his lifetime, Bruce did manage to solidify his legacy by paving the way forward for Asian artists in Hollywood. His unique interpretation of martial arts earned him major props. Many fans embraced martial arts after learning about Bruce, whether through his movies or his famous personal system known as Jeet Kune Do.
“In Cantonese, Jeet Kune Do: The Way of the Intercepting Fist.”
Even today Lee’s former students continue to teach his methods, and new fans continue to find his films. Asian and Asian-American filmmakers ranging from Jackie Chan to Justin Lin and beyond, count him as a major influence, and his legend still looms large in the popular culture of both East and West.
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