Chasing The Dragon: The Story of How Bruce Lee's Kung Fu Classic Was Made

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Chasing The Dragon: The Story of How Bruce Lee's Kung Fu Classic Was Made: Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon

Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon

In August 1973 two teams of Chinese lion dancers paraded down Hollywood Boulevard toward Grauman’s Chinese Theatre for the premiere of Enter the Dragon. The raucous crowd, which had begun to form the night before, wrapped around the block. “Riding in the back of the limousine, I saw lines and lines of people, and the lines didn’t end,” remembered John Saxon, who plays the movie’s roguish gambler, Roper. “I asked my driver, ‘What’s going on?’ and he said, ‘That’s your movie.’”

Saxon wasn’t the only one sucker-punched by Enter the Dragon’s success. Despite the film being initially labeled as low budget and ultraviolent—a Chinese kung fu action flick with American production values—its explosive popularity launched in the West a new genre that continues to thrive, as evidenced by The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill and The Man With the Iron Fists, among other films. Enter the Dragon changed how action movies could be made, who could star in them and how our heroes fought. Gone was the John Wayne punch. After Enter the Dragon we required every action star—from Batman to Sherlock Holmes, from Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon to Brad Pitt in Fight Club—to be a martial arts master, as skilled with his feet as he is with his fists.

Even New York critics, who wrung their hands at Enter the Dragon’s violence, sensed the film’s power. The New York Times declared, “The picture is expertly made and well meshed; it moves like lightning and brims with color. It is also the most savagely murderous and numbing hand-hacker (not a gun in it) you will ever see anywhere.” In The Village Voice, William Paul confessed, “In my most civilized, right-thinking frame of mind, I’d like to dismiss the film as abhorrently grotesque masculine fantasy, but I have to admit that deep down in the most shadowy recesses of my subconscious the fantasy struck a responsive chord.”

Enter the Dragon struck a responsive chord across the globe. Made for a minuscule $850,000, it would gross $90 million worldwide in 1973 and go on to earn an estimated $350 million over the next 40 years, including profits from a recently released two-disc Blu-ray edition. Producer Fred Weintraub likes to joke that the movie was so profitable the studio even had to pay him. Screenwriter Michael Allin recalls, “Warner’s lawyer sent me a letter saying, ‘The picture will be well into profit’—and here’s the phrase I love—‘by anybody’s formula.’ The picture made so much money they could not sweep it under the rug. The rug had too big a bulge.”

For all the principals involved in making the movie, however, its overwhelming critical and commercial success was bittersweet, because the person most crucial to its triumph was absent. Bruce Lee, the movie’s star, had died the previous month at the age of 32, never witnessing the culmination of his dream to become the world’s first Chinese male superstar.


Bruce Lee was born on November 27, 1940—the year of the dragon—in San Francisco’s Chinatown. His father, Lee Hoi-chuen, was a leading actor in a touring Hong Kong Cantonese opera troupe, performing for American audiences with his pregnant wife in tow. Born on the road between curtain calls, Bruce faced his first camera as a squirming three-month-old extra in the movie Golden Gate Girl before his parents returned with him to Hong Kong. By the time he was 18 he had appeared in 20 films, gaining fame in his hometown of Hong Kong under his stage name, Lee Siu Lung (“Little Dragon Lee”). He played orphans and troubled boys, roles that both reflected and bled into his life. Lee would later describe his youthful self as a “punk.” His real passion was street fighting, and he took up kung fu at 13 to enhance his back-alley skills. After he had been expelled from an elite private high school and gotten in trouble with the law for fighting, his well-to-do parents, at their wit’s end, shipped their black-sheep son from Hong Kong to stay with a family friend in Seattle.

When he arrived in 1959, Lee gave up on the idea of a movie career in America. As he later told Esquire, “How many times in an American film is a Chinese required?” He had a point. The only Chinese leading characters were Fu Manchu, the yellow-peril villain, and Charlie Chan, the model minority. Both of those roles were almost always given, in Hollywood’s long-standing “yellow face” tradition, to white actors with eye makeup. The only parts available to Chinese were pigtailed coolies, what Lee dismissed as “Hopalong Wong” roles.

But he was still a performer at heart, and after giving kung fu demonstrations at local high schools, he discovered to his surprise that Americans wanted to learn from him. He opened his own kung fu studio in Seattle, the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute. He quickly learned that running a martial arts school is a difficult, low-margin business—particularly after he married Linda Emery, a blonde cheerleader, and had his first child, Brandon. Anxious to increase enrollment, he often took his act on the road, like his father before him, treading the boards in what was the equivalent of a one-man martial arts show.

It was during a performance at the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championship that Lee was discovered by William Dozier. The TV producer, who had the radical idea of casting an actual Asian actor for an Asian role, watched Lee’s charismatic demonstration and cast him in the role of Kato, the side-kicking Asian sidekick to the Green Hornet. Despite Lee’s magnetic martial arts skills, The Green Hornet, which lacked the campy wit of Dozier’s hit companion series Batman, failed to find an audience and limped along for one season before being canceled.

Lee struggled to find worthy acting roles to support his growing family (daughter Shannon was born in 1969) and, in desperation, discovered a new source of income. He became the kung fu instructor to Hollywood’s elite, counting as his private students James Coburn, Roman Polanski, Warner Bros. chairman Ted Ashley, Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and box office king Steve McQueen. Although they helped him get bit parts and work as a fight choreographer on their movies, he couldn’t break through Hollywood’s yellow glass ceiling. “No one would make a film with an Asian in the lead—it was as simple as that,” says Paul Heller, who was an executive at Warner Bros. and would go on to co-produce Enter the Dragon. For four long years Lee burned with frustrated ambition. “Bruce vowed, ‘Someday, I’m going to be a bigger star than Steve McQueen,’” recalls Silliphant in a 1974 biography. “I told him there was no way. He was a Chinese in a white man’s world. Then he went out and did it.”

Unbeknownst to Lee, The Green Hornet was sold in syndication in Hong Kong, where it became known as The Kato Show. During a quick trip back to China in 1970 with five-year-old Brandon, Lee was stunned at the reception. He may have felt like a failure in Hollywood, but in Hong Kong he was the hometown boy made good. Hong Kong movie producers started making offers. Following the example of Clint Eastwood, who, unable to make the leap from American TV to film, had gone to Italy to make several spaghetti Westerns that turned him into a bankable star, Lee signed a two-picture deal with Raymond Chow and his upstart Golden Harvest studio for $7,500 a film. If Lee could not climb Hollywood’s mountain, he would make the mountain come to him.

In his first Golden Harvest movie, The Big Boss, Lee looked transformed. Gone was the perfectly pleasant manservant Kato. Fueled by years of rejection, Lee leaped off the screen, pulsating with a volatile power all his own. Audiences in Hong Kong and across Southeast Asia loved their new Chinese superhero. The Big Boss broke all Hong Kong box office records. His second Golden Harvest film, Fist of Fury, shattered the record of The Big Boss. His third film, The Way of the Dragon, which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in, broke both of those records. He was a juggernaut.


When Lee was still struggling in Los Angeles, Fred Weintraub, a producer at Warner Bros., tried to cast him in the lead role of the countercultural hit TV series Kung Fu, about a Shaolin monk who protects Chinese railroad workers from their racist cowboy bosses. Lee was rejected for the part of Kwai Chang Caine because he was too Chinese, and it was given instead to the very white David Carradine. Before Lee left for Hong Kong, Weintraub asked him for a piece of film that would show Hollywood how much he had improved since The Green Hornet. When Lee sent him a copy of The Big Boss, Weintraub knew he had a winner. More than Lee’s electric performance, it was those box office numbers. Weintraub was certain he could cover Warner’s costs by pre-selling the Asian foreign markets (Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan) while producing a film of sufficient quality to attract a Western audience. After some intense wrangling, Warner finally approved a still paltry budget of $250,000 to make Enter the Dragon.

Weintraub, co-producer Paul Heller and screenwriter Michael Allin banged out a 17-page story treatment about three heroes (one white, one black and one Asian) who enter evil Han’s martial arts tournament and end his drug-dealing, slave-trading ways. While Heller and Allin worked on the screenplay, Weintraub flew to Hong Kong to reach a deal with Chow, now operating as Lee’s business partner. According to Heller, the inspiration for the script came from a favorite comic strip of his youth, Terry and the Pirates. “It was about China and the Orient and the mystery and dragon ladies.” According to Allin, who knew nothing about kung fu or Hong Kong, the inspiration was a little more obvious: “I stole from James Bond. If you get caught, you just claim it’s an homage.” The slim, 85-page script was cranked out in three weeks, in large part because they skipped all the action sequences, writing in those empty spaces, “This will be choreographed by Mr. Bruce Lee.”

In Hong Kong, Weintraub was having less success. As he maneuvered toward a signed deal, the elusive Chow, nicknamed the Smiling Tiger, politely deflected him at every turn. After a week, an exhausted Weintraub finally concluded that Chow was bargaining in bad faith, afraid that if the movie was made, Hollywood would steal Lee, his cash cow. On his final night in Hong Kong, Weintraub met Chow and Lee for dinner at a Japanese restaurant. Word got out that Lee was in the establishment, and thousands of fans appeared. “I saw the opportunity to play one final card,” Weintraub recounts in Bruce Lee, Woodstock and Me. “‘Bruce, I’m leaving tomorrow because we couldn’t strike a deal. It’s too bad Raymond doesn’t want you to be an international star.’ Raymond—dropping the facade of cordiality—stared at me with sudden, all-consuming hatred. In that instant he knew he had lost. Bruce said, ‘Sign the contract, Raymond.’”

Today in Hong Kong the still sprightly and charming 84-year-old Chow insists his reluctance was purely tactical. “Both Bruce and I had already talked about the whole thing. All we wanted was a fair deal. It’s very difficult for an independent producer to get a really fair deal with a major studio.”

Budget constraints largely dictated the American hiring process. Allin, as screenwriter, was promised a trip to Hong Kong as a bonus to his minimal compensation. Bob Clouse, who had made only two feature-length movies, was selected as the director because, according to Weintraub, “we could get him for a ridiculously low price.” Lee’s old martial arts buddy Bob Wall agreed to the role of Han’s evil bodyguard Oharra as a favor. Newcomer Jim Kelly was a last-second replacement for the Shaft-inspired character Williams after Rockne Tarkington pulled out over money. The only person to receive an almost competitive salary ($40,000) was John Saxon. Weintraub needed a name actor, and Bruce Lee was still an unknown in the West. Even that amount was barely enough. Saxon’s agent predicted that the movie would be “a little crappy thing with a Chinese actor that nobody will ever see.” Saxon was persuaded to get on the plane only after Weintraub promised him he would be the real star of the movie.

Casting on the Chinese side was significantly less fraught. What seemed a paltry amount in Hollywood was untold riches in Hong Kong, where movie actors were paid, and treated, like factory workers. It was also a chance to work on the first Hollywood co­production with Lee, the biggest star in Hong Kong. Angela Mao Ying, star of the hit Lady Kung Fu, happily agreed to play Su Lin, the sister of Bruce’s character (Lee), who chooses to commit suicide rather than be violated by Oharra and his men. Bolo Yeung (Bolo) was a Mr. Hong Kong bodybuilder looking to move into acting. Shih Kien, who was famous for playing the villain in a series of movies about Hong Kong’s most popular hero, Wong Fei Hung, was Lee’s choice to play the one-handed, cat-stroking Mr. Han. The choice was deliberate: Lee wanted to signal to his Chinese audience that he was the inheritor of Wong Fei Hung’s mantle.


Lee’s younger brother Robert claimed that in high school Bruce was “recognized as the king gorilla—boss of the whole school.” After years of groveling and rejection in Hollywood, Lee wasted little time establishing his dominance over the production of Enter the Dragon. On Saxon’s first day in Hong Kong, in January 1973, Lee brought him to his house and asked to see his side kick. “Then he said, ‘Let me show you mine,’” Saxon remembers. “He gave me a padded shield to hold. Bruce did a hop, skip and a jump and blasted into the shield. I went flying back on my heels and landed in a chair, which shattered. I was in shock for a few moments, and then Bruce ran over with a concerned look on his face. I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not hurt.’ He said, ‘I’m not worried about you. You broke my favorite chair.’”

“Did you believe you were going to be the star of the film?” I ask Saxon.

“Certainly not after that first morning.”

Yet Lee refused to show up on set for the first day of shooting, then the second, then the third. His wife, Linda, yin to his yang, ran interference, telling the producers he was working on the fight choreography. Initially, the Americans thought it was a power play, but word filtered back that the gorilla king was terrified. Bob Wall says, “Bruce was so fucking uptight. He couldn’t shoot. He wouldn’t even go on set.” Weintraub sent Bob Clouse out to shoot random footage of Hong Kong. Lee’s anxiety attack lasted two weeks and nearly scuttled the entire movie. When he finally came on set, all Clouse could film was a simple exchange of dialogue between Lee and actress Betty Chung, playing undercover operative Mei Ling, because Lee was suffering from a nervous facial tic. Twenty-seven takes later and Enter the Dragon had begun.


While Lee fought with his nerves, the American and Chinese crews were fighting with each other. During the filming of the tedious praying mantis fight scene Clouse realized he needed an English-speaking cameraman and sent for cinematographer Gil Hubbs. “I made three-by-five cards with half a dozen Chinese words for lighting cues, like ‘spot’ and ‘flood it,’?” says Hubbs. “The Chinese thought I was hilarious. I think they gave me the wrong words. I think I was saying ‘Tickle my feet.’”

The most important translator on set was Andre Morgan, a recent University of Kansas Oriental studies graduate who had been working for six months as Chow’s assistant. According to Morgan, part of the problem was the Americans didn’t realize how much English the Chinese crew actually understood. “One day we were shooting the scene where Bruce Lee, John Saxon and Jim Kelly transfer from the little sampans to the big boat,” says Morgan. “We didn’t have walkie-talkies. We were using megaphones to cue. Hubbs yelled, ‘Cut.’ Out on the sampan, they didn’t hear and kept going. Bob Clouse goes, ‘Fucking Chinese.’ The continuity guy, who’s this little old man, says in Chinese, ‘That’s the last insult I’m going to take from these fucking foreigners.’ With that, he takes his clipboard and he’s coming over to hit Clouse from behind. We had to grab him and pull him off the roof.”

The Americans’ frustrations focused on the archaic equipment and the Chinese tendency to say yes even when they meant no. The Chinese disliked the Americans’ arrogant attitude and tendency to yell at underlings. But despite their differences, a mutual respect between the two groups eventually grew. “We admired how systematic the Americans were,” says assistant director Chaplin Chang. “In Hong Kong, everything was either make it or get by with it.”

The Americans grew to appreciate the Chinese resourcefulness, hard work and courage. One sequence called for henchmen to chase Ying, playing Lee’s sister, along the edge of a canal until she kicks one of them into the water. Weintraub and Clouse decided to shoot the stunt from the top of a two-story building across from the canal. They took five of the stuntmen to the top of the building to map out the shot. After they explained what they wanted through an interpreter, each of the stuntmen backed away from the building’s edge, shaking their heads. “We were surprised by their trepidation,” says Weintraub. “It was a short, four-foot drop, a pretty standard stunt.” Finally, one of the men stepped forward and said, “Okay, I’ll do it, but it’s going to be hard to reach the water from here on this roof.” Weintraub says, “I was dumbfounded. Not only because they all thought we were crazy enough to ask them to take such a hazardous fall but also because one of them was actually crazy enough to do it.”

Realizing how valuable the stunt crew was to the success of the movie, Lee was exceedingly loyal and solicitous, eating a box lunch with them every day instead of dining in the hotel restaurant with the Americans. It was a kindness remembered by one of the dozens of stunt boys who worked on the movie, someone so insignificant to the production that no one remembered him until much later: Jackie Chan. “He was very good to us, the little people,” Chan writes in his memoir, I Am Jackie Chan. “He didn’t care about impressing the big bosses, but he took care of us.” Watch closely during the battle scene in Mr. Han’s underground compound and you can spot Lee whipping a young Jackie Chan around by his mop of black hair and snapping his neck. During the first take, he accidentally cracked Chan in the face with his nunchakus. “You can’t believe how much it hurt,” Chan remembered. “As soon as the cameras were off, Bruce threw away his weapon, ran over to me and said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry!’ and picked me up. Of all the things Bruce did, I admire him most for his kindness that day.”

Accidents are inevitable on a kung fu movie set. The most legendary one occurred between Lee and Wall in their climactic fight. The scene called for Wall to break two glass bottles and jab one at Lee, who would kick the bottle out of Wall’s hand and follow up with a punch to the face. After several rehearsals Lee’s kick missed and his fist slammed into the bottle’s jagged edge. “Bruce was very angry with Bob Wall,” says Chaplin Chang, who drove Lee to the hospital. “He said, ‘I want to kill him.’ But I don’t think he meant it. My wife often says she wants to kill me, but she never does it.” Morgan says, “Was Bruce pissed off? Yes. But he knew it was an accident. He was mostly angry because we were going to lose two days of shooting.”

The rumor that Wall purposely injured Lee and Lee intended to murder Wall was fed to the Hong Kong press to hype the movie. By the time Lee came back to the set, his ever-loyal Chinese stunt crew expected their champion to exact revenge. Although he came up with a face-saving excuse—“I can’t kill Bob, because the director needs him for the rest of the movie”—Chinese honor required some form of payback. The scene called for Lee to side-kick Wall hard enough in the chest to send him flying into a crowd of Han’s men. Lee didn’t hold back. “They put a pad on Bob,” recalls stuntman Zebra Pan in Bey Logan’s Hong Kong Action Cinema, “but he took off like he’d been shot when Bruce kicked him! And Bruce insisted on 12 takes!” The force of Lee’s kick was so great that Wall flew into the crowd, breaking a stuntman’s arm. “We’re talking complex break—bone through skin,” says Wall. “That’s when everybody went, ‘Holy shit.’ I don’t think they realized how hard Bruce was hitting me until then.”


Navigating the tricky terrain of Chinese face required the producers to turn some tricks when it came to hiring Han’s harem for the banquet scene. No Chinese actresses were willing to play prostitutes in an American film, so producers were forced to hire the real thing. Responsibility for soliciting the prostitutes fell to Morgan, who knew his way around Hong Kong’s nightspots. The difficulty wasn’t finding them—along with Bangkok, Hong Kong was an R&R pit stop for American soldiers serving in Vietnam—it was convincing them to take part in the movie. “Never mind what they did for a living. That stayed between them and their customers. But if you commit it to film, how do you know your mother’s and father’s friends are not going to see it?” Morgan says. “They wanted to be paid more than I would’ve paid them if I wanted to sleep with them. To them, the indignity was far greater.” When the stuntmen discovered how much the prostitutes were being paid, they nearly went on strike.

In the scene in which the three heroes are offered their choice of harem girls—a scene that has launched a thousand cultural studies Ph.D. theses—the white guy (Saxon) selects the white madam (played by Ahna Capri), the black guy (Kelly) selects four prostitutes, while the Asian guy (Lee) picks his fellow undercover agent (Chung) for a chaste discussion of strategy. The Chinese James Bond was a celibate. “He was a Shaolin monk,” says Allin. “He was always meant to be: ‘You have offended my family and you have offended the Shaolin Temple.’”

Sexual escapades continued off-screen too. “Jim Kelly screwed everything that moved in Hong Kong,” says Heller. “He ended up in the hospital. We had a harness for him to hang over the acid pit for his death scene, but he couldn’t wear it, because he was so sore. We had to specially make a cargo net for him.”

It was 1973 and everyone on set seems to have enjoyed the era’s freedom, including the Shaolin monk. At the beginning of the shoot, Lee went through a tumultuous breakup with his mistress, Betty Ting Pei, after news of their affair broke in Hong Kong’s tabloid press. “I had a nervous breakdown, ended up in the hospital,” Ting Pei tells me—the first time in 40 years she has discussed the details of their romantic relationship with a Western journalist. “Bruce didn’t call me for three months during Enter the Dragon. I felt so depressed. I thought we were finished.”

Lee apparently agreed. A collector of Playboy magazines, he wanted to enjoy the Playboy lifestyle and the fruits of his movie star success after years in Hollywood’s desert. “Once in a while Bruce would say, because we had a bunch of Chinese girls there, ‘Why don’t we go out with some of them?’” says Saxon.


Like an Old West gunslinger, Lee was often challenged by young upstarts to see if he really had the fastest hands and feet in the East. He usually ignored the offers, smartly realizing there was no upside. If he lost it would be front-page news. If he won it would be front-page news that he’d bullied a hapless extra. But while filming the climactic final battle scene on Han’s Island, with its tiers of stone walls, Lee grew tired of the extras, who had been recruited from local street gangs, taunting him as a fake, a movie star martial artist. “These guys were sitting up on the wall, bored out of their gourds, waiting for their turn to shoot. They were like, ‘This asshole Lee needs 15 takes to do one roundhouse kick?” Morgan recounts. “There was a lot of testosterone flying around, and Bruce was not afraid of people when it came to his martial arts skills. He was the real deal. The kids were shooting off their mouths, not realizing that Bruce had very good hearing. Bruce said, ‘Oh, you think you’re so good? Come on down.’”

As witnesses later recalled, the kid came after Lee hard and fast, really looking to hurt. But Lee, the older master, methodically took him apart. Lee turned the duel into a private lesson, at one point correcting the kid’s stance. Afterward, the kid bowed to Lee and said, “You really are a master of the martial arts.”

But watching the opening scene, which Lee wrote and filmed himself after the American crew had returned home, it is impossible not to see how thin and pallid he had become during the shoot. “He’d lost a lot of weight,” Sammo Hung, a rising kung fu star and the scene’s co-star, later remembered. “I noticed that the pupils of his eyes were enlarged, making his eyes seem very dark.” Lee was suffering from migraines and self-medicating with Alice B. Toklas hash brownies. On May 10, 1973, while dubbing scenes in Golden Harvest’s studio, Lee collapsed and had to be rushed to the hospital—“I drove him in my car,” says Chow. Lee nearly died of an acute cerebral edema, excessive fluid surrounding the brain.

Dr. Don Langford, testifying in the Hong Kong government’s inquest into Lee’s death, explained, “We gave him a drug (Mannitol) to reduce the swelling of the brain which we had detected.” Deeply shaken by the experience, Lee flew to Los Angeles after his release for a full physical. Doctors detected nothing wrong and told him he had “the body of an 18-year-old.” “He was in very high spirits when he came back to Hong Kong,” said his older brother Peter Lee in Alex Ben Block’s 1974 biography. A test screening at Warner Bros. of Enter the Dragon had been a big success—everyone felt they had a huge hit on their hands. Lee had also rekindled his relationship with Ting Pei. “One day he called to tell me he had finished his film,” she explains. “He came over and we were back together again. I was so happy.”

On July 20, 10 weeks after his first collapse, Lee attended a meeting with Chow, Morgan and George Lazenby, the actor who had just played James Bond, to discuss potential ways to fit Lazenby into Lee’s next movie, Game of Death. “We sat around shooting the shit. That was the famous Bruce having a little munch on his hash,” Morgan says. “He was having a headache, and he asked for some codeine, but I didn’t have any.”

After the morning meeting, Chow and Lee went over to Ting Pei’s apartment, ostensibly to talk about the script. Lee had offered her a major role. When he complained about his head, Ting Pei gave him Equagesic, a prescription pain medication that combines aspirin and the muscle relaxant meprobamate. “It’s what my mother used all the time,” Ting Pei says. “Bruce had also taken it before.” The three of them had plans to go to dinner with Lazenby to celebrate. “When Bruce said he had a headache and wanted to lie down for a while, Raymond probably thought it was an excuse. He maybe thinks Bruce probably wants to.…” Ting Pei trails off, smiling. “So Raymond jumped up and said, ‘Okay, I’ll go first.’”

When Lee failed to show up for dinner, Chow called Ting Pei and she told him he was sleeping. Then she called back in a panic to tell Chow she couldn’t wake him. Ting Pei called her personal physician. Chow raced across town. When Chow arrived, Lee still couldn’t be roused. By the time an ambulance arrived it was too late. Why an ambulance was not called earlier is still a sore subject. When I broach the topic with Ting Pei, she yells at me. Chow’s answer: “Nobody ever thought, I’m sure, Ting Pei or myself, never even dreamed he might be dead. Well, he fell asleep. Okay, he’ll wake up and get back to work. You never really dream of such a terrible thing.”

The cause of death was conclusive: acute cerebral edema, the same thing that had nearly killed him 10 weeks earlier. What caused the cerebral edema is still a topic of controversy. The coroner’s report found two things in Lee’s stomach: Equagesic and traces of cannabis. The grief-stricken Chinese public—unable to accept that their invincible hero, a 32-year-old man at the height of his physical powers, had died suddenly for no obvious reason—erupted in outrage and accusations of foul play. A government inquest held to pacify the furor concluded that the edema was the result of a “hypersensitivity to either meprobamate or aspirin or a combination of the two contained in Equagesic.” R.D. Teare, a forensic medicine expert at the University of London, supported the conclusion but noted that “hypersensitivity in this case is very rare indeed.” The court’s findings satisfied almost no one—rumors, wild conjecture and conspiracy theories continued unabated. Forty years later there is still no consensus on the cause of Lee’s death. It remains a mystery.

What isn’t a mystery is the reason for Enter the Dragon’s success: Bruce Lee. He was the first Asian American actor to embody the classic Hollywood definition of a star—men wanted to be him and women wanted to sleep with him. With his cocky smile, come-fight-me hand gestures and graceful but deadly moves, the chiseled Lee gave Chinese guys balls. “We lived in Alameda, near Oakland, where the Black Panthers came from,” says Leon Jay, a prominent martial arts instructor. “Before Enter the Dragon, it was ‘Hey, Chink,’ and after Bruce’s movies came out it was like, ‘Hey, brother.’” But his appeal transcended race. “Every town in America has a church and a beauty parlor,” says Weintraub. “Now there’s a church, a beauty parlor and a karate studio with a picture of Bruce Lee.”


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