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.
ENTER THE LITTLE DRAGON
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 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.
Right: Bruce Lee chats with Bolo Yeung, a former Mr. Hong Kong bodybuilding champion, on the set.
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.