Sure, Chuck Norris is said to be the only person to ever tame a live dinosaur, but if you want the real deal you need to look no further than Bruce Lee—a global cultural icon whose presence has long eclipsed the handful of movies and television shows for which he was originally famous.
Born in San Francisco and raised in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee reportedly studied kung fu in order to fend off childhood bullies. His father, an opera singer, encouraged Bruce to take up acting at a young age. But at 18, he returned to the United States and studied philosophy at Washington University while teaching a style of kung fu called Jeet Kune Do to pay his bills. One of his students, Linda Lee Cadwell, later became his wife. The couple had two children together, Brandon Lee (who was killed in 1993 while filming The Crow) and Shannon Lee.
In 1973, Lee starred in his iconic film, Enter the Dragon. That same year saw the release of Return of the Dragon, which featured his directorial debut. But just as superstardom seemed inevitable, the actor collapsed while working on the film The Game of Death. After taking a pain killer, Lee went to sleep and could not be revived. Doctors said the cause of death was a cerebral edema. He was 32.
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Bruce Lee’s death, BIO talked to Shannon Lee, who now runs the Bruce Lee Foundation. She told us about her father’s legacy, his off-screen persona and her surprising discovery about his favorite soft drink.
This month marks the 40th anniversary of your father’s death. What influences of his do you see in the world today?
I’ve seen and heard influences of his in everything in all sorts of things, from music, to dance, to a greater acceptance of Asian actors in the West. He helped drive a huge interest in the martial arts genre with films that had much more realistic fight scenes. Even though there had been martial art films already in Asia, they tended to be fantastical and stylized. As a martial artist, he’s often been called the father of mixed martial arts where fighters need to have more than one style. We don’t call Jeet Kune Do a mixed martial art, but I think they stem from a similar philosophical place.
Watch Bruce Lee’s mini bio:
One of the interesting things about my father was that what you see on-camera is a lot of what he was like in real life. He was extremely passionate, charismatic, and had a huge amount of energy that radiated from him. He loved to laugh and spend time with friends and family. He had a fiery personality that ranged from having a fiery temper to being extremely loving and playful. He was extremely competitive, as you can imagine.
By many accounts, he loved to help people. Is that right?
He was very kind and giving. He helped one of his good friends who was very ill to write a book. He had another friend who he said was going to be single forever so he took him to get new clothes and a haircut. He was a good guy that way. He also loved to play practical jokes on people.
He liked that old joke of getting you to run a quarter down your face after tracing a pencil around it and it’d leave a black mark behind.
Are there any common misconceptions about your father?
Some people believe he was just an actor and not a martial artist, some believe he was a martial artist who just made some movies. A lot of people don’t know that he had a large philosophical underpinning and was a writer, producer, and choreographer. But I think his life and legacy are worth looking into because his philosophy is inspiring and has a lot of spiritual value.
When you were growing up, did you learn anything about your father that surprised you?
I’ve loved over the years learning little things about him like the fact that he loved root beer to the fact that he was an insane multi-tasker who would watch boxing while exercising and reading a book. A friend of his told me they were waiting for an elevator, and he dropped down and did push ups. All of those things along the way have been little gems.
Can you tell us a little about your foundation?
We preserve the legacy of my father through an education approach. We award scholarships. We do classes at schools about my father’s philosophy and life. We do seminars in Jeet Kune Do and have also been building a museum to be a permanent home for the legacy. We are focusing on Seattle because that’s where my father is buried, where he met my mom, went to college, opened his first school and a place where he really loved. The idea behind the museum is that it’s not just about memorabilia. We want it to be interactive and speak to his social and cultural actions. The goal is to focus on that legacy.