Thursday, March 29, 2012

In Appreciation of: Bruce Lee

Karen: Back in the early seventies, I had a poster in my room that was very similar to the picture on the right here. I bet millions of other kids did too. Bruce Lee was coolness personified.

Sadly, we only have a handful of TV shows and films by which to remember him. Of course, it's well known that he appeared as Kato on the
Green Hornet TV series (a role he reportedly hated). But he really came into his own in his films. His characters were all very similar. He was typically motivated out of a desire to find justice -although often it seemed more like vengeance! He also seemed fearless, even when facing guys much bigger than himself (remember how he demolished Bob Wall in Enter the Dragon?). His incredible speed and skills are still thrilling to watch -no camera tricks or CGI there! But much of the reason for Lee's success was due to his winning personality. Even in a fight scene, his emotions flash across his face and are easily read. His steely stare is classic. He was also a strikingly good-looking man. Lee's charisma and outstanding athleticism made him a universally acclaimed hero.

But Lee was a cool cat in his real life as well. Always an iconoclast, he rebelled against Chinese traditionalists by welcoming non-Chinese into his schools. He studied boxing, judo, and every form of martial art to develop his fighting skills, never locking himself into any dogma. While many martial artists eschewed weight lifting, Lee decided to pursue it. He did everything his way, even creating his own form of martial art called Jeet Kune Do.

His untimely death in 1973 robbed us of a great talent, but created a legend. Without Lee, it's doubtful that martial arts would have achieved such tremendous popularity in the western world. It seemed like every kid had a home-made pair of nunchaku in the 70s -and the self-inflicted injuries that went with them! And how many people started taking kung fu lessons after seeing Enter the Dragon? Nowadays it's pretty much impossible to see an action film that doesn't have some martial arts fighting in it. Lee was the herald of a new way of filming fights. He influenced other media too, not the least of which was comics. Shang Chi could be Bruce Lee's twin!

So here's to Bruce Lee: gone, but never ever to be forgotten.


david_b said...

Ah, reading Adam West's bio, he shared the famous anecdote about Bruce on the set with his old sparing partner Burt Ward. Not in on Bruce's 'dark joke' ruse on Ward, Adam said to Williams that nothing short of running him over with the Batmobile could stop Lee.

Well said.

From watching the Biography Channel retrospects, I know Lee was disappointed with the GH series and it's limitations, adding he didn't like having to perform his stunts dressed in street clothes, slowing him down too much. But he did say he made his moves more stylish for the camera. He was a Drama major in college, which no doubt provided him an eye for presentation style.

You can't knock the fact it made him a household name FAR more than the Long Beach Championships, and bringing legitimate attention to martial arts on the small screen.

dbutler16 said...

My first experience with Bruce Lee was the Green Hornet & Kato appearances on the Batman show. I was a bit late into the game as far as being a Bruce Lee devotee, not really until college, actually, but I'm definitely on board now. Not only are the martial arts in his films great for both his skills and the choreography and realism, but as Karen pointed out, his influence goes beyond the movies. One of his big messages was to be yourself, and go wherever that takes you. I also love his "be like water, my friend" analogy to fighting. He was part movie star, part martial arts instructor, part philosopher. By the way, I remember seeing his biopic, Dragon: The Bruce Lee story. While they took some liberties, it was a nice telling of his life. Another reason for me to love Bruce Lee is that he's about the same height and weight as me, and he even hurt his back working out like me!

Anonymous said...

Lee joked that he was chosen to play Kato because he was the only Asian actor who could pronounce "Britt Reid." If he hated playing the part, he didn't let it affect his performance. I read somewhere that, after Lee became a major movie star in the 1970's, some fly-by-night producer dug up some Green Hornet episodes, edited them into a feature-length movie, and released it as a new movie "starring" Bruce Lee. The makeshift feature was withdrawn from circulation after legal action by whoever rightfully owned the Green Hornet copyright.

Anonymous said...

Lee also appeared a few times on "Longstreet" as a martial arts instructor. The series starred James Franciscus as a private detective. IIRC, Lee was originally intended to be a guest star in one episode, but reaction was so positive that they made him a semi-regular.

William said...

Now your talking my language! The only thing I like as much as comic-books is "Kung Fu Movies". Over half of all my DVD and Blu Rays are martial arts films. I have every Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li movie (the good ones anyway) that are available on disc. And I have always loved Bruce Lee since I was a kid. On the wall of my office, I even have a huge framed poster of him by artist Christos Achilleos.

In fact, for years my favorite movie was "Enter The Dragon". Before I finally bought the movie on VHS tape (I now own it on DVD and Blu Ray), I used to go to this video store down the street from me and rent it about once every 2 months. I was in that video store when I learned that his son Brandon had also tragically died at a young age. I heard two guys who worked at the store talking about it and I was like, "What did you just say?". They then told me that they had just heard on the news that Brandon Lee had been accidentally shot and killed on the set of "The Crow". I can't remember being more bummed out over anything in my life (short of a death in my own family). I was so happy that Bruce's son was following in his father's footsteps, and to find that he was such a dynamic martial artist and charismatic personality (just like his dad). When he was taken away so young as well (just as his career was taking off), it just seemed so unfair. I really felt sorry for his mother. To first lose her husband and then her son at so young an age (and in such a senseless way), she must have felt like there truly was a curse on her family. I can't even imagine.

As something of a martial arts movie expert, I can tell you that Bruce Lee is still a major influence on the movies (and beyond). In fact, it never ceases to amaze me that someone who was in a minor TV series and made only around 5 complete movies has had such a large and lasting impact on popular culture. I often think of what could have been if Bruce hadn't died so young. If nothing else, I'm sure my movie collection would be a whole lot bigger.

Anonymous said...

It is ironic that people associate the nunchaku with Bruce Lee. He reportedly disliked weapons in general and advocated training one's own body to be the ultimate weapon. A toy company later marketed plastic nunchakus with Lee's photo on the package. To put it mildly, that marketing campaign was not in very good taste.

J.A. Morris said...

Based on what William said, Lee can be compared to James Dean, since their filmed legacy has become outweighed by the legend in both cases. And they could both be described as eternally "cool".

Lee died 2 weeks after I turned 2, so I have no memories of him as a living entity. But it's funny, his image adorned so many t-shirts, magazine covers & posters in the 70s that I figured he must be alive. Plus, everyone talked about him like he was still around. I was saddened when a friend told me the whole story about Lee's death.

One of my happiest childhood memories was going to see a double feature of 'Return Of The Dragon' and 'Game Of Death' one Sunday afternoon.

And of course without Bruce Lee, we would've never gotten all those great looking Shang Chi stories drawn by Paul Gulacy in the Bronze Age!

Here's a great Neal Adams rendition of Lee, in case anyone hasn't seen it:

david_b said...

Anonymous (first one..),

Yes, I heard he got the role because he could say the hero name without it sounding like 'Gleen Hornut'.., just a variation of the tale.

Yes, I had that VHS tape in the 90s (still in my basement somewhere..). I love the text on the back, where it mentions them fighting 'outerspace aliens and Kung Fu masters'.

Yep, they typically hang out together..

Serious, you can tell the company used dark, dirty prints from the television show, it was hard to make out half the action, but at least they ended the movie with the awesome Low Sing showdown footage from the 'Preying Mantis' episode,probably the best (only) episode to really feature Bruce.

Anonymous said...

Lee's widow said in her memoirs that he created the premise for the Kung Fu TV series and that the idea was stolen from him. There is some evidence for her claim. Lee said in a talk show interview that he was pitching an idea for a kung fu TV show to the networks, but that, so far, none had bought it. About a year later, "Kung Fu" premiered on ABC-TV. Specifically, it was Lee's idea to have a series about a martial arts expert wandering in the Old West. He reasoned that the violence would be more plausible (and justifiable) in a frontier setting. I don't know if he ever considered a lawsuit against ABC and/or Warner Brothers.

Edo Bosnar said...

Can't add much to the praise already heaped upon him. I'll just say that although "Enter the Dragon" is also my favorite movie of his, I just recently saw "Return of the Dragon" on TV and just enjoyed the hell out of the scene where he takes down Chuck Norris...

Karen said...

Good to see some Bruce appreciation here! The question over whether the Kung Fu TV show was stolen from Lee rages on, all these years later. From what I have heard and read, I would say that the basic idea certainly came from Bruce. But it's hard to know the real story.

Edo, I agree, isn't that fight with Norris (aka "Colt") priceless? Especially when Bruce gets a handful of Chuck's chest hair-ewww!

The connection of Lee with nunchaku is probably mostly from so many folks being amazed at his skill with them in ETD. But I believe it was Dan Inosanto who introduced them to Bruce. And yeah, if it weren't for how cool they looked on film, I don't know if Lee would have bothered with them.


Doug said...

Between the Lee clip Karen included and Airplane!, we could run a post on the Hollywood career of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as well.


Garett said...

Great video! There's a CBC interview with him on youtube that's very good.

He inspired me to take Kung Fu in the '90s. It was one of those things that just seeped into me growing up, that I had to do at some point.

I love his expansive approach to life.

Fred W. Hill said...

I don't recall ever seeing an episode of the Green Hornet on tv -- I may have seen it during part of it's original run (before my family moved to Japan) but it apparently wasn't as widely syndicated as the Batman series was. Otherwise, my brother was much more into Kung Fu movies than I ever was -- I'd occasionally watch them with him but was never a real afficianado. Still, I by the late 70s Master of Kung Fu was one of my favorite titles -- I'd gotten into it a few months after the end of Gulacy's marvelous run, but finally did obtain all of them. I know MOKF creators Englehart & Starlin were deeply influenced by Bruce Lee, as were Moench and Gulacy, whose art at its best seemed like renderings from lost Bruce Lee movies. Profoundly tragic that he and his son died so young, but the legend will never die, at least not while civilization endures.

Inkstained Wretch said...

What impresses me the most about Lee is his sheer athleticism. I mean look at that picture: that is a guy without enough fat in his body to make a butter patty.

He was all muscle & sinew without being bulky like the steroid-infused athletes of today. He was amazingly fast and nimble too with all the balance of a tightrope walker. Watch the scene in Enter the Dragon where he is practicing in his room on one foot and you'll see what I mean.

Or better yet, watch him stretching out before his fight with Chuck Norris in Return of the Dragon. When he flexes the muscles in his back he changes shape so much that he looks like a cobra extending its hood. Its an amazing non-special effects visual.

There is, I think, a presumption that martial arts are all about knowing particular skills and moves. Or alternately that they are about grasping some Zen-like philosophy. I am a Krav Maga (Israeli martial arts) student and I think I have learned enough to know that neither of those things are really true.

What really made the great martial artists great was their physical conditioning. These were guys who spent hour upon hour in the gym, perfecting their bodies. Lee's punches and kicks were that devastating because he had made himself that strong and that fast.

Man, did that sound pompous and know-it-all or what? Sheesh ...

Anonymous said...

Yeah even after all these years Bruce is still the undisputed King of Kung Fu. With all due respect to Jackie Chan and Jet Li, Bruce's influence on martial arts in film and popular culture is still being felt today.

He more than anyone else was mainly responsible for the Kung Fu craze that swept the world in the 1970s. His philosophy of accepting non-Asians as his students, his never-ending quest to assimilate martial arts knowledge and his devotion to physical conditioning were not the accepted way in his time, but eventually people came to understand and benefit from his methods.

All in all, he was (and still is) a true legend. Bruce was the inspiration for millions of movie fans and martial artists, whose lives are all the richer for his influence. Long Live the Little Dragon!

Edo Bosnar said...

Inkstained touched upon something I probably find most compelling about Bruce Lee and his movies - his very appearance (i.e., that amazing, non-steroid pumped musculature) and the way he moved. There's any number of scenes in his films where he's just walking across a room and it just looks so damn cool, it's almost hypnotic...

Karen said...

It is really refreshing to see an action star who isn't some bulky monster, isn't it? Lee is all muscle. Just an amazing physique. When he moves, it's like watching a cheetah. You can feel the power coiled up inside.

Inkstained, I've always been interested in Krav Maga. What do you think of it? Is it your first martial art? I studied karate for a short time when I was a kid, and when I was an adult, I studied Aikido (til a back injury caused me to stop). I found that the only people who were any good at Aikido were those who had training in some other martial art. The others all thought they were in dance class or something. None of them knew how to punch or kick and I could just see them getting their butts whipped in a real fight, as they waited for someone to grab their wrist so they could start their throw.


Inkstained Wretch said...


I did Judo as a youngster and Tae Kwon Do in college. Judo is good, but it is essentially just wrestling with some extra (and good) takedown moves.

Tae Kwon Do is ... well, maybe I just had a bad instructor, but I got little out of it. It seemed so rarified that it would only be useful in a match against another Tae Kwon Do student, not unlike what you described regarding Aikido.

Krav Maga is the whole package, in my opinion. I highly recommend you take it up. I think the difference is that is not an Eastern martial art, but a purely pragmatic military thing. In other words the IDF designed it so that ordinary conscripts could grasp it and that it would be helpful to them in a real-world situation.

Krav Maga is basically just boxing with other strikes (elbows, knees, kicks, etc.) and related defensive moves added to the mix. The "art" part of the Eastern disciplines is discarded. Krav Maga emphasizes desperate, fight-for-your-life situations as well as simply avoiding danger in the first place. We spar on a regular basis and physical conditioning is also key.

I've been doing it since November, 2005 and really enjoy it. It is great exercise and really boosts your self-confidence. If there is a school near you, Karen, you should give it a try.

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