July 20 marks the 45th anniversary of the death of Bruce Lee, who had one of the briefest and most remarkable careers in Hollywood history. On July 23, 1973, Variety ran his 300-word obituary on page 7. He didn’t get star treatment because he wasn’t yet a star, at least in the English-speaking world. As Matthew Polly points out in his excellent new bio “Bruce Lee: A Life” (Simon & Schuster), Lee had a career in Asia as a child actor, a dancer (he won Hong Kong’s 1958 Cha-Cha Dance Championship with little brother Robert), a young star (nicknamed “Little Dragon” by his fans) and then a martial-arts practitioner and innovator. The rest of the world discovered him when “Enter the Dragon” opened in 1973, just one month after he died suddenly at age 32 of a brain aneurysm. Variety reviewer Whitney Williams enthused, “Lee socks over a performance seldom equaled in action (movies).” His charisma, good looks and dazzling moves ensured him a posthumous legacy as a star, and as someone who laid the groundwork to bridge the styles of East and West.
He was born Lee Jung-fan in San Francisco, where his father was acting with the Cantonese Opera Company. The family returned to Asia, and Lee began appearing in films at age 6; in 1960, he starred in “The Orphan” as an angry teenager, evoking memories of “Rebel Without a Cause.” It was one of many times he was compared with actor James Dean.
Lee returned to the U.S. where he enrolled at the University of Washington and wrote a master’s thesis that was later expanded into 1963 paperback “Chinese Kung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense.” He opened a martial arts school in Seattle, then moved to Los Angeles to pursue his Hollywood dreams.
Lee played sidekick Kato in the series “The Green Hornet,” which lasted 26 episodes starting in 1966. An item in the Aug. 7, 1968, weekly Variety pointed to a big-screen project: “Bruce Lee, an expert on Jeet Kune Do, the Chinese art of using feet as lethal weapons, will stage the fight sequences and also play a role in MGM’s ‘The Little Sister.’ ” (The Raymond Chandler adaptation was retitled “Marlowe.”)