The phenomenal rise of ‘the little dragon’ a well-heeled superstar who taught Hollywood a new trick or two. The last interview.
‘The biggest disadvantage of success,’ said Bruce Lee Hsiao Loong, the movies’ first Asian superstar, ‘is losing your privacy. It’s ironic but we all strive to become wealthy and famous, but once you’re there, it’s not all rosy. There’s hardly a place in Hong Kong where I can go to without being stared at or people asking for autographs. That’s one reason I spend a lot of time at my house to do my work. Right now, my home and the office are the most peaceful places.’
Lee avoided social gatherings whenever possible. ‘I’m not that kind of a cat. I don’t drink nor smoke and those events are many times senseless. I don’t like to wear stuffy clothes and be at places where everyone is trying to impress each other. Now, I’m not saying I’m modest. I rather like to be around a few friends and talk informally about such things as boxing and the martial arts.
‘Whenever I have to go to public places like a restaurant, I try to sneak in without being detected. I’ll go directly to a corner table and quickly sit down, facing the wall so my back is to the crowd. I keep my head low while eating. No, I’m not crazy,’ he laughed, ‘I only look like it. You see, if I’m recognised I’m dead, because I can’t eat with the hand that I have to use to sign autographs. And I’m not one of those guys that can brush people off. Besides, I feel that if I can just take a second and make someone happy, why not do it.’
Smiling, Lee explained that the Hong Kong fans can find you everywhere, even in the dark. ‘Once when I went to a movie, the usherette shined her flashlight into my face and asked for an autograph.
‘Now, I understand why stars like Steve (McQueen) and Big Louis (Kahreem Jabbar) avoid public places. In the beginning,’ continued Lee, ‘I didn’t mind all the publicity I was getting. But soon, it got to be a headache answering the same questions over and over again, posing for photos and forcing a smile.’
Bruce liked to return to America: ‘I find peace here. I’m free. I’m like anyone else here and can go to any place without being stopped. I like to return here and have myself another house.’ (Three years ago, Lee sold his Bel-Air home to live in Hong Kong.)
Is it a fluke that Bruce Lee is one of the biggest stars today? He didn’t think so.
‘Maybe when I was hired to play, Kato in Green Hornet, it was an accident. I didn’t have any acting experience.” He had acted in Chinese films since he was a child but had no contact in Hollywood.
One year while giving an exhibition of kung-fu at the Long Beach International Karate Championshipss a Hollywood producer just happened to be in the audience. ‘That night I received a phone call at my hotel for a try-out. Early next morning, I stopped by 20th Century-Fox and was hired to be Charlie Chan’s new Number One Son. While attending a quickie one-month private crash course in acting, the producer changed his, mind and decided that I would be Kato instead.’
Lee explained that the reason for the change was because Batman had caught the fancy of the kids and The Green Hornet was a natural for television. The series ran for 30 weeks in America.
Lee did not feel that his rise to stardom came strictly from luck. ‘Some martial artists are now going to, Hong Kong to be in movies. They think they can be lucky, too.
Well, I don’t believe in pure luck. You have to create your own luck: You, have to be aware of the opportunities around you and take advantage of them. Some guys may, not believe it, but I spent hours perfecting whatever I did.
‘Hope, I’m not the type of guy who can sit in the office doing the same routine day in and day out. I have to do something creative and interesting (to me). I don’t want to do anything half way, it has to be perfect. I feel that I want to be The Best Martial Artist. Not just for the sake of movies but because this is my interest.
To be good, I have to spend a lot of time practising. My minimum daily training is two hours; this includes running three miles, special weighttraining, kicking and hitting the light and heavy bags.
‘I really dig exercise. When I’m jogging early in the morning, boy! it’s sure refreshing. Although Hong Kong is one of the most crowded places in the world, I’m surprised how peaceful it can be in the morning. Sure, there are people but I become oblivious to them while I am running.’
Many think that Bruce Lee’s success in Hong Kong is because he’s a local product. Although born in San Francisco, he was brought up in Hong Kong since the age of three. Others feel that his rapid climb to stardom is because Green Hornet played in Hong Kong repeatedly. ‘I guess I’m the only guy who ventured away from there and became an actor. To most people, including the actors and actresses, Hollywood is like a magic kingdom. It’s beyond everyone’s reach and when I made it, they thought I’d accomplished an incredible feat. But if my success was based on these two facts alone, then why is it that Green Hornet smashed box offices in Singapore, Philippines and other countries I haven’t even visited?’
When Bruce Lee decided to visit his homeland in 1968, he was surprised to learn that he was a celebrity. From the time he stepped off the airplane, he was constantly surrounded and hounded by the reporters from newspapers and television. ‘It sure was an experience. I made several appearances with the largest radio and television stations. People flocked around me wherever I went.’
And the Hong Kong news media didn’t forget him. They continued to follow his progress in the U.S. In the meantime Lee kept himself busy by teaching some Hollywood celebrities his style of fighting; Jeet kune do. Some of his better known students included Steve McQueen, James Coburn, scriptwriter Stirling Silliphant and producer Sy Weintraub. Because Lee didn’t particularly like to teach, he charged a high fee-as much as £40 an hour.
Finally, Lee got his break. Paramount produced a TV series called Longstreet, created by Silliphant, with James Franciscus starring. Lee was invited as a guest star for the fourth segment of the episode, titled Way of the Fist. The press reviews were gratifying.
‘First time in my life that I had any kind of review for my acting,’ said Lee, ‘I’m glad that they were favourable.’
While shooting Longstreet, the demands for his services were coming in heavily from Hong Kong and Taiwan. ‘After I left Hong Kong, the media there kept in contact with me through the telephone. Those guys used to call me early in the morning and even kept a conversation going on the air, so the public was listening to me.
‘Then one day, the radio announcer asked me if I would do a movie there. When I replied that I would if the price was right, I began to get calls from producers in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Offers to do a movie varied from £2,000 to £10,000.’
Lee finally signed up with Raymond Chow, producer of Golden Harvest in Hong Kong. ‘After I signed my contract with Raymond,’ Lee smiled, ‘I received a call from a producer in Taiwan. That guy told me to rip up the contract and he’d top Raymond’s offer and even take care of any lawsuit for breaking the agreement.’
The young man refused to break the contract. In July of 1971, he travelled to a small town on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand. ‘When I signed to do Boss, I had a say in it. Fortunately, I had some background in U.S. filming techniques. We had quite a bit more sophisticated styles than they did and with my experience, I was able to help them, especially choreographing the fight scene.’
Lee actually talked Chow into doing a martial arts film with only a minimum use of weapons. Up to then, the Chinese films attempted to emulate the Japanese samurai warrior movies and the use of swords was heavily emphasised. With Lee’s expertise in martial arts and with his knowledge of film production, Big Boss broke all records in Hong Kong. It grossed 3.2 million Hong Kong dollars, surpassing Sound of Music, which held the record for a number of years at 2.8. Lee’s first movie began to break records in other countries like the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and movie critics raved about him.
‘Big Boss was an important movie for me because I had a starring role for the first time,’ recalled Lee. ‘I felt that I could do a better acting job than in Green Hornet and had more confidence since I just did Longstreet. I didn’t expect Big Boss to break any kind of record but I did expect it to be a money maker. I realised the potential of the movie when I attended the premiere.
‘Bob Baker, from Stockton, was in town for a part in the second movie, Fist of Fury. He and I sat in the front seats without being noticed. As the movie progressed, we kept looking at the reactions of the fans. They hardly made any noise in the beginning but at the end they were in frenzy and began clapping and clamouring. Those fans there are emotional. If they don’t like the movie, they’ll cuss and walk out. When the movie came to an end, Bob, almost in tears, shook my hand and said, “Boy, am I happy for you”.’
While Lee was shooting Big Boss, Paramount was desperately looking for him after the TV success. ‘They couldn’t get to me because I really was in the sticks. We were so far out that we couldn’t even get meat. I had only vegetables and rice and lost ten pounds.’
Paramount wanted Lee for three more segments of Longstreet. ‘It’s funny but when Paramount sent telegrams, and telephoned Hong Kong for me, boy, the producers thought I was an important star. My prestige must have increased three times.’
When the muscular Lee came back for the three TV segments Big Boss was already breaking records. ‘Paramount wanted me to be a regular for Longstreet but I refused because I was getting offers from Warner Bros. an M.G.M. Besides, I still had another commitment with Raymond Chow.’
A year before Big Boss, Lee already had a premonition that he was going to become a big star, not only in the Far East but around the world. He told one producer that he expected to follow the steps of Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood – both men became stars whe they went to Europe – but Lee would do it in the Far East. The producer told him that because he was Oriental, it would be impossible. The American and the European fans would not accept him.
The young star did not argue nor attempt to prove him wrong ‘Deep inside, I knew I could do it,’ said Lee. ‘This is why I didn’t sign a long contract with any of the major movie studios.’
When his second movie hit the theatres, Lee became a bigger box-office draw. He made a lot of movie critics eat their words – Fist of Fury out-grossed Big Boss. It amassed 4.5 million Hong Kong dollars and recorded a bigger gain in other countries. In the Philippines it ran for over six months capacity, and thr government finally had to limit the amount of foreign film imports to protect their domestic film producers.
In Singapore, scalpers were getting £15 for a £1 ticket. On opening night, hundreds of movie patrons rushed to the theatre and caused such a traffic jam that they had to suspend showing the movie for a week until the authorities found a way to resolve the problem. This was the first time in Singapore history that a movie caused such a jam.
Lee had already developed a precedent. When other producers began to lose money, they offered Lee fabulous amounts of money. They made their offers known directly in the newspaper headlines.
‘I had a heck of a problem after my second movie became a smash,’ said Lee. ‘I had people stop by at my door and just pass me a cheque for $200,000. When I asked them what it was for they replied, “Don’t worry about it, it’s just a gift to you.” I didn’t even know these people, they were strangers to me.’
The 5-foot-7-inch star became confused with all the offers and he began to become suspicious of everyone. ‘It was very bewildering. I didn’t know whom to trust and I even grew suspicious of my old pals. I was in a period when I didn’t know who was trying to take advantage of me.
‘When people just pass out big money just like that, you don’t know what to think. I destroyed ,all those cheques but it was difficult to do, because I didn’t know what they were for.’
After his second movie, Bruce Lee formed his own production company, Concorde. He took in Raymond Chow as his partner and they produced their first movie called Way of the Dragon.
‘I wrote the script, had the starring role, directed it and produced it. I worked almost around the clock for days and lost several more pounds. I did it because it was fun. It was something I hadn’t done before but always ‘had an interest in. I got hold of a dozen books on film production and direction and really dug into them.’
When the superstar predicted that Way of a Dragon would surpass a five million dollar take in Hong Kong, the movie critics really thought he had gone mad. How could a movie doubly outgross Sound of Music?
Dragon did – establishing a new record, $5.4 million! It was different from the other movies,’ explained Bruce. ‘We went to Europe for location. The fight scenes between Chuck Norris and me were held in the Colosseum in Rome. I also employed a Japanese photographer because I knew the Japanese had more know-how in that area than those in Hong Kong. This was the first time a Hong Kong. film maker went to Europe for location shooting.’
A1though his first two movies played in the U.S. Lee did not plan to release his Dragon there. ‘The three movies I made,’ said Lee, ‘were not intended for American audiences. They were strictly for the Far East. I had no control over the first two; they are too far out for the Americans. I’m surprised though, they brought in a lot of money for the distributors.’
Lee felt that one day he was going to be an international star. ‘Enter The Dragon (produced by Warner Bros. and Lee’s Concorde) should make it,’ he smiled proudly.
‘This is the movie that I’m proud of because it is made for America as well as Europe and the Orient. This is definitely the biggest movie I ever made. I’m excited to see what will happen. I think it’s going to gross $20 million in the U.S.’
What was in store for Lee’s future? He had been offered two movies in Hungary and according to reliable sources, the offer made him currently the highest paid actor in the world. Warners was also negotiating to do several movies with him. ‘He was in an enviable position,’ explained a producer. ‘He could do movies in Europe, the U.S. or the Orient. Since he owns his own production company, he doesn’t have to wait around for a job like the rest of the actors.’
In two years, Lee’s style of living changed rapidly. He owned an eleven bedroom mansion in Kowloon with a collegesize gym, and three servants and three maids for his wife, Linda, and their son and daughter Brandon and Shannon.
‘Having money doesn’t solve all of your problems,’ he commented, ‘but it sure beats not having any money. I think I could have made a fortune a few years ago when Green Hornet was playing. I was approached by several businessmen to open a franchise of Kato’s Self-Defence School, but I refused. I felt then and still feel today that I’m not going to prostitute the art for the sake of money. I don’t want people to say that they studied under me when they didn’t. This is why I didn’t publish the book, Tao of Jeet Kune. Some guys would read the book and then open schools using my name as their instructor.’
It is not unusual to hear of actors or actresses reaching stardom, but it is unusual for an Oriental actor to reach the pinnacle in the world of make believe.
Bruce Lee was the only one who had made it – and had it made.