On this day in 1940, the actor and martial-arts expert Bruce Lee is born in San Francisco, California. In his all-too-brief career, Lee became a film star in Asia, and a pop-culture icon, posthumously, in America.
Lee was born while his father, a Chinese opera star, was on tour in America. The Lee family moved back to Hong Kong in 1941. Growing up, Lee was a child actor who appeared in some 20 Chinese films; he also studied dancing and trained in the Wing Chun style of gung fu (also known as kung fu). In 1959, Lee returned to America, where he eventually attended the University of Washington and opened a martial-arts school in Seattle. In 1964, he married Linda Emery, who in 1965 gave birth to Brandon Lee, the first of the couple’s two children. In 1966, the Lees relocated to Los Angeles and Bruce appeared on the television program The Green Hornet (1966-1967), playing the Hornet’s acrobatic sidekick, Kato. Lee also appeared in karate tournaments around the United States and continued to teach martial arts to private clients, including the actor Steve McQueen.
In search of better acting roles than Hollywood was offering, Lee returned to Hong Kong in the early 1970s. He successfully established himself as a star in Asia with the action movies The Big Boss (1971) and The Way of the Dragon (1972), which he wrote, directed and starred in. Lee’s next film, Enter the Dragon, was released in the United States by Hollywood studio Warner Brothers in August 1973. Tragically, Lee had died one month earlier, on July 20, in Hong Kong, after suffering a brain edema believed to be caused by an adverse reaction to a pain medication. Enter the Dragon was a box-office hit, eventually grossing more than $200 million, and Lee posthumously became a movie icon in America.
Lee’s body was returned to Seattle, where he was buried. His sudden death at the young age of 32 led to rumors and speculation about the cause of his demise. One theory held that Lee had been murdered by Chinese gangsters, while another rumor circulated that the actor had been the victim of a curse. The family-curse theory resurfaced when Lee’s 28-year-old son Brandon, who had followed in his father’s footsteps to become an actor, died in an accidental shooting on the set of the movie The Crow on March 31, 1993. The younger Lee was buried next to his father at Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery.