Prior to the arrival of martial arts in Hollywood, your average tough guy was only found in Westerns and Gangster films. In those days, the only way your typical movie star could take on a room full of bad guys by himself would be with a gun (preferably a couple of them). But that would all change with the arrival of Mr. Bruce Lee.
At age 26, Lee was spotted in a MA exhibition event by a TV producer and was eventually offered his first acting role in the TV show, ‘The Green Hornet’. Lee played Kato, the driver and valet to the lead character. The show only lasted for one season but it helped get Lee’s considerable MA skills noticed by Hollywood. By the late 60s and early 70s, Lee had performed small parts in several films and had also worked as a choreographer for fight scenes in smaller films. It was also during this time that Lee founded his own brand of MA called Jeet Kune Do. It was a combination of various MA disciplines that focused on speed, flexibility and what Lee called “The style of no style”.
But even with Lee’s growing screen appeal, Hollywood had the problem of how to promote a guy who wasn’t American and whose English wasn’t that easy to understand. (Rumour has it that Lee missed out on the lead role in the TV series Kung Fu due his heavy accent and the role eventually went to David Carradine instead).
It wasn’t until 1972 that Lee finally got his first lead role in the film Fist of Fury. He played a student who seeks revenge for the murder of his teacher. It was a great platform for Lee to demonstrate his extensive MA and weaponry skills.
By now, Lee was developing a strong fan base in both Asia and the USA. As a result, in 1973, Lee was cast as the star in the now-classic film Enter the Dragon , as well as working as one of the film’s script writers. For this story, Lee’s character enters an international one-on-one fighting competition on an island run by a drug lord. This was the first MA film to be produced by a major Hollywood studio and audiences loved the spectacular fight scenes. Sadly, Lee died less than a week before the film was due to be released in America.
However brief, Lee’s movie career helped to give creditability to MA in the eyes of the general public and their demand for this style of movies began to grow. Lee’s skills also inspired generations of Westerners to take up MA for themselves. Today, Lee is considered a Hollywood legend and, just last year, a two metre high statue of him was unveiled in Los Angeles as a tribute.
Bruce Lee’s talents also paved the way for a range of other MA experts to perform in film and TV, including Chuck Norris, whom Lee worked with. For more info on those who became the next generation of MA stars in Hollywood, grab the next issue of MAN.