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How Bruce Lee found fame in Hollywood

A popular figure, not just in martial arts but in cinema and philosophy too, the influence of the actor and cultural figure Bruce Lee may better any sportsperson who’s ever lived, rubbing shoulders with similar cultural icons such as boxer Muhammad Ali and Brazilian footballer Pelé. Featuring in over 30 film and TV projects throughout the course of a film career that spanned from 1946 to 1973, Lee appeared in such films as Way of the Dragon alongside Chuck Norris and The Game of Death with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

As an icon of Asian cinema as well as an influential pop-culture figure worldwide, the significance of Lee defies time and place, with his philosophical approach to life adding to her pertinent mythos. Speaking about the iconic martial artist, his sparring partner and co-star Chuck Norris once stated in an interview with Black Belt, “The truth is Lee was a formidable opponent with a chiselled physique and technique. I totally enjoyed sparring and just spending time with him”. He was as charismatic and friendly in the ring and at home as he was on film’. 

The son of a Cantonese opera performer, Lee Moon-shuen, Bruce Lee was born into industry success, finding good stead in the industry early on in his career. As Dr. Lauren Steimer, assistant professor of media arts at the University of South Carolina, explains, “Many artists working in Cantonese opera also found work in the film industry, so Bruce Lee’s father was able to get his son work in some of those movies”. 

Long before he would star in Way of the Dragon, Ironside or even The Green Hornet, Lee made his film debut in 1941 as a 3-month-old infant in the movie Golden Gate Girl, though was hardly aware of the fact, returning to cinema five years later to appear in The Birth of Mankind.

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Such films had a distinct lack of punching, picking and martial arts in general, preferring to focus on tales of social injustice such as the post-war housing crisis that was causing chaos in contemporary Hong Kong. Unable to show off his high-kicking ability, Lee still impressed as a dramatic performer in such films as Thunderstorm in 1957 and The Orphan in 1960, the final film of his Eastern movie career.  

Leaving Hong Kong for the United States at the age of 18, Lee settled in Seattle where he worked in a restaurant part-time whilst pursuing a degree in philosophy at the University of Washington. At the same time, the young actor began to teach the self-defence martial art Kung fu, quickly opening his first schools to teach the practice, naming the initial one the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute. 

Whilst he continued to grow his martial arts schools, expanding to two sites in Oakland and Los Angeles, Lee married his wife Linda and had two children, Brandon and Shannon, all before he was discovered by Hollywood. 

It wasn’t until the mid-sixties that Lee would be found. Having abandoned the idea of pursuing an acting career, Lee was doing an exhibition at the Long Beach Internationals when television producer William Dozier invited him to audition for a pilot for Number One Son, a show about Lee Chan that never saw the light of day. Despite this, Dozier saw great potential in Lee, and the rest is pop-culture history.