The “accidental” action star (Mythmaking in the martial arts, Part 3)
Linda Lee Cadwell: When Bruce did the demonstration in 1964, before he had even come back to Oakland, where we lived at the time, I had received a phone call from William Dozier’s office.
Shannon Lee: Jay Sebring, the famous hairstylist, happened to see my father at the Long Beach Internationals and he cut the hair of William Dozier and he said, “Oh my god! You’ve got to see this guy—he’s amazing!”
Cadwell: When Bruce came home, I said to him, “You need to call this guy back: William Dozier. He’s a producer in Hollywood and he wants to see you.” That was the first inkling that, “Wow, I might be able to do something in Hollywood!” He never had any intention of going into show business. His passion was his martial arts, so he had a school in Seattle and a second school in Oakland. His plan was to open many, many schools all over the country.
I Am Bruce Lee is the most recent filmic hagiography of the deceased actor.¹ It’s conveniently available for free viewing on YouTube if you can stomach what’s essentially an hour-and-a-half infomercial for the Lee brand. His daughter and current mogul of his brand, Shannon Lee, was the executive producer, as well as appearing in front of the camera as an ostensible interviewee, along with her mother and co-beneficiary of the estate, Cadwell. Their lines are scripted and well-rehearsed, and as can be seen above, Lee even attests to events that took place some five years prior to her birth.
They want you to believe Bruce Lee becoming an action star was an accident. To do this, forget he had grown up around show folk, including his father. Set aside his appearance in 21 films by 1964, as well as an unknown amount of Chinese opera, the main arena of his father’s fame. Ignore his having starred in The Orphan (人海孤鴻) pretty recently to the above events at the age of 18. Pretend he wasn’t a child star whose body of work some have equated to Mickey Rooney’s.
To be clear, Lee was already a successful actor and if he hadn’t had to leave Hong Kong under threat of arrest, he’d very likely have continued his career there. I’ll relate yet another version of that story: gang challenge fights often took place on rooftops and someone fell off a roof, which may or may not have been Lee’s fault.² If Lee could really have been connected to an actual death, it’s hard to believe he could ever have returned to Hong Kong. Although its standing has no doubt been buoyed by his later fame, The Orphan, Lee’s last non-action film, is ranked among Hong Kong cinema’s top 100 films of all time.
In the US, however, he was not well connected—film had yet to become as transnational as it is today. He knew he would need a gimmick to get noticed. Surveying the pop culture landscape as an astute player, he may have considered using his ability as a dancer, but kung fu (武術) was a much richer vein.
In the US Lee found himself in, direct exposure to Asian martial arts had long since ceased being novel—in fact, it was both mainstream and commonplace. Already in 1945’s Blood on the Sun, James Cagney had played an American reporter working in Japan who, despite uncovering his host country’s sinister plot to conquer the world, has gone native, enjoying the pleasures of the baths (お風呂), as well as being a skilled judoka (柔道家). The Tanaka Memorial (田中上奏文 Tanaka Jōsōbun) around which the film’s plot revolves is actually a thoroughly debunked forgery which nonetheless acted as a casus belli in the vein of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The film climaxes with a three-minute fight scene between Cagney’s Nick Condon and the villainous Captain Oshima (John Halloran) complete with judo throws, karate chops and kicks, and even some of the holds we would eventually see Lee use on screen. Far from a footnote, the film’s box office was $3.4M—a tidy sum for the day—and it also took home an Oscar. More recently, the film has fallen out of favor because of its propagandistically anti-Japanese themes and yellowface portrayal of Asians by Caucasian actors.
Other prominent stars used Asian martial arts on screen throughout the ’40s and ’50s, including Edmund O’Brien and Spencer Tracy. Judo and karate dojos (道場) had sprung up across the US. Finally, Hong Kong’s long-standing wuxia, and emerging kung fu genres of film were slowly finding audiences beyond America’s Chinatowns. Wuxia (武俠), meaning “martial heroes”, being a more fantasy-oriented genre of action film, often employing wire work and visual effects, in contrast to the more “realistic” aesthetic of the kung fu genre.
The Wong Fei-hung (黃飛鴻) serials, in particular, were standbys, established in the late ’40s, they had already run to at least 59 films by the time of Lee’s arrival in the US. There would eventually be 119 films about this Cantonese folk hero, featuring huge stars like Jet Li (李连杰), Jackie Chan (房仕龍), and Sammo Hung (洪金寶) in the role.
And so, when Lee moved to Seattle and worked as a busboy, the revisionists will tell you he taught his coworkers kung fu in the alley behind the restaurant, but the firsthand account of a woman who was one of those coworkers reflects something different:³
“I knew [Bruce Lee],” my mother tells me. “I worked with him in a restaurant when I was in high school.”
“Really?” This is now officially the only cool thing about her. “What was he like?”
“I don’t remember. No one liked him though. All that kung fu stuff; it looked ridiculous. Like a parody.”
Those who worked with Lee were a captive audience to his bid to parlay his showmanship and scant knowledge of martial arts into a career as an action star, but it seems they were not fans.
At Jun Fan Gung Fu (振藩武術; lit. “Bruce Lee Kung Fu”), he emphasized exhibitions and demos, in which he and his students often performed. His purpose was to get noticed—not necessarily to get more students for his kwoon (館—Cantonese for a kung fu school; 馆, guan in Mandarin), but more to gain notoriety—press mentions, photographs, whatever could help him with his real goal. Indeed, it was during one such demonstration at a local high school he met his future wife. That his sights were set on forging a new acting career is evidenced by his concurrently majoring in drama at the University of Washington. That he majored in philosophy is yet another myth.
It’s no accident Lee was discovered at Ed Parker’s tournament; first, Lee and a few of his kwoon buddies had been running up and down the Coast like a kung-fu garage band. Second, Lee and Parker—though the latter initially disliked Lee as a showoff—turned out to be kindred spirits. Never intending to compete, Lee was instead Parker’s special guest. Though Lee’s heirs have tried since to change the narrative, in a 1971 interview, he’s pretty clear about his level of dedication to the martial arts:⁴
Just about the time I discovered that I didn’t really want to teach self-defence for the rest of my life, I went to the Long Beach International Karate Tournament and got myself discovered by Hollywood.
One of Lee’s original students, Leroy Garcia, also confirms this:⁵
[O]nce he found, “God, I can make money doing this”, all the original people [in Lee’s school] just dropped out. Looking back on it, Bruce always had an agenda—he was a product now, not a friend and a teacher.
Let’s diverge for a moment to discuss Parker, who, as I’ve suggested, was cut from much the same cloth as Lee: information about his martial arts training is vague, but he somehow goes from being a brown belt to an instructor at his own school. By the early ’60s he billed himself as a “grandmaster” taking advantage of the American public’s lack of knowledge about martial arts in order to inflate his image.
Though he started teaching kenpo (拳法) in Provo, Utah, he’d opened a branch in Pasadena, and moved there to be close to Hollywood opportunities: high-profile clientele, action choreography, and, ideally, onscreen appearances.
He cashed in his dubious claims to martial arts expertise for a moderately successful Hollywood career, mainly as a stuntman, with notable appearances in Kill the Golden Goose, and a few of Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther films. He was still better known as Elvis Presley’s karate teacher and bodyguard.
That his claims were overblown can easily be seen in his appearance on The Lucy Show a year prior to his eponymous tournament: he is repeatedly off balance, his arms flailing and generally lacking coordination. Although the show is a comedy, he is meant to be an impressive, skillful karate instructor, not a buffoon.⁶ Even in later performances, similar features can be seen; in an appearance on Chilean TV in the ’80s, he even falls over during a finishing move.
Furthermore, it is an open secret his 1975 book, Secrets of Chinese Karate, actually comprised the technical knowledge of James Wing Woo, with Parker handling the writing, but which he then seized all credit for. Woo gave up trying to remedy the situation, instead building up a successful school with a dedicated following.⁷
Parker’s First International World Karate Tournament, like much in the shady, nascent martial arts world of the time, was mainly a way of legitimizing and promoting himself. It also took place in Long Beach, a venue conveniently close to Hollywood. Parker also had wide coattails, helping along many martial artists in establishing their own schools, and though Lee’s case was slightly different, he still seemed a willing accomplice. He even lent Lee one of his own students for his demonstrations: Dan Inosanto, who was to become a major player in the creation and perpetuation of the Lee myth.
Many Lee bios conflate his appearance at the 1964 tournament with that at the 1967 one, including I Am Bruce Lee. When Gene LeBell reports in the film, “they treated [Lee] like a god”.⁸ He is clearly referring to his appearance at the latter event, wherein he was something of a conquering hero, already having appeared as Kato on The Green Hornet. In ’64, it would have been more, to quote Chris Rock, “Nobody knows my name; nobody’s glad I came.” The footage is easy to disentangle: the first tournament is the one shot in black and white, while the color footage is from ’67. Again quoting LeBell in the same film:⁹
He did these things so realistically that people didn’t know if it was show business or the real McCoy.
It’s clear which one LeBell thinks it was—I’m honestly surprised his whole interview didn’t end up on the cutting room floor. Another martial artist-stuntman-actor, LeBell knew Lee (and Parker) well, working with him extensively on The Green Hornet. At the tournament, Lee “sparred” with a well-rehearsed Inosanto and performed some spectacular parlor tricks; the one-inch and six-inch punch, again with an accomplice to sell their power by staggering backwards no matter how lightly they were struck (Taky Kimura and James Lee both attended with Lee, but it’s unclear which took part in this demonstration).
Another thing that appears again and again in these films is Lee’s “unstoppable punch”. Even though it’s from the 1967 tournament, let’s look into it: Lee, LLC says there were eight attempts, and the hapless karateka (空手家) on the receiving end failed to block even one.
That karateka was Vic Moore, an authentic martial artist who had already won a world championship in 1966 and would go on to rack up three more in 1968, 1969, and 1970, even defeating legendary Bill “Superfoot” Wallace in the last one, and he tells the story entirely differently.
According to Moore, there were supposed to be only two attempted punches by Lee, directed at his chest. Moore says he easily blocked both, and the footage the films use is from when he is smiling into the crowd after these blocks, and Lee surprises him, going for the head rather than the chest, as well as punching from out of range.
Looking at the footage, it’s easy to verify Moore’s claims: in the first frame, above, Lee’s punch is already at full extension, about a foot and a half shy of Moore’s face. You can also see Moore is looking up and to the left of Lee into the crowd—no one with any experience faces a punch with their chin up like that, and Moore was clearly experienced. In the second frame, Lee has landed on his front foot with his arm already retracted. You can see Moore’s block in motion (and his chin come down) despite being caught off guard as well.
In short, Lee’s punch was never blockable because it was never in range.
Those responsible for polishing Lee’s legacy show this same footage over and over with different levels of zoom and tinting as if it were a series of punches, rather than a single cheap shot that never could have landed. Moore also claims he challenged Lee to attempt to block his punches, and the actor missed on both attempts.¹⁰
In any case, despite Cadwell’s claims, the effect of Lee’s appearance at the 1964 International World Karate Tournament had exactly the effect he had calculated—getting a call from Hollywood. Cadwell contradicts her own statement:¹¹
Bruce insisted it was no real surprise to him. He’d anticipated something like this since appearing at the Long Beach Tournament.
Even without a solid deal, the Lees shuttered the kwoons in Seattle and Oakland—the schools that were supposedly his passion, that he had supposedly fought for and won the right to teach at—and moved to LA. But Bruce Lee the action star was born.
Read subsequent articles in the Mythmaking in the martial arts series
Part 5 Addendum A: Kato’s Comeuppance
Part 5 Addendum B: The Row over “Hollywood” Continues
Read previous articles in the Mythmaking in the martial arts series
- Pete McCormack (dir.), I Am Bruce Lee, 2012.
- Norman Borine, King Dragon: The World of Bruce Lee, 2008.
- Paisley Rekdal, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In, 2000.
- Daniel Moss, “Bruce Lee: the big boss and the $3 million man”, South China Morning Post, 1971.
- Bao Nguyen (dir.), Be Water, 2020.
- Jack Donohue (dir.), “Lucy and Viv Learn Judo”, The Lucy Show, Feb 1963.
- Dejan Djurdjevic, “What did Ed Parker study?”, The Way of Least Resistance, 2014.
- I Am Bruce Lee, 2012.
- GrandMaster Vic Moore: The Man That Fought ’Em ALL!!!, 2013.
- Borine, 2008.