Interview with Bruce Lee – Martial Arts Master, Film Maker and Actor
Interview with Bruce Lee
There are so many deceased famous people for me to interview with my supernatural powers, that I am having a difficult time selecting just one. But fortunately, this one selected me. I was finishing my moo shu pork in my favorite Chinese restaurant when I glanced up and there was Bruce Lee staring at me with that piercing look of his. You remember Bruce Lee, don’t you? – the actor, film maker and master of martial arts who died far too young at the age of 32.
He asked me if I would like to interview him since he had so much to say and no one was really listening at his place. Of course I said yes, but I asked him first how he knew of my otherworldly interviews with famous dead people. You know what he said? Just read on.
me – It would be a pleasure to interview you, Mr. Lee … Bruce. How did you learn of my interviews?
Bruce – At the cemetery – everyone is dying to get in – get it? Well, everybody – body, get it? is talking about you. We enjoy reading your hubs when it’s our turn at the computer.
me – Aw, you’re putting me on.
Bruce – Yes, I am. I learned about your interviews from my buddy, Genghis Khan. He was very pleased with your interview and recommended I look you up.
me – I’m delighted you did. Tell me about your early years. Were you born in the United States?
Bruce – Yes, I was born at the Jackson Street Hospital in Chinatown, San Francisco, California on November 27, 1940. My father, Lee Hoi Chuen, was a Chinese American actor on tour with the Hong Kong Cantonese Opera Company. My mother, Grace Ho, was the daughter of a Chinese mother and a German father.
My mother named me Jun Fan.The name means "return again." My mother chose it because she believed I would come back from Hong Kong to live in America someday. It was a nurse at the hospital who suggested the name, Bruce.
me – Would you prefer that I call you Jun Fan?
Bruce – Bruce is okay but I have another name, too. At home in Hong Kong, I was called Sai Fon which means “Small Phoenix.” I didn’t use the name, Bruce, until I entered school.
me – When did you have your first acting role?
Bruce – I couldn’t call it acting. It was more like just being there. I made my acting debut as an infant being carried by my father in the movie, “The Golden Gate Girl” in 1940. My role was to play a one-month-old infant. That acting gig was made to order for me. I was one month old at the time. (Laughs).
A few months later, my family moved back to China. My father was a busy film actor. We had a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Kowloon, a suburb of Hong Kong. I know that seems like a good size apartment but 16 people lived there: my mother and father, my two sisters, Phoebe and Agnes, and my two brothers, Peter, and Robert.
me – Who were the other nine people?
Bruce – My father’s sister-in-law, her five children, two servants, the servant's child, and assorted pets. Following the Chinese custom, my father supported his sister-in-law and her family after the death of his brother.
Acting and Fighting
me –Did you act in movies in Hong Kong?
Bruce – I was a child star like Justin Bieber but without such lovable hair. When I was six years old, I starred in “The Birth of Mankind” (1946) and was billed as Lee Siu Lung or “Little Dragon.” My sister, Agnes, had given me this nickname because I was born in the Year of the Dragon.
I had starring roles in 20 movies in Hong Kong, including “Kid Chueng,” (1950) and “The Orphan,” (1958). My mother said that I had no problem getting up at two a.m. to get to a movie shoot, but getting up early to go to school was something else. She often joked, "By the time Bruce was 10, that was as far as he could count." I loved my mother but I never appreciated that joke.
me –Why did you begin studying martial arts?
Bruce – In 1952, when I was12, I entered La Salle College, a Catholic, English-speaking school. I was small for my age and was getting bullied and beat up as a daily routine. I asked my parents to enroll me in a martial arts school so I could learn to defend myself – before someone killed me.
In 1953, I began to study under Master Yip Man, who was the head of the school of the Wing Chun style of Kung-Fu. I’ll admit I was a punk who went out looking for fights. My buddies and I used chains and pens with knives hidden inside them. If I didn't like a guy, I told him straight to his face, so I had no trouble finding fights. I was well known . . . to the Hong Kong police.
me – When did you win a championship?
Bruce – When I was 18, I won the Hong Kong Cha Cha Championship. Can you believe it? When I wasn’t studying martial arts I was dancing – with girls. I was one hell of a ballroom dancer. I didn’t study much and regularly defied my teachers. Because of my reputation as a fighter and troublemaker and poor grades as well, I was expelled from La Salle.
Then I enrolled at St Francis Xavier where a teacher encouraged me to enter the inter-school boxing championships. I survived the elimination rounds easily and then faced the three-time champion, Gary Elms, from our rival – British King George V High School. I won by a knockout in the third round. I remember being as surprised as Gary. Now I held the 1957 High School Boxing Championship as well as the Crown colony Cha Cha Championship.
me – What made you decide to return to America?
– That same year there was a challenge to our school from Choy Li Fut, a rival
martial arts school, and a fight was arranged. The winner would be whoever
could force his opponent over a line. I beat the $%*! out of the other boy and knocked out his tooth. His parents
complained to the police, and my mother had to go to the police station and
agree to take full responsibility for my actions if they released me in her
custody. My parents both agreed that I should
exercise my American citizenship rights and return to the U.S. since my college
prospects in Hong Kong were poor to none.
Back in the U.S.A.
me – Where did you live when you returned to the States?
Bruce – I left Hong Kong in April 1959 with $100 in my pocket. Ruby Chow, a friend of my father’s, offered me a room above her Chinese restaurant in Seattle and a full-time job as a waiter. I made a little money on the side teaching dance lessons.
I attended Edison Technical College (now Seattle Central Community College) during the day and worked at Ruby Chow's in the evening. I received my high school diploma from Edison and my grades were good enough to be accepted into the University of Washington.
me – What was your major? Martial arts or ballroom dancing?
Bruce – Very funny. I majored in Philosophy and Drama. I chose Philosophy because I have always enjoyed learning about ancient philosophers like Buddha and Confucius and Rodney Dangerfield. (Just kidding).
And I chose Drama because that major was a babe magnet. I enjoyed watching the rehearsals. “ You can observe a lot by just watching.”
me – Wasn’t that a quote by Yogi Berra, the baseball catcher?
Bruce – Yeah, Yogi got it from me.
Teaching Kung Fu
me – What other jobs did you take to stay solvent?
Bruce – I became a stuffer.
me – A what?
Bruce – A stuffer – I stuffed advertisements into the Seattle Times newspapers. And I started teaching kung fu on the side. I taught my first classes wherever there was a space: in the back alley behind Ruby Chow's, in public parks and, on Sundays, in empty parking garages.
me – When did you open your own King Fu studio?
Bruce – In the fall of 1963, I opened a studio named the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute in the University District. Gung Fu is the Cantonese spelling; Kung Fu is Mandarin. I lived in a small room in the back of the studio and charged $22 a month for adults and $17 for teenagers
me – What do you think was special about your style of training?
Bruce – I concentrated on individualized training and spent time with each student to learn exactly what their strengths and weaknesses were. I helped my students gain more self-confidence as well as skills.
me – Speaking of skills, I once met one of your students, and he raved about your incredible talent. He said it was like watching a magician. You were so graceful, quick, and powerful – all at the same time. He watched you take on four guys effortlessly.
Bruce – “Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.”
me – That’s profound, Bruce. Confucius? Buddha?
Bruce – No, they never said that. That's my quote. I said it!
me – How did you meet your wife?
Bruce – In 1963, I was a junior at the University of Washington and Linda Emery was a freshman and one of my Gung Fu students. We began dating but she hid our relationship from her mother. A year later we decided to elope and applied for a marriage license at the courthouse.
Linda’s family learned of our plans since the names of those who apply for marriage licenses are printed in the paper – what a stupid rule. Her relatives tried to talk us out of marrying telling us how difficult life would be as an interracial couple. I learned that “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family . . . in another city.”
me – Isn’t that a quote by the comedian, George Burns?
Bruce – George got it from me. Linda’s family even told me that she couldn’t cook!
me –Was that a lie?
Bruce – No, that was true. She couldn’t. But I loved her and we were married in 1964. We moved to Oakland where I opened a second Gung Fu Institute. But there was a small problem with the leaders of the Chinese martial arts community.
me – What was the problem?
Bruce – They objected to my teaching martial arts to non-Chinese students and warned that if I refused to stop teaching other races, I would have to fight their challenger, Wong Jack Man, a Kung Fu Master. If I lost, I would have to either stop teaching non-Chinese students or close my studio.
I agreed to the fight and Wong said, "No hitting in the face. No kicking in the groin." I refused and said "You made the challenge -- so I'm making the rules. No holds barred.”
I began the attack and Wong began to backpedal. I brought him to the floor and asked, “Had enough?” "That's enough," he pleaded. I dragged him to his feet and threw the whole bunch off the premises.
Jeet Kune Do
me – What is Jeet Kune Do?
Bruce – I created the concept of Jeet Kune Do Kung Fu. It means "The Way of No Way." I began to read everything I could find on martial arts and all forms of combat, as well as philosophy, psychology, and motivation – anything that would help me grow as a martial artist and as a person. “The mind is everything. What you think you become.”
me – I thought Buddha said that. (Long pause). Right! He got it from you.
Bruce –My library grew to more than 2,500 books. In Jeet Kune Do, jeet means "to stop or intercept," kune means "fist," and do means "the way or the ultimate reality." My definition of Jeet Kune Do gradually became "The Way of the Intercepting Fist."
Traditional martial arts techniques were much too rigid and formal to be practical for chaotic street fighting. My new system emphasized speed, flexibility and practicality. I advocated weight training, running, stretching, fencing and basic boxing techniques for my students. “Never give a sword to a man who can't dance.”
me – Didn’t Confucius say that?
Bruce – Yes, but he got it from me.
me – What does it mean?
Bruce – (with pained expression on his face) In a fight, you need to move as quickly as possible like a dancer. If someone attacks you, you simply move in using Jeet Kune Do without any deliberation. As you might suspect, this new concept was not met with approval by many martial arts masters.
Hooray for Hollywood
me – How did you get to Hollywood?
Bruce – I gave a martial arts demonstration at a karate tournament in Long Beach, California. Jay Sebring, a celebrity hairdresser, saw me and mentioned my performance to William Dozier, a TV producer. Dozier brought me to LA for a screen test and paid me $1800 to put me under ‘options.’
me – What feats did you perform that made such a positive impression?
Bruce – I did the two finger push-up using just the thumb and the index finger of one hand. I also demonstrated the one-inch punch.
me – What was that?
Bruce – I stood in front of a standing stationary victim, I mean partner, and partly extended my right fist about an inch away from his chest. Without pulling my arm back, I delivered a punch which sent him backwards and falling into a chair placed behind him.
me – That would make an impression on me, too. Good things are beginning to happen for you.
Bruce – Yes, my son, Brandon Lee was born in 1965. I opened my third Gung Fu Institute that year in L.A.'s Chinatown. And William Dozier decided to produce a television series based on the comic book character, “The Green Hornet.” My first major U.S. acting role was as the Hornet’s side-kick, Kato, and my take-home pay was $313 a week. I choreographed the fight scenes and received more fan mail, especially from children, than the star of the show, Van Williams.
I think I got this part because I was the only Oriental actor the producer knew who could properly pronounce the lead character's name, "Britt Reid”. This was not a problem for me since I was fluent in English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese.
me – You were also fluent in strange animal sounds when you fought. Why did you make those weird sounds and noises when you were fighting?
Bruce – For two reasons: to unnerve my foes and to focus my strength.
Note: In the Mortal Kombat video game, the character, "Liu Kang," was inspired by Bruce complete with the 'animal' noises.
Books by Bruce Lee
First U.S. movie role in "Marlowe"
me – Which celebrities did you give private martial arts lessons to?
Bruce – I began teaching Steve McQueen, James Coburn and script writer Sterling Silliphant. Roman Polanski flew me to Switzerland for private lessons. I also began teaching karate experts like Mike Stone, Joe Lewis, and Chuck Norris. During their training with me, they won every karate championship in the United States. Later I taught Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Blake Edwards, James Garner, and Lee Marvin.
Remember when I was charging adults $22 a month for lessons? Now the demand for my private lessons grew so high, my hourly rate soared to $275 per hour. “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
me – Is that your quote, Bruce?
Bruce – No, that really was Confucius. In addition to private lessons, I also did guest appearances on Ironside, Blondie, Here Come the Brides, Batman, and Longstreet television shows.
me – I remember a movie where you played a tough guy and performed an unbelievably high kick that broke a ceiling fixture.
Bruce – Thanks for the memory. That was a cameo role in my first Hollywood full-length movie, “Marlowe” (1969). I played a hired killer who destroyed James Garner’s office with my bare hands – and feet. That year was also memorable for me – my daughter, Shannon, was born.
Then I got some work doing fight choreography for several movies. In 1970, I injured my back while training at home. My doctors said I had damaged the fourth sacral nerve and would never fight again. I refused to accept that prognosis, but my injury was severe enough that I spent the next three months in bed, and then three months resting at home and writing books on martial arts. After six months, I began working out again but my back gave me pain throughout the rest of my life.
me – I never saw you break a board with your hands. Have you done that?
Bruce – “There's no challenge in breaking a board. Boards don't hit back.”
me – From Confucius?
Bruce – No, that was me – my own personal quote! (Laughs).
First Hong Kong film - 'The Big Boss"
Return to Hong Kong
Me –What happened when you returned to visit Hong Kong?
Bruce – My father had died and I wanted to bring my mother back to the U.S. to live with me and my family. When I arrived, I discovered I was famous as a television star. My fans surrounded me wherever I went. Re-runs of “The Green Hornet” had been televised with dubbed dialogue under the title, “Kato”. Local paparazzi followed me around for interviews and all the films I had made as a child were being run on Hong Kong’s two TV stations.
Raymond Chow, the owner of Golden Harvest Productions in Hong Kong, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse – $15,000 for two movies. In 1971, I flew to Bangkok to begin filming the leading role in “The Big Boss”. The movie location was in a little village north of Bangkok called Pak Chong. The movie was a smash hit. It broke the previously held box-office record for a film in Hong Kong (The Sound of Music), and was a tremendous success throughout Asia.
me – What happened to your idea for a television program called “The Warrior”?
Bruce – “The Warrior” was my concept for a TV series that I had discussed with Warner Brothers in LA in 1971. It was rather unique; I would be playing the role of a Shaolin monk in the early wild West. The studio decided to produce the series without me. They didn’t think a Chinese man would be accepted by American audiences and gave the role to David Carradine. They renamed it “Kung Fu”.
In 1972, the second film in my contract, “Fist of Fury,” was released and broke the box office records set previously by “The Big Boss”. The movie was renamed “The Chinese Connection” for the U.S. release.
Note: This video and the one that follows are longer than the others - 9+ minutes. But if you are a fan of Bruce's style and lightning moves, you will relish every choreographed moment.
Return of the Dragon
me – Now that you were a star and fulfilled your contract with Chow what did you do next?
Bruce – I partnered with Chow in a new company, Concord Productions, and began working on scripts for two new films I would write and direct myself: “The Way of the Dragon,” and ”The Game of Death”. “Way of the Dragon” was released in the U.S. in 1972 and renamed “Return of the Dragon”.
Since I was producing the movie, I had a little extra fun with it. I played the drums during part of the movie soundtrack, and starred my own cat in a close-up in the Rome Coliseum fight scene with seven times U.S. karate champion, Chuck Norris.
In this film, I introduced Norris to moviegoers as my opponent in the final death fight which today is considered one of the most memorable fight scenes in martial arts film history.
Note: Jackie Chan was a martial arts extra in several of Bruce's films.
"Game of Death"
Game of Death
me – How did you convince Kareem Abdul Jabbar to appear in your “Game of Death” movie?
Bruce – Kareem, who was a friend, told me he was going to be in Hong Kong so I invited him to be in this new film. I was intrigued with choreographing and shooting a fight scene with an adversary almost two feet taller than me. George Lazenby (one of the ‘James Bond’ actors) would also appear in the film.
My character, Hai Tien, wearing the now-famous bright yellow track suit, would take on a series of different challenges on each floor as he progressed, fighting all the way, through a five-level pagoda.
I followed the precept: "Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own."
me – Confucius quote?
Bruce – No, that is a genuine Bruce Lee quote. I didn’t complete this film though since shooting was stopped after 100 minutes of footage so I could work on another film, “Enter the Dragon.”
"Enter the Dragon"
Enter the Dragon
me – Why start a new film before completing the previous one?
Bruce – I’m glad you asked. The remarkable success (and profits) of my previous movies had finally come to the attention of Hollywood film executives. This new movie would be the first ever co-produced by the U.S. and Hong Kong film industry.
Warner Brothers financed the film and produced a hastily-written script. John Saxon, a tough guy well-known to movie audiences at the time, would co-star to give the film more ‘Western’ appeal. Warners’ words, not mine.
At the end of the movie there is a show-stopping fight sequence between me and the key villain that takes place in a maze of mirrors. We kicked a lot of gl(ass) in that film. Glass – gl(ass)! Get it?
me – You are in tip-top form, Bruce.
Bruce – I used to keep in shape by performing 50 repetitions of one-arm chin-ups at one time. First the right and then the left. Getting back to the film, shooting was completed in Hong Kong in early 1973. Then all the dialogue in the outdoor scenes had to be dubbed over because of the city’s loud street noise.
Exit the Dragon
me – What happened during one of these dubbing sessions in May 1973?
Bruce – It was hot as Hades in the studio and fans had to be turned off while we were recording. I collapsed and went into convulsions. In the hospital they gave me tests and Manitol to reduce swelling of the brain. That did the trick. The neurosurgeon said blood tests revealed a possible kidney malfunction.
me – That’s scary.
Bruce – Ya think? I flew to L.A. for medical tests and the doctors found absolutely nothing wrong. They said I was as healthy as an 18-year-old. They decided I had suffered a cerebral edema (swelling of the brain) in Hong Kong. While I was in L.A., I appeared on the Johnny Carson show to plug “Enter the Dragon” and then returned to Hong Kong.
On July 20, 1973, I was working again on “The Game of Death” film discussing the script with Raymond Chow and Betty Ting-Pei who would be playing the lead female role in the movie. We were in her apartment. When I complained of a fierce headache, Betty gave me a strong prescription painkiller which contained aspirin and the muscle relaxant, meprobamate. I didn’t feel well so I went into the bedroom to lie down and told Raymond we would meet him later.
Raymond called and asked why we were late meeting him for dinner. Betty told him she couldn't wake me. He came back to the apartment and called a doctor when he could not wake me either. I was taken to the hospital. Despite all efforts to revive me, including heart massage, I passed away. My wife, Linda, agreed to an autopsy.
Note: The only foreign substance found in Bruce’s body was the prescription painkiller. But his brain was very swollen. The autopsy report concluded that the most likely cause of the brain swelling was a hypersensitivity or allergic reaction to the aspirin and the meprobamate. His death was ruled as “death by misadventure”.
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On July 25, 1973, a funeral ceremony was held in Hong Kong and more than 30,000 people crammed the streets and balconies outside the funeral parlor. Bruce's body was displayed in an open coffin covered with glass. Linda decided to bury Bruce in Seattle because she intended to live there. Most of his relatives were living in the United States by then.
A second funeral was held and Bruce was buried in Lake View Cemetery. His pallbearers included Steve McQueen, Chuck Norris, George Lazenby, and James Coburn who presented the eulogy. "Farewell, Brother. It has been an honor to share this space in time with you. As a friend and a teacher, you have given to me and have brought my physical, spiritual and psychological selves together… Thank you. May peace be with you.”
Linda remained in Seattle for about a year and then returned to Los Angeles, where she worked as an elementary school teacher. Tragically, their son, Brandon Lee died on March 31, 1993, at the age of 28 on the set of “The Crow” (1994), killed by an improperly loaded stunt gun. He is buried next to Bruce.
More Bruce Lee books and films
Bruce Lee's Movies
Year and Film
Bruce's first movie role
1971 The Big Boss
Also known as Fists of Fury
1972 Fist of Fury
Also known as Chinese Connection
1972 Way of the Dragon
Also known as Return of the Dragon
1973 Enter the Dragon
1978 Game of Death
“Enter the Dragon” premiered on August 24, 1973, at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. With this film, Bruce Lee became the "biggest Chinese star in the world," according to his plan. As ‘one of the most influential martial artists of the 20th century’ (Time Magazine), he would also become an immortal legend and cultural icon around the world. Sadly, he did not live to experience it.
“Game of Death” was released by Raymond Chow in 1978 with a badly disguised look-alike stand-in for its original star and shadowy camera work. The film contained only fifteen minutes of actual footage of Bruce Lee. The unused footage was later included in the documentary, “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey.”
© Copyright BJ Rakow Ph.D. 2011. All rights reserved. Author, "Much of What You Know about Job Search Just Ain't So."
Linda Lee, The Bruce Lee Story (Santa Clarita: Ohara Publications, 1989); James Bishop, Remembering Bruce (Los Angeles: Cyclone Books, 1999); John Little, Louis Chunovic, Bruce Lee: The Tao of the Dragon (New York: St Martin's Griffin, 1996)
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