Remembering Bruce Lee
By Brandon Yip, Contributor
November 27 would have been Bruce Lee’s 77th birthday, and next month marks the 45th anniversary of the release of his classic film, Return of the Dragon, in Hong Kong. The movie was famous for its climactic final fight scene between Lee and Chuck Norris at the Colosseum in Rome, Italy. After minor roles in Hollywood films along with playing Kato in the 1966 TV series, The Green Hornet, Lee was finding it difficult to land major roles in Hollywood that were suited for Asian-American actors.
Lee would later be asked if racism played a factor in him not being able to obtain better roles in Hollywood. He was introspective and diplomatic as he told noted Canadian author, Pierre Berton, in a December 1971 television interview, “They think that business-wise it’s a risk, and I don’t blame them,” Lee said. “I mean, it’s the same way in Hong Kong, if a foreigner came in and became a star, if I was the man with the money, I probably would have my own worries of whether the acceptance would be there. But that’s all right because if you honestly express yourself, it doesn’t matter.”
But Lee was determined and not willing to give up on his dream of becoming a movie star and so he persevered, leaving Hollywood in 1971 to fly overseas to Hong Kong where he filmed Fists of Fury, The Chinese Connection, and Return of the Dragon. Lee became a superstar and was basically the Elvis Presley of Hong Kong. But Lee was very self-aware and introspective regarding his rise to stardom and all the attention that came with it, telling Pierre Berton once again during the same December 1971 television interview, “The word ‘superstar’ really turns me off, and I’ll tell you why, because the word ‘star’ is an illusion; it is something that the public calls you.”
As Lee’s fame continued to rise, Hollywood eventually took notice and Lee would finally get his big break in Enter the Dragon, his first starring role in a big-budget Hollywood film. But sadly, he would not live to see its release as Lee died in Hong Kong on July 20, 1973 at the age of 32 of cerebral edema, one month before Enter the Dragon was released in the United States.
In Return of the Dragon, Bruce Lee showed his versatile talents on-screen and off-screen, as he starred in the film but he also wrote, produced, and directed it as well. The plot was pretty simple and predictable. Lee is in Rome visiting his relatives’ restaurant, which has been infiltrated by Italian gangsters who want Lee’s relatives to sell the restaurant by using threats and intimidation. The film contains many incredibly-choreographed fights that show off Bruce Lee’s skills and expertise as a martial artist. It also contains some slapstick with Lee’s character playing a naïve and unsophisticated country bumpkin, and evidence of this is shown during a scene where an attractive Italian prostitute (played by Malisa Longo) flirts with Lee, winking at him. He is very awkward and shy, looking back at her reluctantly and then giving a very amusing and uncomfortable wink back at her.
Bob Wall is the co-founder and CEO of World Black Belt, Inc., a martial arts organization and a former World Pro Karate Champion. He played one of the villains in Return of the Dragon. Now 78, Wall recalls what it was like working with the legendary Lee.
“[I just remember] how hard he worked, how talented he was in setting up and shooting fight scenes and how much fun and kind he was!” Wall said in an interview with the Other Press. “Plus, he inspired me to learn Cantonese, which is a blessing.”
Wall has nothing but great memories about the filming, which was shot on location in Rome, Italy. “When Chuck Norris and I flew in, Bruce was shooting our actual arrival to save money for the film’s budget,” Wall said. “[I also remember] the many great training sessions, great conversations during meals and also Bruce’s determination to shoot [the key] scenes in the Colosseum for effect and authenticity.”
Wall said he remembers Lee as a person who didn’t come across as arrogant but instead as a genuine person who loved what he was doing (acting and martial arts).
“Bruce Lee was a brilliant, kind, intense, charming, talented, funny, charismatic man who worked hard, trained intensely and wanted your input,” Wall said. “Bruce was just plain fun to be around.”
John Derbyshire, 72, is a writer and political commentator. He was another person involved with Return of the Dragon. He had a bit part as one of the gangsters. Derbyshire was 27 years old at the time and he also has fond memories of working with Bruce Lee.
“I was down and out in Hong Kong in the summer of 1972 when the movie’s casting director was looking for some suitably thuggish unemployed Westerners as extras,” Derbyshire told the Other Press in an interview. Derbyshire remembers Lee being a paragon of perfectionism.
“He wanted to get those fight scenes exactly right,” Derbyshire said. “The quantity of standing around waiting that goes into making a two-minute fight scene… [I also remember] watching Bruce filling the tedium by doing two-finger pushups.”
Derbyshire remembers Lee as genuine and does not recall any hint of snobbery or arrogance from Lee while the cameras were on or off.
“He was like Burt Reynolds, who once told an interviewer, ‘I may not be the world’s greatest actor, but I’m the world’s greatest Burt Reynolds.’ Bruce Lee was the world’s greatest Bruce Lee, the same guy off-screen as on, so far as I could tell.”
Another actor who worked with Bruce Lee was John Saxon. He did not appear in Return of the Dragon but later co-starred with Lee in Enter the Dragon. Saxon, now 82, played the character of Roper and has great memories of working with Lee.
“From our first meeting, we were talking about books, techniques, and masters we had studied with,” Saxon said in an interview with the Other Press. “His focus was laser sharp while filming. He had great presence on and off the screen. He was a generous man with his humour and acknowledging people who called and waved to him on the street.”
Saxon, when asked what the biggest misconception was about Lee, replied, “You mean like he was human? [He had] emotional and physical concerns like everyone else.”
In May 2017, Return of the Dragon got the royal treatment when the film was released on Blu-ray as a special Collector’s Edition. Some of the special features include a new 4K scan and restoration, new Japanese opening and closing credits, an alternate final fight music cue, a trailer gallery and audio commentary with Asian Film Expert, Mike Leeder. In addition, the disc contains interviews with Sammo Hung, Simon Yam and Wong Jing and another feature called, “Kung Fu? Jon Benn Remembers ‘Return Of The Dragon.’”
As the 45th anniversary of the release of the film Return of the Dragon approaches, Bruce Lee’s popularity has not diminished. He is a global icon recognized all over the world and his films are being rediscovered by each passing generation. His philosophy of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do is revered and practiced by many martial arts schools. UFC president, Dana White, said Bruce Lee is the “father of mixed martial arts.” Rapper LL Cool J says Lee had a big influence on him wanting to become an actor. Former NBA star, Kobe Bryant, has stated Lee’s philosophies of Jeet Kune Do inspired “Mamba Mentality.”
Lee was also influential in making the martial arts genre popular in Hollywood films and he helped open the doors for later Hollywood action stars such as Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, and Chuck Norris.
Bruce Lee achieved so much in his short 32 years on earth and perhaps John Saxon says it best as to why Lee’s life story continues to be inspiring to so many people today:
“Bruce was a goal setter. His legacy was that he had set a goal for himself [and he ultimately achieved it].”