I may be more Martial Arts nerd than Martial Artist. I love Martial Arts in all its forms, both practical and theatrical. I train submission wrestling and when I’m not training it, I’m breaking down YouTube videos for myself. And when I’m relaxing, I’m often watching Martial Arts movies.
During my childhood, the preeminent Martial Arts star was Rocky (yes, boxing is a Martial Art). But in second position was the still active JCVD (if you’re a fan, you know who I’m talking about). Chuck Norris was still Missing in Action…and Chuck lead me to Bruce Lee.
I’m a sucker for anything Bruce Lee (and Muhammad Ali, as well). But I don’t view Bruce Lee’s life as heroic. I find it tragic. I want to share with you that tragedy.
Before he was the Bruce Lee that we all worship, he was receiving another kind of worship…as a child actor. Did you know he was a child actor in Hong Kong? Did you know he made twenty films as a child?
Think about that for a moment. Think how child actors, especially famous child actors turn out as adults. Consider that Bruce was among the most famous of the child actors in Hong Kong. And there’s something else to consider.
Fame didn’t start with him. His Father was famous, too. He was one of the leading Cantonese opera and film actors at the time, and his fame continued to grow.
I believe that his Father’s fame and Bruce’s early fame was a driving force in his life. And I believe it was the catalyst for the end of his life. I believe the fame was the father of the tragedy of Bruce Lee.
An interesting thing happened before Bruce was Bruce. When he was child in Hong Kong, the Japanese invaded. And that was a big interruption in his life.
His Dad, the famous actor, no longer had his status. As Bruce captured in his films, the occupied Chinese were treated like “dogs” by the occupying Japanese. The Japanese not only took Bruce’s family’s elevated status but even further humbled them. This wasn’t the only time it happened in Bruce’s life.
When Bruce came to America, he was humbled again. He was a dishwasher. But he wasn’t just disadvantaged economically. He was disadvantaged racially, as well.
Just as the Japanese treated him as second class, the whites he encountered treated him much the same. This dichotomy of idolization from Hong Kong and near desecration by everyone else was a driving force for him. It may have been the driving force of the tragedy.
Bruce’s regained some semblance of celebrity in the US. It came first as a Martial Artist when he demonstrated feats of strength and martial prowess at Martial Arts exhibitions. This lead to him training celebrities.
And training celebrities lead to him being on film again…but this time as a Martial Artist. That’s not quite accurate. He wasn’t just a Martial Artist. He was also a servant, as Cato, in THE GREEN HORNET.
He went from being treated second class in his invaded country, then again in his birth country, and now on screen.
In every way, he was humbled. The final humiliation was when a white actor, David Carradine, became the star, instead of Bruce in Bruce’s idea, KUNG FU.
Following the low of having the television show KUNG FU developed without him, Bruce found himself back in Hong Kong. But when he came back, he found himself to be even more famous than he was as a child. Even more famous than his Father.
Piggy backing off his fame from playing Cato in THE GREEN HORNET, Bruce was able to make his own Martial Arts films in Hong Kong. He became the leading man of Hong Kong. Almost all the wrongs of his life had been righted…save one.
And that’s when America became interested again in Bruce. Could he ascend to the greatest of heights and become the most famous action star in world? Enter…the Dragon.
Bruce’s final ascension to fame was taking its toll. As he worked non-stop to make his movies, both in Hong Kong and stateside, he had to deal with the consequences. His body was fighting back.
In order to look as he did and produce the movies…he traded his health. His body ached and so he used drugs (both prescription and non-prescription) to ease the symptoms. He put his fame above his health. And a pharmacological misadventure cost him his life.
Some see the life of Bruce and all that he accomplished as a victory. While it wasn’t a defeat, I believe it was a tragedy. There was so much more he could have offered the world of entertainment, martial arts (mixed martial arts took 20 years to really arrive after Bruce’s passing), philosophy…and most importantly, his family. The tragedy of Bruce was that he was a martyr to his fame before he achieved Mastery…of all his crafts.