His Hong Kong and Hollywood-produced films elevated the traditional Hong Kong martial arts film to a new level of popularity and acclaim, and sparked a major surge of interest in Chinese martial arts in the West in the 1970s. The direction and tone of his films changed and influenced martial arts and martial arts films in Hong Kong and the rest of the world, as well. He is noted for his roles in five feature-length films: Lo Wei's The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972); Way of the Dragon (1972), directed and written by Lee; Warner Brothers' Enter the Dragon (1973), directed by Robert Clouse; and The Game of Death (1978), directed by Robert Clouse.
Lee became an iconic figure known throughout the world, particularly among the Chinese, as he portrayed Chinese nationalism in his films. He initially trained in Wing Chun, but he later rejected well-defined martial art styles, favouring instead to use techniques from various sources in the spirit of his personal martial arts philosophy, which he dubbed Jeet Kune Do (The Way of the Intercepting Fist).
Lee was involved in competitive fights, some of which were arranged while others were not. Dan Inosanto stated, "There's no doubt in my mind that if Bruce Lee had gone into pro boxing, he could easily have ranked in the top three in the lightweight division or junior-welterweight division".
Lee defeated three-time champion British boxer Gary Elms by way of knockout in the third round in the 1958 Hong Kong Inter-School amateur Boxing Championships by using Wing Chun traps and high/low-level straight punches.
The following year, Lee became a member of the "Tigers of Junction Street," and was involved in numerous gang-related street fights. "In one of his last encounters, while removing his jacket the fellow he was squaring off against sucker punched him and blackened his eye. Bruce flew into a rage and went after him, knocking him out, breaking his opponent's arm. The police were called as a result". The incident took place on a Hong Kong rooftop at 10 pm on Wednesday, 29 April 1959.
In 1962, Lee knocked out Uechi, a Japanese black belt Karateka, in 11 seconds in a 1962 Full-Contact match in Seattle. It was refereed by Jesse Glover. The incident took place in Seattle at a YMCA handball court. Taki Kamura says the battle lasted 10 seconds in contrary to Hart's statement. Ed Hart states "The karate man arrived in his gi (uniform), complete with black belt, while Bruce Lee showed up in his street clothes and simply took off his shoes. The fight lasted exactly 11 seconds – I know because I was the time keeper – and Bruce had hit the guy something like 15 times and kicked him once. I thought he'd killed him".
Individuals known to have witnessed the match included Cadwell, James Lee (Bruce Lee's associate, no relation), and William Chen, a teacher of T'ai chi ch'uan. Wong and witness William Chen stated that the fight lasted an unusually long 20–25 minutes. According to Bruce Lee, Linda Lee Cadwell, and James Yimm Lee, the fight lasted 3 minutes with a decisive victory for Bruce. "The fight ensued, it was a no-holds-barred fight, it took three minutes. Bruce Lee got this guy down to the ground and said 'do you give up?' and the man said he gave up" – Linda Lee Cadwell.
Wong Jack Man published his own account of the battle in the Chinese Pacific Weekly, a Chinese-language newspaper in San Francisco, which contained another challenge to Lee for a public rematch. Lee had no reciprocation to Wong's article, nor were there any further public announcements by either, but Lee had continued to teach Caucasians.
Lee's eventual celebrity put him in the path of a number of men who sought to make a name for themselves by causing a confrontation with Lee. A challenger had invaded Lee's private home in Hong Kong by trespassing into the backyard to incite Lee in combat. Lee finished the challenger violently with a kick, infuriated over the home invasion. Describing the incident, Herb Jackson states,
One time one fellow got over that wall, got into his yard and challenged him and he says 'how good are you?' And Bruce was poppin mad. He says 'he gets the idea, this guy, to come and invade my home, my own private home, invade it and challenge me.' He said he got so mad that he gave the hardest kick he ever gave anyone in his life.
Bob Wall, USPK karate champion and Lee's co-star in Enter the Dragon, recalled one encounter that transpired after a film extra kept taunting Lee. The extra yelled that Lee was "a movie star, not a martial artist," that he "wasn't much of a fighter". Lee answered his taunts by asking him to jump down from the wall he was sitting on. Wall described Lee's opponent as "a gang-banger type of guy from Hong Kong," a "damned good martial artist," and observed that he was fast, strong, and bigger than Bruce.
This kid was good. He was strong and fast, and he was really trying to punch Bruce's brains in. But Bruce Lee just methodically took him apart. Bruce kept moving so well, this kid couldn't touch him...then all of a sudden, Bruce Lee got him and rammed his ass with the wall and swept him up, proceeding to drop him and plant his knee into his opponent's chest, locked his arm out straight, and nailed him in the face repeatedly". – Bob Wall
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Lee's father Lee Hoi-chuen was a famous Cantonese opera star. Because of this, Lee was introduced into films at a very young age and appeared in several short black-and-white films as a child. Lee had his first role as a baby who was carried onto the stage in the film Golden Gate Girl. By the time he was 18, he had appeared in twenty films.
While in the United States from 1959 to 1964, Lee abandoned thoughts of a film career in favour of pursuing martial arts. However, a martial arts exhibition on Long Beach in 1964 eventually led to the invitation by William Dozier for an audition for a part in the pilot for "Number One Son". The show never aired, but Lee was invited for the role of Kato alongside Van Williams in the TV series The Green Hornet. The show lasted just one season, from 1966 to 1967. Lee also played Kato in three crossover episodes of Batman. This was followed by guest appearances in three television series: Ironside (1967), Here Come the Brides (1969), and Blondie (1969).
At the time, two of Lee's martial arts students were Hollywood script writer Stirling Silliphant and actor James Coburn. In 1969 the three worked on a script for a film called The Silent Flute, and went together on a location hunt to India. The project was not realised at the time; but the 1978 film Circle of Iron, starring David Carradine, was based on the same plot. In 2010, producer Paul Maslansky was reported to plan and receive fundings for a film based on the original script for The Silent Flute. In 1969, Lee made a brief appearance in the Silliphant-penned film Marlowe where he played a henchman hired to intimidate private detective Philip Marlowe, (played by James Garner), by smashing up his office with leaping kicks and flashing punches, only to later accidentally jump off a tall building while trying to kick Marlowe off. The same year he also choreographed fight scenes for The Wrecking Crew starring Dean Martin, Sharon Tate, and featuring Chuck Norris in his first role. In 1970, he was responsible for fight choreography for A Walk in the Spring Rain starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn, again written by Silliphant. In 1971, Lee appeared in four episodes of the television series Longstreet, written by Silliphant. Lee played the martial arts instructor of the title character Mike Longstreet (played by James Franciscus), and important aspects of his martial arts philosophy were written into the script.
According to statements made by Lee, and also by Linda Lee Cadwell after Lee's death, in 1971 Lee pitched a television series of his own tentatively titled The Warrior, discussions which were also confirmed by Warner Bros. In a 9 December 1971 television interview on The Pierre Berton Show, Lee stated that both Paramount and Warner Brothers wanted him "to be in a modernized type of a thing, and that they think the Western idea is out, whereas I want to do the Western". According to Cadwell, however, Lee's concept was retooled and renamed Kung Fu, but Warner Bros. gave Lee no credit. Warner Brothers states that they had for some time been developing an identical concept, created by two writers and producers, Ed Spielman and Howard Friedlander. According to these sources, the reason Lee was not cast was in part because of his ethnicity, but more so because he had a thick accent. The role of the Shaolin monk in the Wild West, was eventually awarded to then-non-martial-artist David Carradine. In The Pierre Berton Show interview, Lee stated he understood Warner Brothers' attitudes towards casting in the series: "They think that business wise it is a risk. I don't blame them. If the situation were reversed, and an American star were to come to Hong Kong, and I was the man with the money, I would have my own concerns as to whether the acceptance would be there".
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In late 1972, Lee began work on his fourth Golden Harvest Film, Game of Death. He began filming some scenes including his fight sequence with 7'2" American Basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a former student. Production was stopped when Warner Brothers offered Lee the opportunity to star in Enter the Dragon, the first film to be produced jointly by Golden Harvest and Warner Bros. Filming commenced in Hong Kong in February 1973. One month into the filming, another production company, Starseas Motion Pictures, promoted Bruce Lee as a leading actor in Fist of Unicorn, although he had merely agreed to choreograph the fight sequences in the film as a favour to his long-time friend Unicorn Chan. Lee planned to sue the production company, but retained his friendship with Chan. However, only a few months after the completion of Enter the Dragon, and six days before its 26 July 1973 release, Lee died. Enter the Dragon would go on to become one of the year's highest grossing films and cement Lee as a martial arts legend. It was made for US$850,000 in 1973 (equivalent to $4 million adjusted for inflation as of 2007). To date, Enter the Dragon has grossed over $200 million worldwide. The film sparked a brief fad in martial arts, epitomised in songs such as "Kung Fu Fighting" and TV shows like Kung Fu.
Apart from Game of Death, other future film projects were planned to feature Lee at the time. In 1972, after the success of The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, a third film was planned by Raymond Chow at Golden Harvest to be directed by Lo Wei, titled Yellow-Faced Tiger. However, at the time, Lee decided to direct and produce his own script for Way of the Dragon instead. Although Lee had formed a production company with Raymond Chow, a period film was also planned from September–November 1973 with the competing Shaw Brothers Studio, to be directed by either Chor Yuen or Cheng Kang, and written by Yi Kang and Chang Cheh, titled The Seven Sons of the Jade Dragon. Lee had also worked on several scripts himself. A tape containing a recording of Lee narrating the basic storyline to a film tentatively titled Southern Fist/Northern Leg exists, showing some similarities with the canned script for The Silent Flute (Circle of Iron). Another script had the title Green Bamboo Warrior, set in San Francisco, planned to co-star Bolo Yeung and to be produced by Andrew Vajna who later went on to produce First Blood. Photo shoot costume tests were also organized for some of these planned film projects.