When the kung fu legend Bruce Lee is on screen, it's hard to take your eyes off of him. Consider Lee's cocky swagger as he swipes at his nose and beckons his opponent — or sometimes a roomful of opponents — to give it their best shot. You know how this is going to end, with a punishing flurry of kicks and punches, and Lee standing over his vanquished foes flexing his taut torso.
The Bruce Lee made famous in films like 1973's "Enter the Dragon" is the ultimate badass, an unbeatable kung fu warrior, and for most Westerners that's the only Bruce Lee they ever knew. Lee died under mysterious circumstances at only 32 years old, just as his Hollywood star was beginning to shine.
But who was the real Bruce Lee? And how did his childhood and upbringing in Hong Kong and America help shape the man who would become an actor and dancer years before he became a kung fu master? For answers, we spoke with Matthew Polly, author of the eye-opening biography, "Bruce Lee: A Life." Here are seven essential things to know about this iconic star.
1. Lee Was Born in the U.S.A. and Had Jewish Ancestry
In America, we think of Bruce Lee as a Chinese actor who made it big in Hollywood, but Bruce was actually born in America and comes from an ethnically diverse family tree.
In his biography, Polly reveals that Lee's maternal great grandfather was a Dutch-Jewish merchant named Mozes Hartog Bosman, who sailed to Hong Kong in the 1850s with the Dutch East India Company. Bosman eventually became the Dutch ambassador to Hong Kong and had six children with his Chinese concubine. One of those children, Ho Kom-tong, grew fabulously wealthy and had a British mistress in addition to his wife and 13 concubines. Bruce Lee's mother was the 30th child of Ho, who was half Jewish, and his British girlfriend.
Bruce's father, on the other hand, was 100-percent Han Chinese and born into poverty. He escaped through his singing voice, becoming a famous Cantonese opera star and actor. He was touring in the United States when Bruce was born in San Francisco in 1940. Bruce's parents named him Li Jun Fan, and a nurse at the hospital suggested Bruce as his English name. The Lee family moved back to Hong Kong when Bruce was still a baby, and Lee grew up attending English-language private schools.
Throughout his life, Lee bounced back and forth between two worlds, Chinese and American, but never felt like he fit fully into either one. In China, he was a Eurasian with an American passport. In America, he was a Chinese guy with a funny accent. Polly thinks this is key to understanding Lee's persona.
"He didn't quite fit in anywhere and I think it's why he has this wide appeal to various groups," says Polly. "He has this outsider status — he's not of any one tribe."
2. He Was a Small, Sickly Kid Who Became a Street Fighter
Bruce's early years in Hong Kong coincided with a brutal three-year occupation by Imperial Japan. Lee was small to begin with, but was further weakened by strict food rations and a cholera epidemic. He grew into a frail and skinny boy with one leg shorter than the other, an undescended testicle and bad acne.
But Lee was also a whirlwind of energy and a natural-born troublemaker. He constantly picked fights to prove his manhood, and Polly says he earned a reputation in the Hong Kong streets not as a gangster, exactly, but a "middle-class tough guy."
"Bruce Lee fits into the pattern of a young boy who felt weaker and had a bit of a chip on his shoulder," says Polly. "He got very interested in physical dominance in order to project himself out in a world in which he felt threatened."
When Lee was a teenager, he got trounced by another kid who was studying Wing Chun, a school of kung fu or Chinese-style martial arts. Unwilling to accept defeat, Lee decided to up his game and began studying kung fu at the age of 15 or 16.
3. He Was an Actor (and Dancer) First
Lee's opera singer father also acted in Cantonese movies and musicals, and Bruce grew up on movie sets. He first appeared on film as an infant stand-in at just 3 months old, but his first starring role as a child actor was in a popular 1950 Hong Kong movie called "The Kid" filmed when Lee was 10. Polly says that he even debuted some of his classic moves in "The Kid," like swiping at his nose before a fight and ripping open his shirt.
"The Kid" was a huge success, and Bruce was signed on to do sequels that would have made him the Cantonese MaCaulay Culkin, but his father stepped in. The elder Lee wanted his kids to be doctors and lawyers, not actors, and Bruce was constantly getting in trouble at school anyway. His father squashed his chance at child stardom, but Bruce acted on and off in small Hong Kong movies throughout the 1950s.
"By the time Bruce was 18, he had appeared in 20 Cantonese movies and none of them were kung fu flicks," says Polly. "Watching those 20 movies, you see that Bruce was an actor first who later becomes a martial artist."
Lee was also a talented dancer, once winning a Hong Kong "cha-cha" contest.
4. Lee's First Hollywood Break Was as Kung Fu Instructor to the Stars
Bruce's parents sent him off to America for college, where the spoiled kid from Hong Kong got his first taste of supporting himself. In Seattle, between classes at the University of Washington, Lee worked as a busboy in a Chinese restaurant and slept there in a glorified closet. Word of his martial arts skills got around and soon Bruce was teaching some kung fu classes on the side.
It wasn't long before Bruce's side gig overshadowed his studies. Lee dropped out of school and hatched a plan to open a franchise of martial arts schools along the West Coast. "It was going to be the McDonald's of kung fu," jokes Polly. To drum up business, Lee traveled to Los Angeles to give a demonstration at a karate tournament where he caught the attention of a TV producer. This led to Bruce's first and only role on American television as the fast-fisted sidekick Kato on the forgettable 1966 series "The Green Hornet."
The show was canceled after just one season, but Bruce hung around in Hollywood hoping for his next big break. He scored a few bit parts over the next four years, but Polly says Bruce mostly made his living as a kung fu instructor to the Hollywood elite.
"Steve McQueen was one of his students, so was James Coburn and Roman Polanski," says Polly. "Bruce was charging the equivalent of $1,000 an hour."
5. Back in Hong Kong, a Kung Fu Legend Was Born
Even with his high-profile clients, Bruce got himself into some financial trouble and needed some fast cash to dig out of debt. He decided to fly back to Hong Kong for a few months, take some roles in "cheapo" kung fu movies and earn enough money to come back to Los Angeles.
The first of these Hong Kong movies was called "The Big Boss," and Lee wasn't even supposed to be the lead. It was already in production when he arrived, Polly says, but Lee was "so charismatic they killed off the lead actor and made him the star."
The movie was the first to feature his unique style of fight choreography. At the time, fight scenes in most kung fu movies looked like dance routines, but Bruce's fight choreography, informed by years of martial arts mastery, packed a wallop.
"What he was doing was a kind of heightened realism," says Polly. "When he hit somebody, it felt like a real hit, like there's real violence occurring. What Bruce created is still the dominant form of fight choreography in Hollywood movies to this day."
"The Big Boss" was a breakout hit and propelled Lee into a new stratosphere of fame, at least in Asia.
"'The movie blew the box office record out of the water and suddenly Bruce was like the Beatles in Hong Kong and all of Southeast Asia," says Polly.
Bruce followed up with two more wildly popular kung fu movies filmed in Hong Kong, "Fists of Fury" and "The Way of the Dragon," that caught the attention of American producers. It was time to parlay Bruce's Asian stardom into the Hollywood career of his dreams.
6. His Death Launched a Thousand Conspiracy Theories
1973's "Enter the Dragon" was supposed to be the film that made Bruce Lee a household name. And it was, but Lee didn't live to see it.
A month before the film premiered in the United States, Lee was at his mistress' apartment in Hong Kong when he complained of a headache, took a prescription pain reliever and lay down for a nap. He never woke up. He was only 32 years old, leaving his young wife Linda to care for their two children, Brandon and Shannon.
The odd circumstances and mysterious nature of his death became fodder for conspiracy theories — that he was killed by ninjas or given the "touch of death" by a rival kung fu master — but the official cause of death was listed as a brain edema caused by an allergic reaction to the pain reliever, which he had been taking for months for a back injury.
Polly thinks that a better explanation is heat stroke. Ten days before his death, Lee collapsed while dubbing a film in an un-air-conditioned room in Hong Kong's sweltering heat. The day he died was also exceptionally hot, and Lee spent part of the afternoon practicing moves for an upcoming role. His body may simply have given out.
"Enter the Dragon" became a touchstone of popular culture, introducing Western audiences to the archetype of the kung fu hero, and earning Bruce the posthumous fame that had eluded him in life.
"Before 'Enter the Dragon,' Bruce was basically a no-name actor from an obscure TV show," says Polly, "and then the movie came out and he became an international sensation a month after his death."
7. He's the Reason Martial Arts Are So Popular in the West
"Bruce Lee is perhaps the only iconic figure from the 20th century who died before he became famous," says Polly, "and that's why he became a mythological figure."
Lee didn't live long enough to give endless press interviews, to attend glitzy award shows or to get drunk and wreck his sports car on Sunset Boulevard. One of the advantages of dying young, says Polly, is that people can project their own image onto you. This is how Bruce Lee becomes the legendary kung fu hero and the ultimate warrior.
And on a cultural level, Polly says that it's hard to overestimate the influence that Bruce Lee's films had on popularizing the martial arts in the West.
"Before 'Enter the Dragon,' there were about 10,000 people who studied the martial arts in America," says Polly, himself an enthusiast, "and now it's like 40 million. He introduced more westerners to Asian culture than any other figure in modern history."