Such was the legend of Bruce Lee that, some 20 years after his death, a tribe of Malaysian bushmen still believed the star to be alive, convinced his reported death on July 20, 1973, was an outlandish publicity stunt for movie he was shooting, “The Game of Death”.
Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco on November 27, 1940. On the night of his birth, his father was 3,000 miles away in New York's Chinatown performing comedy on the stage of the Cantonese Opera, a Chinese vaudeville theatre.
Lee's mother, Grace, named him Lee Yuen Kam, which means "protector of San Francisco." One of the nurses decided that the baby needed an American sounding name, and dubbed him Bruce Lee.
When Bruce was three months old, his family returned to Hong Kong. Thanks to his father's show-business connections, Bruce starred in 20 films while he was a teenager, using the name Lee Siu Loong.
By the time he was 13 years old, he had become a serious student of martial arts. To his parents dismay, he often got into violent street fights, using techniques he learned while attending his martial arts classes.
Concerned that Bruce was developing into a dangerous punk, his parents sent him to live with relatives in the United States until he turned 18, temporarily halting Lee's movie career.
Eventually, Bruce Lee ended up in Seattle, where he enrolled at the University Of Washington. He continued to study martial arts and worked with an instructor (who had the rather strange name of Yip Man).
Bruce earned his living working as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant. In 1964 he married another martial arts student, Linda Emery. Shortly after their marriage, the couple moved to Oakland, California, and soon Bruce opened a martial arts school.
To promote the venture, he gave demonstrations at local tournaments. Hairdresser to the stars Jay Sebring saw Bruce at a tournament in Long Beach and commended him to producer William Dozier, who was looking for a Chinese-American actor to co-star in his new television series, The Green Hornet.
Dozier obtained films of Bruce in action and quickly signed him to a contract. Bruce Lee went on to appear in 30 episodes of The Green Hornet.
Later, he guest starred on several television shows and had a featured role in the movie Marlowe.To supplement his income between acting assignments, Bruce gave private martial arts lessons to some of Hollywood's most prominent movie stars, including Steve McQueen, James Garner, and James Coburn.
In 1971 Bruce returned to Hong Kong, where he filmed a low-budget feature, Fists of Fury. He was paid $ 7,500. Fists of Fury became Hong Kong's all-time top-grossing feature, and when it was released in America, Bruce immediately became an international star. Three more films followed, culminating in Enter the Dragon, Bruce's first starring role in a Hollywood production.
On July 20, 1973, Bruce went to visit actress Betty Ting Pei in her Hong Kong apartment to discuss a role for her in one of his up coming movies. When he complained of a headache, Betty offered him a prescription painkiller called Equagesic. While he was waiting for the medication to take effect, Bruce rested in Betty's bedroom.
A little time later, Betty Ting Pei tried unsuccessfully to wake Bruce Lee and phoned for an ambulance. Within the hour, Lee was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The coroner ruled that Lee had suffered a fatal reaction to the painkiller.
Shortly after his death, Return of the Dragon, the third martial arts film Bruce Lee made in Hong Kong, was released in America. The ads for the movie voiced a sentiment felt by Bruce Lee's millions of fans: "Boy, do we need him now.