Remembering a Kung-Fu legend - By Calum Waddell

Remembering a Kung-Fu legend - By Calum Waddell

In this latest blog we look back at the life of Bruce Lee through the eyes of one of the men who knew him best: his brother Robert Lee…And with our 88 Asia range dedicating itself to some classic kung-fu - what better time to remember the most famous martial artist of all time?

By Calum Waddell

“My family is delighted to keep Bruce’s flame alive, and we work hard to promote his legacy whenever we can.”

So begins Robert Lee, the brother of the world’s most famous martial artist and the executive producer on a movie all about - 2010's Young Bruce Lee. Robert has also dabbled as a musician – founding the popular Hong Kong band The Thunderbirds and releasing an album dedicated to his late sibling entitled The Balled of Bruce Lee.

If Bruce Lee was alive today he would be one of the most iconic and worshipped actors on the planet. Do you think he was seeking this level of fan adoration during his life or ever would have anticipated it?

I think Bruce was meant to entertain and teach us all something special and, yes, I feel he knew that. However, Bruce never wanted to be worshipped - he just wanted to be respected for the knowledge he brought to the table. He would appreciate someone more if they knew what he was all about. He did not like fake people, and he always stayed grounded, even when he became very famous. Bruce, I feel, was too busy finding the perfect recipe for life, and so he did not have the time to really let his fame sink in as deeply as it could have.  He was on his own mission and we all jumped aboard to be part of the trip. I do want to add this though - Bruce loved and appreciated his fans and he told me, on more than one occasion, that they were one of the reasons why he made films.

Bruce Lee also changed the way Asian actors were perceived by Hollywood. How much of an uphill struggle was this for him?

Like most Asian and different race actors of that time, he was mostly treated as a second-class citizen, but Bruce refused to be negatively impacted by that. He demanded from his producers certain elements that would put him in a better light, and they agreed, which was a rare thing in Hollywood at that time. They knew they had something special going on with Bruce and wanted to work with his ethics as much as they could. Yes, it was hard for him at times, but he remained vigilant, pushed his way through it, and reached the top. If he was around today Bruce would be so proud to know he had had something to do with the acceptance of his people. Everything else, like the fame and the money, would not have mattered.

Can you talk about the Ip-Man movies and your feeling towards them, given that they link to a large part of Bruce Lee's mythology?

I think that the Ip-Man movies are great! I think Donnie Yen did a wonderful job and I felt it was an honourable tribute to Bruce Lee’s Sifu that was long overdue. No one else could have played that role so well. Now, they should do one about Bruce and Ip-Man together!

Enter the Dragon star John Saxon told me once that Bruce Lee's kung fu skills were a 9/10 compared to Saxon's 5/10. This indicates Bruce was still trying to reach that perfect 10/ 10. Did you see this in him? That he was always trying to better his craft?

Bruce was a work in progress, ever changing, ever growing and always investigating. Every time he learned a little more about himself, he changed the way he did things. He was definitely on a journey but, from my perspective, I think Bruce was always 10/10 (laughs).

Let’s clear up a very famous legend: Is it true Bruce Lee could do a one-inch punch - i.e. put his fist one inch from an opponent and still have enough force to knock them several feet away?

Absolutely! I was at the end of that punch many times, and I don’t know how he did it, or how he summoned so much power (laughs). All I know is that I flew back like a jet plane!  It’s all from the hip, he said, but to be honest I saw him do it without even moving his hips.  He had this CHI power in his veins and at times it could be scary. It was like magic! Many people felt that punch, and they are the ones that made it a legendary concept that is well deserved.

Another legend worth speaking about: Is it true Bruce was unhappy with the presentation of the Japanese in 1972’s Fist of Fury?

I have never heard this before, but I am sure this is false, as he knew what the storyline was about before he agreed to do the project. It’s a film that touches on some of the troubled history of Japan during its invasion of China. Bruce’s character, which is based on an exaggerated form of a real person, proves he is a true hero of the Chinese people. It’s just a compelling story based on some true events. You might be surprised to know that many of Bruce’s Japanese fans love that film most of all! It’s probably best to mention as well that Taky Kimura, who is Japanese, was Bruce’s best friend and senior student. They both considered it to be just a movie.

What did you think of the 1993 Hollywood production, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story?

I think that, at the time, it was a good attempt at trying to bring Bruce’s legacy to the forefront, but unfortunately when dealing with Hollywood there are many paths you must follow to make the investors happy. To be blunt, you have to listen to the money men most of the time. That was a Hollywood movie, so Bruce had to be portrayed as a superhero on all fronts. I personally did not like the film, because I was there with Bruce and know all the real stories. The truth of the matter is they (the makers of Dragon) did not include many things that could have highlighted Bruce’s legacy from the perspective of his humanity. Many things within that film were not accurate so, yes, my family and I were displeased.

Consequently, did the whole experience of Dragon have any impact on making Young Bruce Lee?

As far as our movie was concerned, it had nothing to do with the film Dragon. We have always wanted to tell our family’s story; it just took us many years to all agree upon the timing. We did this for our family, the people of Hong Kong and Bruce’s old and new fans around the world. We wanted the world to see Bruce’s real family: his brothers, sisters, cousins, mother and father. Fundamentally, we all played a part in developing Bruce into the man he would become. Family is most important thing; our father always told us that, so we know we have made him proud.
Can you speak about the troubled production of Game of Death and Game of Death 2? These films gave way to the term “Brucesploitation” - did you like these movies?

To be honest I do not like hearing that Game of Death was a “troubled production.” Tragically, Bruce passed away and could not finish what he started. But during filming, it ran as smoothly as Bruce had planned and, thankfully, we have some footage to commemorate the project.

Okay, point taken – although the remainder of the film - made after Bruce’s death - is very hit-and-miss. How about Game of Death 2, though? That one even exploits his funeral…

Game of Death 2 was just another attempt at making money from Bruce’s name, but, hey, it is entertainment! I don’t give it a thought really. Bruce was Bruce and all the others – the various fake Bruce Lee’s - were themselves living under his shadow. It’s just a shame they could not realise that at the time, as they should have created their own way of doing things instead of copying my brother.

Speaking of which - when another actor (Ho Chung Tao) came out with the name Bruce Li how did you feel? Were you ever offended by this? Or is imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

I really did not care about that, because I knew that no one could emulate Bruce Lee the way we knew him when he was alive. Therefore, it was all just comedic mockery. To me, all of this is a part of the whole Bruce Lee movement. You could not have one without the other; it just is. It is kind of a compliment, though. The only reason for their imitation is that Bruce Lee was so important and popular, and did something so unique and rare, that others felt the need to try and copy him. However, if you are one of those Bruce Lee fans that has seen the fake Bruce Lee films, then you know you always feel empty and unfulfilled when its over. It’s a system of filming that ultimately kills itself and always leaves Bruce on top.

Was Bruce supportive of your music career? And do you feel Bruce’s legacy ever hung over your own accomplishments?

Bruce loved my music, and I tried showing him how to play guitar as well. He could not pick it up, however, and said he would stick to martial arts instead (laughs). Bruce’s career never hung over my head. We were always so proud and supportive. We all had our own artistic needs and mine was music. I never lived in his shadow; we all walked our own paths.

How reverential was Bruce Lee towards the Hong Kong people given that they first gave him fame?

Bruce loved his fellow Asian countrymen and always wanted to bring out the beauty of his people. Being an actor, he always tried to do just that in his films, or when he was being interviewed. More importantly, he loved the human race and always tried to show everyone as equals, whether he was in Hong Kong or the USA. We have to remember, even though Bruce grew up in Hong Kong, he was born in America. He was American first. I think it was just natural for him to want to please everyone on both sides of the world. He wanted to bring the people of the world together as one.

Finally, care to share some information on what you are up to now?

I travel back and forth from California to China. I am enjoying my life and have gotten married recently to my long time girlfriend. For me, I still dabble in music and film when I can and look forward to sharing with the world the stories about my brother, Bruce Lee.

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Comments 1
  • Victor gonzalez
    Victor gonzalez

    Thank so much for this interview. Very happy it was done. Glad to hear Robert is alive and well.

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