New Bruce Lee Bio Explores The Dragon's Life And Cause Of Death

Mike Ramsey
August 02, 2018 - 9:00 am

An assortment of books and videos about martial-arts legend Bruce Lee (Mike Ramsey/WBBM Newsradio)

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(WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- This month marks the 45th anniversary of Enter the Dragon, the enduring action film that introduced Hong Kong supernova Bruce Lee to a worldwide audience. 

Lee never got to enjoy the success of the blockbuster film, which is still considered the gold standard of martial-arts movies. Weeks before the movie's release, its 32-year-old star died of a brain edema, or swelling, under circumstances debated to this day.

Enter Matthew Polly's newly published volume, Bruce Lee: A Life, billed as the first deep dive into the life of the Chinese-American icon. It details Lee's middle-class upbringing in Hong Kong; his relocation to the United States, where he refined his mind-boggling fighting skills, and his attempts to break through as an actor in racially closed Hollywood. Lee first found a measure of fame as a co-star in the short-lived television series The Green Hornet.

Polly, who has written two previous books about martial-arts culture, interviewed more than 100 subjects and spent seven years on the Lee bio. He recently fielded some questions in a telephone interview. Below are excerpts.

Simon & Schuster

WBBM NEWSRADIO: Given that so much had already been written and compiled about Bruce Lee, what stones did you think were left unturned as you began your project?

MATTHEW POLLY: One of the the things that's never really been dealt with is Bruce's death. The estate itself doesn't like to talk about it, for obvious reasons. It's an emotional part of his story. But I thought that that was particularly interesting to get into, since there is so much controversy around it. And then, in general, Western -- American, mostly -- writers about Bruce Lee focus on his life after he returns to America, when he's 18, because it's much easier to find English speakers to talk to you and English-language source material. Since I had lived in China and speak Mandarin, I thought one of the things I could bring to the book was to get down into what it was like when he was growing up in Hong Kong, which is largely ignored. 

WBBM: What was the biggest surprise you encountered while doing your research? 

POLLY: The biggest epiphany for me was when I spent two weeks in the Hong Kong Film Archives, watching the nearly 20 Cantonese films Bruce made as a child actor. Like most Bruce Lee fans, I just thought of him as the guy who made those last four movies -- Fists of Fury, The Big Boss, Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon -- that's what we know him as. Even today, you'll see newspapers write, "Bruce Lee, who only made four movies." Once I saw that he made 20 films as a child actor, and none of them were kung fu flicks, it just changed my fundamental grasp of him. What I realized was, he was an actor first who fell in love with the martial arts and then merged those two passions together to become the icon we know, the martial-arts movie star. ... He's not Laurence Olivier, don't get me wrong, but he was able to invest the martial-arts scenes with a level of acting talent that you don't see from other martial artists who didn't have any acting background.

WBBM: Who’s the one source you wish you could have interviewed as part of your research, but didn't get to?

POLLY: There's a couple. I really wanted to talk with Nora Miao, who was his co-star in three of his movies. But she didn't want to talk, and I didn't blame her because there are rumors of an affair between the two of them. And I would have enjoyed talking to Chuck Norris about their relationship, but his management refused. I was told he's sick to death of answering questions about Bruce Lee.

WBBM: Bruce Lee never had a chance to get older like most of us; he's frozen in time. What if he’d lived a conventionally long life? Would he have gone on to incredible heights? Would he have faded away? Would we even be talking about him today?

POLLY: What was interesting about Bruce is he wanted to be a bigger star than Steve McQueen, but he actually modeled his career after Clint Eastwood. I think he would have followed Clint's path. He would have acted in different types of films, besides just kung fu, which would have expanded our understanding of him as an actor and not just a martial artist. But then he would have shifted over to directing and producing. What a lot of people in Hong Kong said is that Bruce was happiest while making Way of the Dragon because he was completely in control. I think he loved being in charge more than he loved fame. I think he would have gone on and he would have made the Unforgiven for kung fu. ... He would have made better and better films. And there would have been some bombs and some flops, but he would have kept at it, and having an Asian-American as a major filmmaker in the '70s would have been an incredible way to tell stories that no one else would have told. 

WBBM: Your book theorizes Bruce Lee’s fatal cerebral edema on July 20, 1973 was due to heat stroke, brought on by cascading factors, such as the Hong Kong heat and the way in which Lee physically exerted himself on that last day. Why do you think it took so long for this relatively simple explanation to emerge?

POLLY: I think everyone was either (believing) conspiracy theories, or they were focused on what was inside of his stomach, and they didn't look at the May 10th, the first collapse, closely enough. The first collapse (Lee exhibited signs of cerebral edema and doctors revived him using the medication Mannitol), when you look at it, you're like, that one definitely looks like heat stroke. And a couple of things Raymond (Chow, Lee's producer) told me he'd never told anyone else -- about Bruce exerting himself, doing scenes from Game of Death and also feeling dizzy afterwards -- hadn't been out there until I'd interviewed him.

WBBM: You frame this argument by noting that even highly conditioned athletes are susceptible to heat stroke.

POLLY: Heat stroke is something that on average three high school football players die every year from. The Army has an entire division that's dedicated to doing scientific research on heat stroke because it kills so many soldiers. We're looking for something that kills really athletic people, which Bruce was. So, I think heat stroke fits the evidence better than anything else, although you can never know for certain. 

WBBM: Previous accounts and dramatizations of Bruce Lee’s life have been overly sanitized and reverent — or negative and salacious. Your book includes on-the-record accounts of Lee’s extramarital affairs and his use of cannabis. Was including this material in the book a pushback against the saintly portrayals, or were you just letting the chips fall where they may?

POLLY: I was curious about who Bruce was as a person, and I decided if the estate had sanitized his image, that's not Bruce's fault. That doesn't have anything to do with me. I just wanted to do a warts-and-all, A to Z, soup to nuts biography. I thought the quirks of someone's personality are an interesting detail, and, of course, with extramarital affairs, who someone chooses to have sex with is part of their story. None of the chapters lead with those (liaisons), because I don't think they're important enough to start a chapter off with or beat (readers) over the head. ... What I thought was important is not only that the information be revealed because it's true and it had been hidden for so long, but also that it be put in context so that we understand he was an actor in the '60s and this is what was going on. Also, a lot of Americans don't understand that Chinese culture at that time was polygamous, and so it was not unexpected that a successful Chinese man would have affairs or mistresses or concubines. 

WBBM: You make it clear in the book's afterword this was not an authorized biography, though you received some cooperation from Lee's family. Have you gotten any feedback from the family or the estate, directly or through back channels?

POLLY: No. 

WBBM:  Those are all my questions. Anything I should have asked or anything you want to add about the book?

POLLY: No, but my mother tells me I have to add this. She says, "Tell everyone it's a family story, and women will like the book, too."