NOEL KING, HOST:
The groundbreaking martial arts movie "Enter The Dragon" opened in the U.S. 45 years ago this week. That movie was supposed to make Bruce Lee a star. But a month before it came out, Bruce Lee died, and instead of becoming a star, he became a legend. NPR's Justin Richmond has the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF LALO SCHIFRIN'S "THEME FROM 'ENTER THE DRAGON' (MAIN TITLE)")
JUSTIN RICHMOND, BYLINE: When "Enter The Dragon" premiered in August 1973, it was exactly what martial artist Bruce Lee had been waiting for - a starring role in a Hollywood production. Kung fu meets blaxploitation and all action, "Enter The Dragon" was a hit at the box office and sparked an explosion of martial arts movies. After a recent sold-out evening at the Los Angeles Central Library honoring Bruce Lee, his daughter Shannon said "Enter The Dragon" was everything her father had been working towards.
SHANNON LEE: "Enter The Dragon" was really, like, a very precious project for him and the one that he had been waiting for.
RICHMOND: Before martial arts films, Bruce Lee was a child actor in Hong Kong - mostly dramatic roles. One film, "The Orphan," made the teenaged Bruce Lee a bit of a celebrity there.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ORPHAN")
BRUCE LEE: (As Ah Sam, speaking Chinese).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Chinese).
B. LEE: (As Ah Sam, speaking Chinese).
RICHMOND: But any fame he had quickly disappeared when he left Hong Kong to return to San Francisco, the city where he was born. His family felt he was getting into trouble in Hong Kong, so he headed back to the U.S. to become a martial arts instructor. He didn't plan on acting but was eventually discovered by TV producer William Dozier.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
B. LEE: I am Bruce Lee inviting you to join me every Friday night on most of these ABC stations, where I'll be seeing you in "The Green Hornet."
RICHMOND: Dozier, who produced the popular "Batman" TV series, cast Bruce Lee as sidekick Kato in "The Green Hornet."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GREEN HORNET")
B. LEE: (As Kato) Is it bad?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah.
B. LEE: (As Kato) Can you get those clothes off? There's a hospital close by. You need a doctor.
RICHMOND: The show debuted on ABC on September 9, 1966, coincidentally, the day after the original "Star Trek" series featuring George Takei as Sulu premiered. Both shows cast Asian-American males as prominent characters on TV. Jeff Yang, writer and co-host of the podcast They Call Us Bruce, says this is significant.
JEFF YANG: Up until "The Green Hornet," it really was pretty much a wasteland as far as Asian-American continuous representation on television.
RICHMOND: But "The Green Hornet" didn't catch on and lasted just the season. After a few more small roles, Lee was ready to play a new character. Matthew Polly wrote the new biography "Bruce Lee: A Life."
MATTHEW POLLY: What Bruce Lee wanted to do was to create a heroic, Asian male character, but it simply didn't exist. There were only two types of roles, Fu Manchu, the villain, and Charlie Chan, the model minority, and both of these characters were played by white actors in multiple films during the '50s and '60s.
RICHMOND: After not finding much success in Hollywood, Lee went back to Hong Kong for a family visit. He was greeted at the airport by producers eager to cast him. "The Green Hornet" had been playing in Hong Kong, only it was known as "The Kato Show." Lee was a star there and resumed his movie career, this time making three martial arts films - "The Big Boss," "Fist Of Fury" and "The Way Of The Dragon." All were hits in Hong Kong, so Lee reached out to a producer he knew at Warner Brothers.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RICHMOND: ...Which is where "Enter The Dragon" comes in. A co-production between Lee's Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest and Warner Brothers, it's the first martial arts film co-produced by an American studio. Bruce Lee was finally the heroic star of a Hollywood movie, and he kicked butt. But a month before the film's U.S. release, Bruce Lee died. He didn't get to see the lasting influence it would have. Again, Jeff Yang.
YANG: Without "Enter The Dragon," most of the video games, most of the television shows and films that have come afterwards would not be the same.
RICHMOND: Phil Yu is the cohost of They Call Us Bruce.
YANG: You know, we take for granted now that Hollywood action movies, they have martial arts; they have fight choreography; they do all this amazing stuff. But before then, we hadn't really seen martial arts in that context in a Hollywood film.
RICHMOND: Bruce Lee and "Enter The Dragon" also had a significant impact on music. His name is littered throughout dozens of rap songs, but his influence on rap music is most strong with the influential rap group the Wu-Tang Clan.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING DA RUCKUS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: Do you think your Wu-Tang sword can defeat me?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: En garde. I'll let you try my Wu-Tang style.
YANG: Their landmark debut album is called "Enter The Wu-Tang" in honor of Lee's last film. Here's Ghostface Killah and RZA of Wu-Tang Clan. They say "Enter The Dragon" ignited their interest in the martial arts.
GHOSTFACE KILLAH: It was, like, watch it. They'd come outside (imitating fighting sound effects).
RZA: Man, I used to bang my hands on the wall trying to get iron palms, scrape my hand with beans. I got stretch marks on my shoulders because of kung fu things I was trying to do.
RICHMOND: Forty-five years after his death, and Bruce Lee still turns up all over popular culture. Just this week, Quentin Tarantino announced a new actor in his upcoming 1969 period piece "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood." The role? Bruce Lee. Justin Richmond, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF EL MICHELS AFFAIR'S "C.R.E.A.M.")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.