Why Bruce Lee Made Only One Hollywood Movie
Despite living in Los Angeles for years with the goal of becoming a huge movie star, Bruce Lee only starred in one Hollywood film. Why?
Despite living in Los Angeles for years, Bruce Lee only made one Hollywood film. In 1973, Warner Bros. released Enter the Dragon, the first and only American-made movie that gave top-billing status to the martial arts legend.
Enter the Dragon is easily the martial art legend’s most famous film. In the movie, Lee starred as a kung fu expert sent to a private island to investigate a crime lord. To accomplish his mission, he was given the cover of a competitor in a martial arts tournament, where he made friends with Roper (John Saxon) and Williams (Jim Kelly). After engaging in a bit of espionage and defeating numerous opponents, Lee’s character faced off against the main villain in an exciting showdown.
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Enter the Dragon, which was released after his death in 1973, made Lee a household name in the West. However, Lee had been living in Los Angeles years prior, with a goal of becoming a huge movie star. He co-starred in The Green Hornet as Kato and had bit roles in movies like Marlowe. As for why he didn’t get to make a Hollywood movie until near the end of his life, the reason is linked to how Hollywood studios felt about casting Asian leads. Lee has said in the past that studio executives were worried about how audiences would respond to an Asian star. According to Lee, this was an understandable viewpoint, especially since he would have similar concerns about hiring an American actor for a Hong Kong film.
It was for this same reason that Lee’s pitch for a martial arts western TV show was rejected by Warner Bros. A lot of the difficulties that Lee faced in getting his movie career stemmed from his race. Frustrated by this, Lee eventually decided to take a break from looking for work in Hollywood and turned his attention to Hong Kong, where he received an offer from Shaw Brothers, the biggest kung fu movie studio in the entertainment industry. When Shaw Brothers failed to offer him a satisfactory amount, Lee signed on with their biggest competitor, Golden Harvest. With them, he made The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and Way of the Dragon.
Several months after the release of Fist of Fury, Lee was in the process of shooting his fourth Golden Harvest movie — Game of Death — when he was contacted by Warner Bros. with an offer to star in Enter the Dragon. This was less than a full year before his death. It was only after Lee proved himself with two big box office hits (The Big Boss and Fist of Fury) that a Hollywood studio was willing to take a chance on him. It’s of course unfortunate that issues of race kept Lee from achieving his goal sooner. While there are of course still a great deal of concerns about representation even in today’s world, studios are much more willing than they were before to cast leads of different ethnicities. For his part, Lee deserves some credit for the changes that have come to Hollywood over the years.
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