Brandon Lee

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Brandon Lee
Brandon Lee (as an adult).jpg
Lee in 1992
Brandon Bruce Lee

(1965-02-01)February 1, 1965
DiedMarch 31, 1993(1993-03-31) (aged 28)
Burial placeLake View Cemetery, Seattle, Washington, U.S.
OccupationActor, martial artist, fight choreographer
Years active1985–1993
Partner(s)Eliza Hutton (1990–1993)
FamilyShannon Lee (sister)
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese李國豪
Simplified Chinese李国豪
Firma de Brandon Lee.svg

Brandon Bruce Lee (February 1, 1965 – March 31, 1993) was an American actor, and martial artist. Lee is also known for being the only son of Bruce Lee, and his accidental death during the production of his breakthrough film The Crow (1994). Lee's father was an iconic leading man in martial arts films, who died in 1973. Lee followed his father into both of the fields, trained martial arts with some of his father's students and studied acting at Emerson College and the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. In 1986, Lee made his screen debut opposite David Carradine in the television film Kung Fu: The Movie, where he received second billing and starred in his first leading role in the Hong Kong action film Legacy of Rage.

Shortly after, on television, Lee played a lead in the pilot Kung Fu: The Next Generation (1987), and guest-starred in an episode of the television series Ohara (1988). Following this, Lee was the lead in the low budget action film Laser Mission (1989). In the 1990s, he started working with major Hollywood studios. His first American theatrical release was the Warner Bros buddy cop action film Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991), co-starring Dolph Lundgren. It received poor reviews and was described as an overwhelmingly silly action film, but for the same reason some retrospective critics appreciate it. This was followed by a leading role in Rapid Fire (1992) produced by 20th Century Fox. Though the film wasn't well-received, critics praised Lee's onscreen presence.

In 1992, he landed his most notable role as Eric Draven in Alex Proyas's The Crow (1994), based on the comic book of the same name, which would be his final film. On March 31, 1993, only a few days away from completing the film, Lee was accidentally killed after being shot on the set by a prop gun. The Crow was completed by re-writing the script, using early CGI technology and stunt doubles. It was generally well reviewed and considered to demonstrate Lee's dramatic abilities. It was a commercial success and is now considered a cult classic. Many saw parallels between Lee and his father comparing their careers as action film leading men who died young, prior to the release of their breakthrough film. He is buried alongside his father in Seattle's Lake View Cemetery.

Early life[edit]

Brandon and his father around 1966

Brandon was born on February 1, 1965, at East Oakland Hospital in Oakland, California, the son of martial artist and actor Bruce Lee (1940 – 1973) and Linda Lee Cadwell (née Emery).[1] The Lees moved to Los Angeles, California, when Brandon was three months old. From a young age, Lee learned martial arts from his father, who a was a renown practitioner and a martial arts movie star. Lee said the family lived between Hong Kong and the United States, following his father's. While visiting his sets Brandon became interested in acting. Lee's father passed suddenly in 1973, with a legacy making him an icon of martial arts and cinema.[2]

Afterwards, Lee's family moved back to the California. Lee started studying with Dan Inosanto, one of his father's students, when he was 9.[3] Later in his youth, Lee also trained with Richard Bustillo[4] and Jeff Imada. In his teens, Imada said that Lee was struggling with his identity, and having to train in dojos which included large photos of his father troubled him. According to Imada this led Lee to leave martial arts in favor of soccer. Both would reconnect later in their film career, with Imada working as stunt and fight coordinator in several of Lee's upcoming films. Meanwhile, Lee was a rebellious high school student. In 1983, four months prior his graduation Lee was asked to leave the Chadwick School for misbehavior. That year Lee received his GED from Miraleste high school. Following this, Lee moved to New York City, where he took acting lessons at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. Afterwards, Lee went to Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, where he majored in theater. After his studies, Lee did local theater, joined the Eric Morris American New Theatre, and acted in John Lee Hancock's play Full fed beast.[5]


1985 to 1990: Early roles[edit]

Lee returned to Los Angeles in 1985 and worked as a script reader. During this period, he was approached by casting director Lynn Stalmaster and successfully auditioned for his first credited acting role in Kung Fu: The Movie.[6] It was a feature-length television movie that was a follow-up to the 1970s television series Kung Fu, with David Carradine returning as the lead.[7] In the film, the show's hero, Kwai Chang Caine (Carradine), is forced to fight his hitherto unknown son, Chung Wang (Lee).[8] It aired on ABC on February 1, 1986, Lee's 21st birthday.[9] Lee said that he felt there was some justice in being cast for this role in his first feature, since the TV show's pilot had been conceived for his father.[10]

By April 1986, Lee was reported to be an expert of the martial art named Yee Chuan Tao.[11] That year saw the release of Ronny Yu's Hong Kong action crime thriller Legacy of Rage. It's Lee's first leading film role, starring alongside Michael Wong, and Regina Kent. Lee plays Brandon Ma, a young man working two jobs to support his life with his girlfriend May (Kent) and to save up to buy his dream motorcycle. His best friend, Michael Wan (Wong), is an ambitious and murderous drug dealer who eventually blames one of his crimes on him. Ma is sent to jail and vows vengeance on Wan.[12] It was the only film Lee made in Hong Kong, made in Cantonese and directed by Ronny Yu. Lee was nominated for a Hong Kong Film Award for Best New Performer in this role.[13] In May of the following year, it was a critical success at the Cannes Film Festival and commercial success in Japan.[14] Later that year, Legacy of Rage was released in the Philippines as Dragon Blood,[15] keeping the number one spot in the country for its first five days and becoming a local success.[16][17]

In 1987, Lee starred in another sequel of Kung Fu, the unsold television pilot Kung Fu: The Next Generation.[18] It aired on CBS Summer Playhouse, a program that specialized in rejected pilots and allowed the audience to call in to vote for a show to be picked up as a series.[19] It was another follow-up to the Kung Fu TV series, moved to the present day, and centered on the story of the grandson and the great-grandson Johnny Caine (Lee) of Kwai Chang Caine. While his father uses his fighting abilities to assist people in need, Johnny Caine chooses a life of crime. After being caught doing a robbery, Johnny is taken into custody by his father who tries to rehabilitate him, but Johnny is tempted to return to crime. The pilot was poorly received and not picked up as a series.[20][21] Also that year, Lee visited Montreal, Canada and said it was to discuss a possible film project.[22]

In 1988, Lee played a role in "What's In a Name", an episode of the American television series Ohara,[23] starring Pat Morita.[24] In the episode Lee as the son of a Yakuza plays the main villain. Imada who worked as stunt coordinator, said that Lee was recommended not to do the role due to the nature of the character. However, seeing a chance to expand his acting range Lee took the role.[25] On the 16th of October, Ernest Borgnine said one of his upcoming project was Laser Mission.[26] Lee plays the lead in the shot in Namibia action film.[27] In January 1989, Borgnine joined the shoot.[28] The plot concerns a mercenary named Michael Gold (Lee) who is sent to convince Dr. Braun (Borgnine), a laser specialist, to defect to the United States before the KGB acquires him and uses his talents to create a nuclear weapon.[29] In the United States the film was released in 1990.[30] Distributed by Turner Home Entertainment, it was a commercial success on home video.[31] The film is generally panned by critics with a few finding it to be an amusing action B movie.[32][33][34]

In the 1980s, Lee started to train again with Dan Inosanto.[35] Margaret Loesch, Marvel's CEO from 1984 to 1990[36], had a meeting with Lee and his mother through comic book writer Stan Lee (no relation). Stan Lee felt that Brandon would be ideal in the role of super-hero Shang-Chi in a film or television adaptation.[37]

1991–1993: Hollywood breakthrough[edit]

In 1991, he starred opposite Dolph Lundgren in the buddy cop action film Showdown in Little Tokyo.[38] This marked his first studio film and his first American theatrical release. In the film Lee plays Johnny Murata, a Japanese American police officer partnered with a sergeant named Kenner (Lundgren), on patrol in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Little Tokyo. They are sent to infiltrate a new Japanese drug gang, the Iron Claw.[39] The movie faced largely negative reviews;[40][41][42] retrospectively some critics find it entertaining for its genre.[43][44][45]

Lee was among the cameos in the Swedish genre film Sex, Lögner och Videovåld (2002),[46] filmed between 1990 and 1993. The film was completed in 2000.[47] During this time Lee was asked to play his father in the biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. He turned the role down, finding it awkward to play his father, and too strange to approach the romance between his parents.[citation needed]

In 1992, he had his first starring role in the action thriller Rapid Fire, directed by Dwight H. Little and co-starring Powers Boothe and Nick Mancuso.[48] Lee plays a student named Jake Lo who witnesses a murder and is put in a witness protection programme.[49] The film came about when producer Robert Lawrence started working with Lee, who noticed his potential to be an action leading man in Hollywood after screening Lee's earlier project Legacy of Rage.[50] Jeff Imada who was the stunt coordinator said that in preparation Lee bulked up.[51] Lee Many of the fight scenes, choreographed by Lee, contain elements of his father's Jeet Kune Do fighting style.[52] Lee said that while being typecast was allowed to add his own little touches of humor to script. On playing the character of Jake Lo, Lee said "I always saw that character as not being gung-ho to get himself involved in those situations. I wanted to keep that throughout the film, that sarcastic edge. So he's not just becoming Joe Action Hero."[2] Most critics did not like the film, but many of them found Lee charismatic.[53][54][55] A minority of critics found Rapid Fire to be slick, well acted, and a serviceable action film.[56][57][58] In the fall of 1992, while doing publicity for Rapid Fire, Lee landed the lead role in the Alex Proyas' The Crow an adaptation of a comic book by the same name.[59] It tells the story of Eric Draven (Lee), a rock musician raised from the dead by a supernatural crow to avenge his own death as well as the rape and murder of his fiancée by a dangerous gang in his city.[60] Costumer Roberta Bile said that Lee modeled Draven after singer Chris Robinson. Jeff Imada who was the stunt coordinator said that in order to look like a rocker and not an action hero that weeks before shooting Lee went on a strict diet to removed a lot of bulk, and that he would even weight the food he was eating. Imada went on to say that Lee focused on cardiovascular with a stairmaster, did repetitions on lighter weights to elongate and stretch his muscles, as well as aerobics lost lose body fat rapidly.[51] Also that year, it was reported that Lee signed a three picture deal with 20th Century Fox and a multi-picture deal with Carolco Pictures.[2]

On March 31, 1993, while filming The Crow, Lee was accidentally wounded on set by defective blank ammunition and later died in hospital during surgery.[61]

1993 to present day: Posthumous success[edit]

After Lee's death in 1993, his fiancée Eliza Hutton and his mother supported director Proyas' decision to complete The Crow.[62] At the time of Lee's death, only eight days were left before completion of the movie.[citation needed] A majority of the film had already been completed with Lee, and he was only required to shoot scenes for three more days. To complete the film, stunt double Chad Stahelski and Jeff Cadiente served as a stand-in; special effects were used to give him Lee's face.[63] A month after, it was reported that Lee's previous films Laser Mission, Showdown in Little Tokyo, and Rapid Fire saw a surge in video sales.[64]

In 1994, The Crow opened at number one in the United States in 1,573 theaters grossing $11.7 million, averaging $7,485 per theater.[65] The film ultimately grossed $50.7 million, above its $23 million budget, 24th among all films released in the U.S. that year and 10th among R-rated films released that year. It was the most successful film of Lee's career, and is considered a cult classic.[66][67][68] The film was also a success overseas.[69][70] The film is dedicated to him and his fiancée Eliza Hutton.[60] The Crow has an approval rating of 82 percent on Rotten Tomatoes based on 55 reviews; critical consensus there is: "Filled with style and dark, lurid energy, The Crow is an action-packed visual feast that also has a soul in the performance of the late Brandon Lee."[71] The Crow has a score of 71 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 14 critics, indicating "Generally favorable reviews".[72] Reviewers praised the action and visual style.[73][74] Rolling Stone called it a "dazzling fever dream of a movie"; Caryn James, writing for The New York Times, called it "a genre film of a high order, stylish and smooth"; Roger Ebert called it "a stunning work of visual style".[74][75][76] The Los Angeles Times also praised the film.[77][78] Lee's death was alleged to have a melancholic effect on viewers; Desson Howe of The Washington Post wrote that Lee "haunts every frame" and James Berardinelli called the film "a case of 'art imitating death', and that specter will always hang over The Crow".[73][74][79] Jessica Seigel of the Chicago Tribune found that Lee never quite left the shadow of his father and that The Crow did not live up to Lee's full unexploited potential.[80] Amber McKee of The Park Record thinks the film is a very good film and successful but an eerie conclusion to Lee's career, since he wanted to escape the action genre and move on to dramatic roles.[81] Berardinelli called it an appropriate epitaph to Lee, Howe called it an appropriate sendoff, and Ebert stated that not only was this Lee's best film, but it was better than any of his father's.[73][74][79]The Crow retained a loyal following many years after its release.[82] Due to the source material, and Lee's fate it is often described as a goth cult film.[83]

In 1998, Legacy of Rage was released directly to video in the U.S. and Australia the next year.[13] The film has been described as stylistic and fast-paced, with a good performance by Lee.[84] Some critics considered it to be his best film after The Crow.[85][86][87]


On March 31, 1993, Lee was filming a scene in The Crow where his character is shot and killed by thugs.[88] In the scene, Lee's character walks into his apartment and discovers his fiancée being beaten and raped. Actor Michael Massee's character fires a Smith & Wesson Model 629 .44 Magnum revolver at Lee as he walks into the room.[89]

In the fatal scene, which called for the revolver to be fired at Lee from a distance of 3.6–4.5 metres (12–15 ft), the dummy cartridges were exchanged with blank rounds, which feature a live powder charge and primer, but no bullet, thus allowing the gun to be fired without the risk of an actual projectile. Since the bullet from the dummy round was already trapped in the barrel, this caused the bullet to be fired from the barrel with almost the same force as if the round were live, and it struck Lee in the abdomen.[90][91]

Lee was rushed to the New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, North Carolina. Attempts to save him were unsuccessful and after six hours of surgery, Lee was pronounced dead on March 31, 1993 at 1:03 pm. He was 28 years old. The shooting was ruled an accident due to negligence.[92] Lee's death led to the re-emergence of conspiracy theories surrounding his father's similarly early death.[93] Lee was buried next to his father at the Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, Washington. A private funeral attended by 50 took place in Seattle on April 3. The following day, 200 of Lee's family and business associates attended a memorial service at actress Polly Bergen's house in Los Angeles. Among the attendees were Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, David Hasselhoff, Steven Seagal, David Carradine, and Melissa Etheridge.[94][95]

Lee's gravestone, designed by local sculptor Kirk McLean, is a tribute to Lee and Hutton. The epitaph reads, 'For Brandon and Eliza, ever joined in true love's beauty.' It is composed of two twisting rectangles of charcoal granite which join at the bottom and pull apart near the top. "It represents Eliza and Brandon, the two of them, and how the tragedy of his death separated their mortal life together", said his mother, who described her son, like his father before him, as a poetic, romantic person.[96]

In an interview just prior to his death, Lee quoted a passage from Paul Bowles' book The Sheltering Sky[97] which he had chosen for his wedding invitations; it is now inscribed on his tombstone:

Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless...[98]


At the time of his death, the biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story was ready for release. It was released two months later, with a dedication to his memory in the end credits. Lee's mother and sister attended the premiere. His mother found the film to be excellent and a great tribute for her whole family.[99]

Lee's on-set death paved the way for resurrecting actors to complete or have new performances, since pioneering CGI techniques were used to complete The Crow.[100]

Martial arts and philosophy[edit]

Lee was trained from a young age by his father Bruce in martial arts.[101] During this time, martial artist Bob Wall, a friend and collaborator of Bruce, observed that Lee hit with power and had good footwork.[102] At age eight, after his father's death, Bruce's disciple Dan Inosanto trained Lee.[3] According to Jeff Imada who at the time was helping with children's classes at Inosanto's Kali Institute, the fact that he was the son of one of its founders was kept quiet; Lee had difficulty focusing due to seeing his father's photos taking so much space in his studio. Imada said Lee stopped training in his mid-teens to play soccer.[5] Richard Bustillo also trained Lee during his teens and said that Lee worked hard and was always respectful.[95] Lee said that with his training Arnis with Inosanto he specialized in both Kali and Escrima and lasted three to four years.[103]

In 1986, Lee said that he was training in Yee Chuan Tao, a relaxation-based martial art, with a trainer named Mike Vendrell. Lee said that it consisted of exercises such as slow sparring, Chi sao practice; they also worked on a wooden dummy, as well as Vendrell swinging a staff at him while he would duck or jump over. He said later that the exercise helped him be less tense.[104]

Also in the 1980s, Lee returned to Dan Inosanto's Academy.[35] Lee said he did a few amateur fights but did not seek to compete in tournaments.[2] He would bring a camera to Inosanto's studio, both would choreograph fights for Lee's films and would allow him to see how various moves played out on screen. In 1991, Lee was certified by the Thai Boxing Association.[3] While his main goal was dramatic acting, credited the skill to have helped him to get roles that require it.[2]

During the filming of The Crow, Lee said he did cardiovascular exercises to the point of exhaustion using a jump rope, running, riding a LifeCycle, or using a StairMaster, after which he would train at Inosanto's academy where he took Muay Thai classes.[105]

According to Lee's mother, years prior his death Lee became consumed with his father's written philosophy, taking lengthy notes.[3] When asked which martial arts he practiced, he responded:

When people ask me that question, I usually say that my father created the art of Jeet Kune Do and I have been trained in that. However, that's a little too simple to say because Jeet Kune Do was my father's very personal expression of the martial arts. So I always feel a little bit silly saying I practice Jeet Kune Do, although I certainly have been trained in it. It would be more accurate to say that I practice my own interpretation of Jeet Kune Do, just as everyone who practices Jeet Kune Do does.[106]

In August 1992, Bruce Lee biographer John Little asked Brandon Lee what his philosophy in life was, and he replied, "Eat—or die!"[107] Brandon later spoke of the martial arts and self-knowledge:

Well, I would say this: when you move down the road towards mastery of the martial arts—and you know, you are constantly moving down that road—you end up coming up against these barriers inside yourself that will attempt to stop you from continuing to pursue the mastery of the martial arts. And these barriers are such things as when you come up against your own limitations, when you come up against the limitations of your will, your ability, your natural ability, your courage, how you deal with success—and failure as well, for that matter. And as you overcome each one of these barriers, you end up learning something about yourself. And sometimes, the things you learn about yourself can, to the individual, seem to convey a certain spiritual sense along with them.

...It's funny, every time you come up against a true barrier to your progress, you are a child again. And it's a very interesting experience to be reduced, once again, to the level of knowing nothing about what you're doing. I think there's a lot of room for learning and growth when that happens—if you face it head-on and don't choose to say, "Ah, screw that! I'm going to do something else!"

We reduce ourselves at a certain point in our lives to kind of solely pursuing things that we already know how to do. You know, because you don't want to have that experience of not knowing what you're doing and being an amateur again. And I think that's rather unfortunate. It's so much more interesting and usually illuminating to put yourself in a situation where you don't know what's going to happen, than to do something again that you already know essentially what the outcome will be within three or four points either way.[108][excessive quote]

Personal life[edit]

Lee is the grandson of Lee Hoi-chuen, the nephew of Robert Lee Jun-fai, and the brother of Shannon Lee.[109] Lee's paternal great grandfather was Ho Kom Tong, a Chinese philanthropist of Dutch-Jewish descent who was son of Charles Henry Maurice Bosman (1839–1892).[110] Lee's mother Linda Emery has Swedish and German roots. According to the book, Lee “proudly told everyone” about his newborn son Brandon’s diverse features, describing him as perhaps the only Chinese person with blond hair and grey eyes.[111]

According to Chuck Norris, a friend and collaborator of Lee's father, his son Eric Norris and Lee were childhood friends.[112]

Lee was a friend of Chad Stahelski, his double after his death during The Crow. The two had trained together at the Inosanto Martial Arts Academy.[113]

In 1990, Lee met Eliza Hutton at director Renny Harlin's office, where she was working as his personal assistant. Lee and Hutton moved in together in early 1991 and became engaged in October 1992.[114] They planned to get married in Ensenada, Mexico on April 17, 1993, a week after Lee was to complete filming on The Crow.[94]


Year Title Role Notes
1986 Legacy of Rage Brandon Ma Alternative title: Long Zai Jiang Hu, Dragon Blood
1989 Laser Mission Michael Gold Alternative titles: Mercenary Man, Soldier of Fortune
1991 Showdown in Little Tokyo Johnny Murata
1992 Rapid Fire Jake Lo
1994 The Crow Eric Draven Shot and killed as a result of negligence during filming. Special effects and a stand-in were used to complete Lee's remaining scenes. Released posthumously.
2002 Sex, Lögner och Videovåld Bystander Cameo in low budget Swedish film. Released posthumously.
Year Title Role Notes
1986 Kung Fu: The Movie Chung Wang Television Film
1987 Kung Fu: The Next Generation Johnny Caine Television Pilot. Aired on CBS Summer Playhouse
1988 Ohara Kenji Episode: What's in a Name

Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Awards Category Nominated work Result
1986 Hong Kong Film Awards Best New Performer Legacy of Rage Nominated
1994 Fangoria Chainsaw Awards Best Actor The Crow Won
MTV Movie & TV Awards Best Male Performance Nominated


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Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Coleman, Jim (April 1, 1986). "Bruce Lee's Son Speaks Out". Black Belt. pp. 20–24, 104.
  • Allen, Terence (1994). "The movies of Brandon Lee". Black Belt Magazine. Vol. 32 no. 9. pp. 51–52–53–54–55–56.
  • Pilato, Herbie J. (1993). The Kung Fu Book of Caine: The Complete Guide to TV's First Mystical Eastern Western. Boston: Charles A. Tuttle. ISBN 0-8048-1826-6.
  • Dyson, Cindy (2001). They Died Too Young: Brandon Lee. Philadelphia: Chelsea House. ISBN 0-7910-5858-1

External links[edit]