Saturday, January 29, 2011

“I had a normal childhood. I never wanted a different one”. – Brandon Lee

Brandon Bruce Lee made his way into the world on February 1, 1965, in Oakland, California. He was the first and only son of Linda Emery (an American of Swedish descent) and the legendary martial artist Bruce Lee.  Weighing in at a healthy eight pounds and eleven ounces, Brandon was off to a good start. Brandon’s father Bruce although born in the United States in 1940, lived from age 3 months in the British Colony of Hong Kong. In 1959, at age 18 he left to live with family friends in the U.S, finally settling in Seattle, Washington, where he met Brandon’s mother, Linda in 1963.

The happy occasion of Brandon’s birth was marred by the sudden death of Bruce’s father Li Hoi Cheun only five days. Shortly after Bruce was asked to test for TV producer William Dozier. The test paved the way for Bruce to be chosen to co-star in a new action drama that was based on the comic book ‘The Green Hornet’. Although busy trying to build a career in Hollywood for himself, Bruce took great pride in his new role as father.

Brandon’s childhood could hardly be compared by most. His father Bruce (born in the U.S but had migrated from Hong Kong in 1959) was a uniquely committed martial artist who founded his own martial art, Jeet Kune Do in 1966. He was eager to share this new art with his toddler son, who took to it like a duck to water.

Brandon’s Mother Linda, commented that, "Brandon was a challenging kid to raise because he was always challenging the norm.”  As a child he was not afraid of trying new things, as he wanted to experience all he could (not unlike how he was as an adult). As an adult he developed the reputation among his circle of friends of somebody that was a seeker.  Brandon described his childhood as “normal”, despite the unusual experiences that he occurred that his classmates could hardly relate to. Having older men yelling and screaming in the backyard was considered normal to Brandon, however, it was not always considered normal outside of his family’s walls. This proved to be the case when Brandon would bring his playmates home from his class. As soon as they would observe Brandon's father and his friends sparring and performing numerous drills, they would run screaming from the house. For Brandon, his friend’s reactions must have been very confusing.

In 1967, the TV series that Bruce was staring in as Kato, The Green hornet was cancelled. The event left Bruce Lee’s Hollywood career to take a dramatic stop. Bruce began giving Gung Fu lessons to celebrity clients, but he remained frustrated at the level of racism in Hollywood, that prevented him from perusing more mainstream Hollywood roles. In 1970, while trying to arrange a visa for his mother to come to the United States, the older Lee took Brandon to Hong Kong. Brandon later recalled the "smell of Hong Kong" was his first impression of the city. In Hong Kong, Bruce found out that the Green Hornet show had been renamed the Kato show, and he was indeed a hero in his hometown.

Taking advantage of whatever opportunities he could, Bruce was invited to appear on a talk show, with Brandon in tow, they performed a father and son marvel. Bruce showed off his JKD skills on Hong Kong television, as did 5-year-old Brandon, who demonstrated that he was very much like his father by kicking and then breaking a board. As an adult, Brandon recalled the experience, joking that “ Here I was Bruce Lee’s son and you on TV to break a board. What if I didn’t break the board? Can you imagine?”

Brandon did break the board and the appearance caught the eye of Hong Kong producer Raymond Chow, who signed Bruce to a film contract with his company Golden Harvest Pictures. Soon after Bruce relocated the Family (Brandon’s younger sister, Shannon was born April 19, 1969), from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, where Brandon started to attend La Salle College, a Chinese catholic boy school, which his father Bruce had attended as a child. He had to wear a uniform, and was required to learn to speak and write in Chinese. For such an adventurous child, the discipline standards of a Catholic boys school would have been an eye-opener to say the least. As his father's career started to soar, he began having trouble at school because of Bruce's celebrity status in Hong Kong.

Bruce career became so high profile that Brandon and his younger sister, Shannon had to be escorted to school of a morning, because of fears that they might be kidnapped. Brandon later recalled the kind of crowds that used to await him and his sister as they were driven to school saying that," they would often have to push people out of the way so they could open the gate to get the car out of the driveway."

Brandon also would visit his father on the sets of his films, which he later described as “Magic”.  It was around the time his father’s career was rising in Hong Kong that Brandon developed a keen interest in performing, acting and movie making in particular. Armed with the family’s SUPER 8 camera, Brandon with the aid of his sister and some childhood friends, Brandon created little films and plays that they would often perform for family members. As an adult, Brandon recalled that while the films were hardly what one would consider “great art”, they were his first attempts at film acting that usually were comprised of brief storylines such as that of a lover handing a girl a rose.

Children mirror what they see, so the progression for Brandon to explore the “actor” in him at an early age was very natural. However, there were challenges for the young boy, one being that his father’s “star” status in Hong Kong also brought certain luxuries with it. As an adult, Brandon described this time in retrospect as a “testing” time in his childhood, and one particular incident involving a conversation with a brother (teaching priest) at La Salle College, where the young 8 year old announced that he could do what he wanted that his father was “more famous than Jesus Christ”.

It was no great shock that this remark was not well received at a Catholic school, and the result was disciplinary action. Despite the difficulties with understanding what stardom exactly meant at his age, Brandon also observed the kind of negative aspects it could have on a person’s physical capabilities, saying in 1991 that one night he had stayed up late to wait for his father, who was working late at the studio, when he came home he was physically drained.

Brandon kept hold of that memory and as he grew into his own film career it served as an important lesson of what potentially actors sacrifice for their art.  While Brandon observed some of the pitfalls of being the son of a famous actor, it never affected how he felt about his father. Shortly before Bruce Lee’s death in1973, Brandon wrote in a letter that, “Bruce Lee is my hero”. Bruce was equally proud of his young son and expressed to journalists that Brandon “takes after me. He is full of energy and does not sit still for a moment”. The tight bond that was Bruce and Brandon shared would be challenged by the sudden death of Bruce Lee on July 20, 1973. Brandon was just 8 years old.

The “sorta” fairytale that Brandon lived as a young boy was about to enter a new direction, one that would prove to be the source of his life wound – the death of his hero and father, Bruce Lee.  Like most children who lose a parent at a young and impressionable age, the experience changed Brandon’s world forever, his mother, Linda Lee Cadwell saying that, “to explain to this child that the hero of his life was no longer coming home was incomprehensible to him”.  The sudden and unexpected death of Bruce Lee at 32, who was still as invincible to his son would be the beginning of a long journey Brandon would endure within his soul, trying to come to terms with not only losing his role model, but of one who became more famous in death than he was in life to the world.

Brandon and his sister, Shannon were blessed with the strength and good instincts of their mother, Linda Lee, who at only 28 was a widow of two young children, and in change of a martial art legacy much bigger than they could ever imagined. Bruce’s death was immediately the darling of the tabloid media with headlines in Hong Kong taking on epic strength, filled with outrageous rumors. Linda took her children on the first plane out to Hong Kong and back to the calming environment of Seattle, Washington.

After his father's very public funeral in Hong Kong, and a more private one in Seattle, Washington, Brandon's mother Linda settled the family in Los Angeles in 1974, later describing the move from Seattle of “not being able to go back”. The dramatic rise of Bruce Lee to iconic status in the U.S.A made it virtually impossible for Brandon and Shannon to have completely normal lives, but Linda was determined to make it as normal as possible.

While Brandon grew up mainly in Los Angeles, he did not grow up in the scene of “Hollywood”, and avoided nearly all of the trappings that many children of celebrities faced.  The peaceful environment of the South Bay area of Rolling Hills provided the Lees with a new life, and a new kind of normal for the growing Lee children. It was in Los Angeles where the 9 year old had to adjust to his now very different life and his new role as head of the family.  The natural friendly and extroverted Brandon became more introspective and distant.

Brandon’s mother tried to open up dialogue with her children to discuss the passing of their father, with the 4 year old, Shannon not quite understanding what dead meant, and the 8 year old brooding, Brandon refusing to speak about his father. Linda Lee started to realize that the pain of his father’s death was not about to get easier by trying to force Brandon to speak about his father, instead she left Brandon to grieve in his own way and not push the issue anymore.

Not long after settling back into Los Angeles life, Linda Lee enrolled Brandon in a martial arts school, the IMB Academy. The IMB academy, located in Torrance, California which at that time run by Bruce Lee's students, Dan Inosanto and Richard Bustillo. The experience of picking up his martial arts training with his father’s students was not an easy one to adjust to for the young Lee. Brandon was still coming to terms with his own grief, and the many photos that graced the academy were too much for him and he ran crying from the class.

 It was also at the academy that the 9-year-old Brandon would first met the 18-year-old Jeff Imada, who would became one of his best friends and his primary training partner as an adult. Imada was a newly made junior instructor and would help teach the children's class. Imada would go on to much success as a stunt coordinator in Hollywood, and would later work on all of Brandon's American feature films. Brandon eventually drifted from the martial arts, turning his back on the only tie he had to his father's chief discipline and life’s passion.

However, Brandon was never one to shy from action and throughout his childhood he was active in all sports, including baseball, soccer and table tennis. As he grew older, his natural talent in comedy begun to emerge. He was a great comedian, who was blessed with a wonderful sense of humor.

This humor began to be expressed in practical jokes. In the fourth Grade, he taped a sound effect of a monster from TV, and then during a class presentation of one of his fellow students, he left a tape recorder in the class closet, and left the first 10 minutes blank, so the noises progressively got louder. While one of the students was making a speech, the sonic volume increased. The class was in laughter at the marvel of the joke and the teacher in amazement, but Brandon was sent to the principal’s office.

Such activities became frequent throughout his teenage years. As an adult Brandon adored playing elaborate practical jokes on his friends, often going to extraordinary lengths to make his jokes achieve legendary status.  The exploration of his self through comedic acts during his childhood provide some solace away from his father’s shadow, and allowed Brandon to attract friends on his own terms. Still, there were challenges, especially since Brandon often felt his first name was overlooked for the comma of “Bruce Lee’s son”.

The older Brandon got, the more he struggled with the shadow of Bruce lee. He was constantly being challenged at school in the playground. Brandon later referred to this period of his life as the “ gunslinger syndrome”.

 Childhood it is said often can feel like the cruelest place on earth, and this was surely the case for young Brandon Lee. As an adult, Brandon recalled how easy it was for someone to provoke a fight with him, “Frankly all someone had to say was ‘Your Bruce Lee's son, well your father was a wimp', I don't consider getting into fights particularly admirable. I think it's the natural responsibility of an involved martial artist to avoid a confrontation. Within the last few years I have taken great pains to that unless someone physically threatens me”. It was often his lack of self- restraint that got him kicked out of several high schools for insubordination.

In his senior year, while he was attending an exclusive private school, The Chadwick School, located in Palos Verdes Peninsula section of Los Angeles, he was elected student body president, but his ideas for the private school did not fit in well with the strict environment of the administration. He started to display disrespect, even antagonism for teachers and three months shy of graduating he was asked to leave the school, he later saying, " The little piece of paper they gave me said I had a bad attitude toward the educational process and was a poisonous influence on the minds of my fellow students.'' Brandon received his GED, from a nearly High school.

His erratic nature during his teenage years was not confined to his school. As a teenager he had erected a tree house in the backyard and one night decided to liberate a car. After realizing that he was being followed by the LAPD patrol car, he decided to “ride it out”, as he later recalled and drove it home to his mother’s house. He then casually walked into the house.

 The following patrol officer woke his sleeping mother. No charges were filed, but she ordered Brandon to destroy his tree house as punishment. Brandon was trying hard to find his own identity and tearing down the 'Bruce Lee's' son image any way he could.

Brandon was eager to be free of the constraints of parental and worldly expectations. In the summer of 1982, the then 17-year-old decided to spend his summer hitchhiking around the western United States. As avid fan of the infamous road trip book, 'On The Road', Brandon later described the adventures and stories he received from the older men and women, who would pick him up as he made his way traveling. Brandon would have a lifelong fascination with road trips and loved getting the wind in his hair. Freedom, some people felt, should of been his middle name.

Brandon’s practical joking manner became more elborate as he aged. In 1983, when he was 18, Brandon went to the DMV and posed as a driving instructor. He managed to convince a 16-year-old girl that he was her instructor. He commented later that it was his last joke that potentially could have gotten him arrested, " I figured this was the last time I'd be able to get away with anything serious - like committing a felony, such as impersonating an officer."

Brandon joked in his later years that one day the girl was going to go to the films and realize he was the “dumb jerk who made me take my test twice”. Despite his need to perform humorous acts, if only for his personal enjoyable, he did start to develop some maturity and knowing when not to push things too far.

After he received his GED he had not wanted to go to college, but family friend Andre Morgan convinced him otherwise. Brandon moved to the east coast city of Boston to attend the arts orientated university Emerson College. At Emerson, he majored in Theatre Studies, but the academic life was one not for him, stating in 1992, that he “never had any intention of graduating,'' and he soon left. Brandon was still struggling with not only being Bruce lee's son, and accepting other people's perception of him, but was desperate for people to see that he was serious about acting.

After a year in Boston, he moved to New York City to take acting lessons under the tuition of Eric Morris, and  later forming a theatre group in Los Angeles, The American New Theatre with Morris, screenwriter John Lee Hancock, Bill Allen, and another actor George Davis.

While still in NYC he preformed repertory plays such as Fool for love, Cowboy Nam, and Into the fire, as well as one man plays like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence. He also Played ‘Ged’, in an Equity Waver House production of Zoo Story. To support himself like many struggling actors he worked as a waiter. In addition to Eric Morris classes, he attended the Lee Strasburg Acting Academy.

At the time of his death in 1993, he was still actively involved in acting classes, studying under Lynette Katselas in Los Angeles, and had a regular theatre group called Illegal Aliens, with who he frequently preformed plays with. It was Brandon's hope that after he was more established, he could financially support the group, so they could perform more often in their own theatre space.

To Brandon, it was more important to continue to act in whatever fashion, and to support others in his field with theatre groups, instead of going for the big bucks and buying a bigger home, stating ' if it means not having the largest mobile home or whatever, then that's fine.'

In 1985, while back in L.A, working as a office boy for Ruddy/Morgan productions, he was introduced to casting director Lyn Stalmaster, who was looking for a young actor to play a bit part in Cannonball 3. Brandon looking for a chance to gain his SAG union card and to get out of the mundanely of office life, he went along to the casting call. He did not get the part, but he was asked to read for the part in a tele-movie that Stalmaster was casting.

The project was Kung Fu: The movie. At first Brandon didn't want to do the part, he had worked hard at acting, and did not want to be pigeon holed into doing Kung Fu films, because of his father. He was intensely proud of his father, but still unable to come to terms with the shadow and impact of his father's legend. Brandon sought some solace in his mother's advice, who told him that doors may open to him, but it was up to him to get behind that door to prove to others what he is made of. He decided to take the role but promised himself that he would not ride on his father’s coat tails.

Brandon makes his debut....

Brandon knew comparisons would be made between him and his father, but he also knew that he had the opportunity to make a name for himself, and had to take it. On Brandon's 21st Birthday, he made his Debut in ‘Kung Fu: The Movie’ co-staring with David Carradine, who stared in the original TV series. The original series was in fact partly created by his father Bruce under the title of ‘ The Warrior’. Bruce was later denied the lead role because it was feared 1960's American audiences could not relate to an Asian actor in the lead role.

Brandon was not entirely comfortable with performing martial arts on screen, but still was able to shine in such a stereotypical role. With the help of martial arts guru, Mike Vendrell, he was able to look like he never had had a break in his martial arts training.

After filming, Brandon took up more regular training with Vendrell for several years, before he decided to go back to Dan Inosanto and train more specifically in his father’s arts, plus all Inosanto had to offer. Brandon followed the Kung Fu: The Movie role with a leading role in a Hong Kong production ‘Legacy of Rage’.

After which he returned to L.A to film a pilot of ‘Kung Fu: The next Generation’, but the show was not picked up. Brandon was very disappointed that the pilot was not picked up, and was starting to realize how difficult the Hollywood game was. He then stared in an episode of O'Hara in 1988, playing his first and only bad guy role, staring along side Jeff Imada (who played one of Brandon's henchmen).

In the summer of 1988, he went to South Africa to star in an English-German production called ‘Laser Mission’. Brandon now was becoming increasing frustrated at his lack of opportunities in the U.S. The experience filming Laser Mission was not a good one, though the role would best be described as a B-grade attempt at a James Bond thriller, and he did get the chance to practice his comic timing, and diversity within an action setting. Later, when he began working steadily in Hollywood films he refused to discuss Laser Mission.

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