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Inside the Movie That Made Bruce Lee a Legend

45 years ago, Bruce Lee starred in “Enter the Dragon,” one of the most famous kung fu films of all time. Here, Lee biographer Matthew Polly shares his favorite stories from the set.

“Enter the Dragon” was supposed to be Bruce Lee’s entrée to superstardom, but his untimely death in July 1973, just a month before the film’s release, left it as the high-water mark of his career. I first watched “Enter the Dragon” as a skinny, bullied twelve-year-old in Topeka, Kansas. I had never seen a kung fu movie before and had no idea who Bruce Lee was. But as he punched, kicked, and hacked his way through dozens of bad guys, he jumped off the screen into my imagination. I wanted to be Bruce Lee. So did millions of others. Lee’s performance sparked a kung fu craze in the West, and the movie — with its multiracial cast, cat-stroking villain, and tournament structure — launched a thousand imitators. While researching my new book, “Bruce Lee: A Life,” I studied hundreds of pictures of Lee and his movies. Below, a few of my favorites from “Enter the Dragon,” the film that cemented Lee’s legacy.

THE RIVAL Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images THE RIVAL John Saxon (pictured), the only name actor in the cast, had refused to get on the plane to Hong Kong, where "Enter the Dragon" was being filmed, until producer Fred Weintraub promised him he would be the movie’s real star. But Lee had other ideas, and he fought, on camera and behind the scenes, to stamp his personality onto every frame. When Saxon arrived, Lee invited him to his house and asked to see his side kick. “Not bad,” Lee said. “Now let me show you mine.” Lee handed Saxon a padded shield to hold against his chest and placed a chair several feet behind him. With a hop, skip, and a jump, Lee blasted his side kick into the shield. Saxon went flying back on his heels and landed in the chair — shattering it. Lee ran over with a concerned look on his face. “Don’t worry,” Saxon said. “I’m not hurt.” Lee replied, “I’m not worried about you. You broke my favorite chair.” And that, Saxon told me, is when he realized he was not going to be the star of “Enter the Dragon.” BRUCE MEETS JACKIE Michael Ochs Archives BRUCE MEETS JACKIE Blink and you'll miss the moment when Bruce Lee snaps the neck of a young Chinese stuntman by the name of Jackie Chan (pictured). The almost-literal passing of the baton between these two superstars occurred during the filming of this scene, when Lee accidentally cracked Chan in the skull with his nunchaku. “You can’t believe how much it hurt,” Chan wrote in his 1998 memoir. “Bruce threw away his weapon, ran over to me and said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry!’ and picked me up. Of all the things Bruce did, I admire him most for his kindness that day.” The two became friendly, even once going out bowling together. Jackie claims he threw more strikes.

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THE STUNTMAN Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images THE STUNTMAN Unlike Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and other Chinese Opera-trained stuntmen who learned how to backflip before they could read, Bruce Lee studied the decidedly non-gymnastic style of Wing Chun. (His mobility was further limited by a severe spine injury in 1970.) For the more acrobatic stunts in “Enter the Dragon,” like the back-handspring somersault in the opening scenes, Lee was doubled by Yuen Wah, a classmate of Chan’s. For years, fans have debated whether it’s Bruce Lee or Yuen Wah performing a backflip in this photo. (No one knows for sure.) It appears to be Bruce to me, but look closely, and see what you think. PAYBACK Michael Ochs Archives PAYBACK During this fight scene with karate champion Bob Wall (pictured), Lee accidentally cut his hand on a broken bottle Wall was holding. (In Hong Kong, they didn’t have stunt glass and used the real thing.) As Lee was rushed to the hospital for stitches, a rumor quickly spread that Wall had done it on purpose, and that Lee was going to kill him in revenge. To temper passions, Lee joked, “I can’t kill Bob, because the director needs him for the rest of the movie.” Instead, he got his payback by asking for repeated takes of him side kicking Wall in the chest. The force of Lee’s kick was so great that Wall flew into a crowd of extras, breaking one stuntman’s arm. “That’s when everyone went, ‘Holy shit!’” Wall told me. “I don’t think they realized how hard Bruce was hitting me until then.” THE STRONGMAN Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images THE STRONGMAN This photo of Bolo Yeung holding an unknown stuntman while being kicked by Lee was a publicity shot, and not part of the movie. Bolo, a champion bodybuilder and up-and-coming actor, was surprised by Lee’s behavior during filming. “He got along really well with the low-level people on set. But he was extremely impolite to his boss [studio head Raymond Chow],” Bolo recalled. “In the real world, it’s always the reverse: kiss up to your boss, and act like a tyrant to the people below you. Lee was just the opposite.” THE STUDIO HEAD Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images THE STUDIO HEAD From left to right: Andre Morgan, the American translator at Golden Harvest Studios; John Saxon; Raymond Chow, the president of Golden Harvest; and Bruce Lee. After seeing Lee on a popular Hong Kong talk show in 1970, Chow cast him in “The Big Boss,” a low-budget kung fu flick that smashed box-office records and turned Lee into the biggest star in Southeast Asia. Each movie they made together earned more money than the last. Despite the success or perhaps because of it, the two men had a contentious relationship. Lee frequently threatened to leave Golden Harvest for rival studio Shaw Bros. “When an actor becomes very popular,” Chow told me, “you cannot really throw the book at him the way you want.” THE HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images THE HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER Producer Fred Weintraub originally met Lee while he was trying to cast the lead in the ABC show “Kung Fu.” (The part eventually went to David Carradine.) Convinced of Lee’s talent, Weintraub finally found the right star-vehicle in “Enter the Dragon.” But the two men had a falling out on set over the film’s screenwriter, Michael Allin: Lee wanted total control of the script and demanded that Allin be fired; Weintraub promised he would drop Allin but didn’t. When Lee discovered the deception, he erupted and walked off the film. Lee was eventually persuaded to return, but he refused to speak to the producer for a long time. THE UNDERCOVER AGENT Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images THE UNDERCOVER AGENT Lee promised the role of Mei Ling, the undercover agent, to his girlfriend, Betty Ting Pei. But after they got into a heated argument and broke up, Lee gave the part to popular Cantonese singer, Betty Chung (pictured). When Ting Pei found out, she took a handful of sleeping pills and called her mother, who rushed her daughter to the hospital. The press covered the story — “Betty Ting Denies Suicide Attempt” — but kept any mention of Lee out of their coverage to avoid a scandal. Six months later, Lee died suddenly in Ting Pei’s apartment, leading many falsely to accuse her of having played a role in his death. “I was his girlfriend,” Betty told me during our lengthy interview, “so everyone blamed me. It was very unfair.” THE BAD GUY Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images THE BAD GUY Shih Kien, the evil Mr. Han in “Enter the Dragon,” was a veteran actor who’d played the villain in over 30 films about Wong Fei-hung, Southern China’s most famous folk hero. By selecting Kien, Lee was signaling to his Chinese audience that he was the inheritor of Wong Fei-hung’s mantle. During their climactic fight scenes, Lee went all out against the much older actor, forcing Shih Kien at one point to call out, “Take it easy, son — this is only a movie.” I like this photo because it’s one of the few times you catch Lee looking directly into the camera. BREAKTHROUGH Archive Photos/Getty Images BREAKTHROUGH In the original screenplay, Mr. Han committed suicide before Lee could capture him. Much of the shoot was spent trying to come up with a less disappointing ending. One day, after having lunch at the Repulse Bay Hotel in Hong Kong, the director, Robert Clouse, and his wife walked into a clothing boutique. “The hall had all these thin mirrors, which I watched shatter her image as she walked by them, and I said, ‘Oh, ho — that’s it,’” Clouse wrote in his 1988 biography of Lee. Two truckloads of mirrors were purchased for $8,000 and set up so every camera angle displayed multiple reflections. It was like a sauna in the hall of mirrors, and Lee was physically drained after six days of filming, but the scene proved unforgettable.

Matthew Polly’s “Bruce Lee: A Life” is published by Simon & Schuster.

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