His name was up on the theater marquee, big as life. His shoes and other memorabilia were in a glass display case. And 2,000 of his fans, many of them specially robed and belted, stood by quietly as a proclamation was read making this his day. Bruce Lee, the face that launched a thousand fists, had returned.
This is not like the unretirement of George Jessel or Tony Orlando or some other celebrity who decided the public had been deprived of their presence long enough.Bruce Lee has not been brooding somewhere in plush seclusion. Bruce Lee has Been dead for nearly six years. When he makes a new picture, titled, appropriately enough, "Game of Death," that is some kind of event.
Andre Morgan, line producer of "Game of Death," is on the phone from Hong Kong. The connection is weak, but the numbers are strong. "The Rio opening was huge, one of the biggest they've ever had," he says with satisfaction. "It's breaking records in Sao Paolo.Business is very, very good in Germany, and it was the No. 5 grosser in Japan last year, earning $8 million." Not only has a dead man made a new film, the thing is earning a fortune.
It is difficult to explain to noninitiates the singular drawing power of Bruce Lee. Calling him a martial artist is a bit like calling Proust a scribber. He was not of the genre; he defined and created it, combining startling yet graceful physical movements with an exceptional screen presence and charisma. It took Lee - the 1958 Cha Cha King of Hong Kong, a former waiter in a Chinese restaurant in Seattle and a 4-F Army reject - less than two years to bounce from relative obscurity to a status as the hottest property in world cinema, capable of asking a million dollars a picture. His last film, "Enter the Dragon," has recorded world-wide box office earnings in excess of $100 million. As Esquire headlined in 1973, "Is not Warner Bros. ancient and wise? Is not Bruce Lee young and coming up fast?" And then . . .
On July 20, 1973, Lee went to the Hong Kong apartment of actress Betty Ting Pei. He complained of a headache, was given a prescription pain killer called Equagesic, went into the bedroom to rest, could not be wakened, and was rushed to a hospital where he died at 11:30 p.m. He was 32. The coroner's verdict was "death by misadventure," the technical cause acute cerebral edema. Explained one doctor, "his brain was swollen like a sponge."
Given these circumstances, it was only natural that a cult should form around Bruce Lee, but what is surprising is that today, half a dozen years after his death, he is at the peak of his popularity. The Bruce Lee International Fan Club claims an active membership of more than 10,000. Fighting Stars, a magazine centered around the tearful worship of the great man's exploits, comes out every other month larded with letters like the following from a man in Detroit: "I want all Bruce Lee fans to write. Remember the great Bruce Lee. His spirit lives on!"
Most durable have been the literally dozens of quickie-cheapie films made with no relation to Bruce Lee except the mercenary hope of cashing in on his reputation. "The Black Dragon Revenges the Death of Bruce Lee," for example, just opened in London where a critic called it "the shoddiest and feeblest of all kung fu exploitation movies. . . . Its distinctions include a plot without the least pretense to coherence."
In addition, a recent issue of The Washington Post carried ads for no less than three films eager to profit from his good name: "Good Guys Wear Black," with lead actor Chuck Norris promoted as "He fought to the death with Bruce Lee"; a film based on a script idea of Lee's and advertised as "Bruce Lee's spirit lives in . . . Circle of Iron"; as well as the more conventional albeit ghoulish "Bruce Lee Fights Back From the Grave -n You Can't Keep a Good Man Down!"
As these feeble rip-offs proliferated, consider the plight of Raymond Chow, managing director of Hong Kong's Golden Harvest Group and the producer of many of Lee's films. Chow had in his possession sizable chunks of the very last Bruce Lee epic, the one he'd been working on at the time of his demise. Given all of the above, Chow knew that if he could turn it into a finished product, there would be no end to the money that could be made. But the nature of the footage shot seemed to make that hope an impossibility.
The problem was that even Lee himself didn't know what "Game of Death" was supposed to be about. According to his wife Linda in her book, "Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew," the closest he got to a plot was the idea of "a treasure kept on the top floor of a pagoda in Korea. It was a pagoda where martial artists were trained and each floor was devoted to training a different style of martial art."
Naturally, Lee would end up triumphantly fighting his way to the top, but according to an associate, the filming of his progress was done in a rather haphazard way: "When somebody he wanted to use showed up in Hong Kong, he'd hire 'em and shoot a sequence." In his way fights with nunchaku expert Danny Inosanto, Korean 7th-degree Hapkido Chi Hon Joi and very tall martial arts devotee Kareem Abdul Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers were filmed.
After Lee's death, Chow's first thoughts, according to producer Andre Morgan, was to "just shelve the film and forget about it. But exhibitors and distributors who were aware that the footage existed put a lot of pressure on him to do something," and in 1976 Chow finally relented and put together a "think tank" to try and come up with a usable plot.
It was, remembers Morgan, an experience "I don't wish on anyone, like working on a jigsaw puzzle backwards, starting in the middle and not in the four corners. We had the fight scenes, what we needed was the story line to justify them. Every distributor in every territory in the world had a pet theory on what would work in his market. We got dozens of unsolicited scripts from people who hadn't even seen the footage. One had Bruce coming back from the dead, another had a younger brother taking over from him, a third had him fighting with the devil. You name it, we had it, it ran the whole gamut. It got a little aggravating at times."
The final script, which went through five writers and three drafts, takes advantage of one of the many rumors surrounding Lee's death, that some kind of Chinese mafia put him out of commission. In "Game of Death," star martial artist Billy Lo is threatened by a nasty syndicate that apparently controls every sports and entertainment figure in the known world.
Billy, being made of sterner stuff decided to resist, proclaiming sturdily, "It is better to die a broken piece of jade than live a piece of clay." He is shot for his trouble, but though the syndicate thinks he has died, he in fact toughs it out and ends up fighting his way through the many stories of Hong Kong's Red Pepper Restaurant (which has replaced the Korean pagoda) and wreaking vengeance on the by now sniveling syndicate boss, a delicious, scenery-chewing cameo by Academy Award-winner Dean Jagger.
The plot has its ingenious touches - Billy being shot, for instance, enables him to spend much of the film with his face either hidden by bandages or covered by disguises - but it wasn't ingenious enough to relieve Golden Harvest of its biggest worry, how to find a double for Bruce Lee.
"That was extremely difficult," says Morgan glumly. "When Bruce died, we were literally inundated with photographs of look-alikes, but because of the time lag people's faces changed, they suddenly got bags under their eyes, everything."
Finally, not one but two doubles were settled on. There was the Fighting Bruce Lee, a Korean who was quite an action man but couldn't emote his way out of a rice sack. Joining him was the Acting Bruce Lee, a Hong Kong resident who looked enough like the original to have met and shaken hands with him in a jokey "Bruce meet Bruce" meeting in a Hong Kong disco.
Also to be located was someone to play the newly created role of hero's girl friend. Selected was Colleen Camp, a 26-year-old actress who had been charming and effective in "Smile" and "Funny Lady" and who was just coming off a tour of duty as a troop-entertaining Playboy Bunny in Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now."
"I'd been in the Phillipines for six months, I was jungled out, do you get the picture, and my agent says, 'We've got this great role for you starring opposite Bruce Lee.' 'I thought he was dead,' I said, and he says 'Yeah, exactly.' I said, 'Is this a publicity stunt or something, how can I play opposite a dead man, can you imagine?' 'Well,' he says, 'at least he won't upstage you,'"
Her agent's insistence and the fact that she got to sing the title song - "It's Number One in Japan" - helped Camp overcome her doubts, but now that she has seen the finished product she's not so sure about the wisdom of it all.
"The first words out of my mouth are, 'Let's go sphagetti tonight, I'm tired of Cantonese food,' can you imagine," she says in her breathlessly nonstop way. "My dialogue is mostly me screaming 'Billy!' karate chop, karate chop, 'Billy!' karate chop, karate chop. I'm going 'Billy, how are we going to get out of this' like those things you see on bad soap operas. I probably should't be saying this, but it's true."
Aside from the cardboard nature of her "I-made-love-to-a-dead-man" role, Camp found the whole experience "very weird. I mean his name was on the call sheet; it said 'Bruce.' And the two doubles looked so much like him it was frightening. There was a very eerie, mystical feeling to it. I'd ask questions about Bruce and everyone would be evasive. A lot of people in Hong Kong thought he was still alive, they said he knew he was getting too popular and he was pretending to be dead so he could rest. That kinda scared me."
Camp left Hong Kong at the end of the 10-week shooting with enough luggage to paralyze a horse plus a greatly increased admiration for the talents of her deceased costar.
"The guy is a brilliant talent, brilliant I tell you," she tells you. "I think he is one of the most charismatic things ever seen on film, do you know what I mean? He's a star, he's a big star. I wsa much more excited watching him than me, I was really turned on to the guy."
Equally impressed by Lee was the man who'd directed him in "Enter the Dragon" and was everyone's inevitable choice to finish up "Game of Death," Robert Clouse. "He was not a great actor, he had a funny voice and an accent some people thought was humorous, but his screen presence was just tremendous," the director remembers. "He could just stand there and stare, it was with such concentration you felt he could kill you just by staring. It came across like a bolt of electricity."
Robert Clouse is a placid, relaxed man of 51, a pipe smoker who looks like he ought to be teaching English in a small New England conservatory. In 1970, he made a feature called "Darker Than Amber," based on the Travis McGee detective series, and, he says amiably, "I got typed right there as an action director, the poor man's Peckinpah. Bruce happened to see the film, liked what he saw, and said 'That's the guy I want to direct 'Enter the Dragon.'"
Clouse soon discovered that Lee was, in the words of his wife's biography, "no plaster saint." "He was high strung, very much so, with an enormous ego, just enormous," Clouse remembers, shaking his head. "He made a lot of enemies, he had many feuds in Hong Kong. He always thought people were out to get him.
"He wanted to impress everyone instantly. The frist time he met you, you'd expect him to shake hands but instead he's step back and flick out his foot so fast you could feel the air move right at the tip of your nose. Then he'd take your hand and place it on his stomach. It was kind of his calling card. After that, you could go out to lunch."
Clouse especially remembers the time Lee accidentally cut his hand in a screen fight with Bob Wall. "Bruce got paranoid and told his buddies, 'At the end of our big fight scene, I am going to kill Bob Wall.'
"Well I got a call from Raymond Chow in the middle of the night and he said, 'Bruce is going to kill Bob Wall, you have to call him and talk him out of it.' So I called him up and he said yes, he wsa going to pile-drive himself into Wall's chest and kill him. Finally I told him he couldn't do that, that we still needed Bob for some scenes here and there after the big fight. He grumbled but it gave him an out, he could tell his pals, 'I wanted to kill him, but for the sake of the picture. . . .'"
Clouse's initial problem on "Game of Death" had nothing to do with film. "Here's what we had to do," he explains pleasantly. "We had to placate Bruce's spirit.
"The day before we started all the cast and crew went up to the top of the studio where a doorway had been opened overlooking the city. There was a Buddhist priest, several pots of incense, a whole pig was roasting in fruits and vegetables. We all had to bow with clasped hands and make our gesture so that Bruce's spirit wouldn't cause us harm."
How successful that gesture was is debatable. In a bizarre postscript, several months after "Game of Death's" completion one of its stars, Gig Young, committed suicide in New York after killing his young bride, Kim Schmidt, a script supervisor he met while making the film.
"Once was started, the big problem we faced was trying to be credible," Clouse says, weary with just remembering. "It was a terrible, huge, exhausting job. We had to match clothes, match lighting, match makeup, which was very difficult because he would be cut and stuff. It took a lot of finagling.
If there are people who feel all Orientals look alike, this film was made for them."
As a finished products, "Game of Death" is cunning in places, awkward in others. It doesn't always work, but that it works at all is amazing. Sequences from earlier films - a flying leap from "the Chinese Connection," a fight in the Roman Coliseum (yes, the Roman Cloiseum) from "Return of the Dragon" - are cleverly worked into the plot, and, in Clouse's words, "snippets of Bruce are slipped in here and there to help camouflage the action." If anything, the whole package is reminiscent of the famous quotation of Dr. Johnson's comparing a woman preaching to a dog walking on its hind legs: "It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all."
The genuine action footage is almost all compressed into a riveting, extraordinary 20 minutes near the finale. To see Bruce Lee's skill, his arrogance, his slickness, his almost inhuman magnetism, is to understand why this film was made in the first place and why it had to fail. Wonderful as it is, the footage only serves to underscore the qualities that set Lee apart and make duplication and imitation impossible.He was suit generis in life, and that is the way he remains. CAPTION: Picture 1, The late Bruce Lee, left, overpowers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a scene from "Game of Death."; Picture 2, no caption