Author Matthew Polly joins the Based on a True Story podcast to separate fact from the fiction we saw in 1993’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.
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Dan LeFebvre: [00:02:07] The movie starts off in Hong Kong in 1949 since we know from history that firstly was born on November 27th, 1940 we can assume he is eight or nine depending on one in 1949 this is happening in the movie, but almost right away we see the young Bruce Lee start training one-on-one with the Yip Man.
Can you give us some background on Bruce Lee as a child and when he started training with yet, man, like we see in the movie.
Matthew Polly: [00:02:35] Sure.
But first I just want to correct one thing that really annoys me about the first part of this movie and annoyed the leaf family, which is that he wasn’t an only child living alone with his father. He had a mother, he had three older siblings and a younger brother. So they were a, a big family. And so this movie depicts him as almost being, you know, a orphan child with just the father around.
So that’s the first thing that they, for some odd reason decided to do. The second thing was. Yeah, it mine. He didn’t begin formal study of martial arts under it, man, as his master until he was 16 years old. So they pushed this up very early. It’s fine that they did that as far as Hollywood biopics go.
This isn’t the worst poetic license, but they took, but no, he, the reason he started studying kungfu was actually because he was in a gang. Kind of a middle-class gang. We weren’t like selling drugs or anything, but he loved getting into fights and so they would go around and start trouble on the streets of Hong Kong, which back in the 1950s was a much rougher place than it is today.
And he met this older boy and that by the name of William Chung, who was a better fighter than he was. And Bruce was so competitive. He hated the idea. Anyone was better. So he wanted to see why. And the reason was because William Chung was studying wing Chung under it, man. And so Bruce Lee said, Hey, can I learn with you?
And he went to it, mine and Wong’s from long, who was the Amman senior student. And he said, I want to study with you. How long before I can beat up William Chung? So his purpose and studying wing Chung was not to like protect himself from bullies. It was to become a better street fighter.
So it had nothing to do with in the movie.
It’s like his father is the one that leads him there and hold his hand to the training. So not that at all.
Not that at all. In fact. So what is interesting is when Bruce was seven or eight, his father tried to teach him Tai Chi because Bruce was a hyperactive kid. I joke that if he’d been born later, they’d have put him on Ritalin.
So Bruce didn’t like Thai tea because it was for old people. And in fact, when he went to study wing Chung, he didn’t tell his father because his father was so upset with him already for getting into all these fights. And so he kept it a secret. And when his father found out he was studying wing Chung, he was furious.
So it’s the complete opposite of how they told it in the story.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:04:51] Sounds a little different. You mentioned getting into a fight, and that leads into the next question because according to the movie, this is think 1961 there a fight and a scene at the text on the screen tells us it’s at the lantern festival and there’s some soldiers there.
one of them happens to be the nephew of the assistant police inspector of Kowloon, and Bruce gets into this fight with them. He ends up sending this sale or to the hospital with a punctured lung after getting into a fight. And this is when Bruce’s dad, and it’s, it’s interesting that you mentioned that there is no other family around because yeah, again, you don’t see anybody else.
It’s just him and his dad. They’re talking and. He tells Bruce that he has to leave Hong Kong, and this is when we see, takes Bruce to this like secret room or secret area and Oh, here’s a birth certificate. Your name is Bersley and you have to go to America now.
Matthew Polly: [00:05:48] That’s right.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:05:49] They, I should say, he mentioned that he was on tour there with the opera company in 1940 so.
Is that why Bruce Lee left Hong Kong to go to America?
Matthew Polly: [00:05:59] So that again, what they do a lot in this movie is they take some elements that are true and then they stretch it to the point of breaking, and then they kind of put it back together. So Bruce, his father did tour for the Cantonese opera troupe in America in 1940 and Bruce was born there.
So he was an American citizen. He knew that before, before the great reveal. But they, you know, they didn’t make a big deal. It didn’t matter to him. He didn’t think about it very much. What had happened was that Bruce Lee, after he started studying wing Chung, wanted to go learn how to be better at it. And so he would go on the streets of Hong Kong and bump into people, and if they got angry, then he’d start a fight with them.
And so he was basically this punk who was like starting fights with people to show how good he was and also to practice and get better. And one day he bumped into this Chinese teenage kid and the kid fought back and he’d beat him up, and the kid’s father was an important person, and Matt kid’s father went to the police.
He didn’t fight any British soldiers, had a lantern festival and beat up five of them doing acrobatics, which by the way, he didn’t know how to do
Dan LeFebvre: [00:07:10] acrobatics ripping his shirt off in the process.
Matthew Polly: [00:07:13] Yeah, you rip this shirt off and then they’ll like several backflips. So that was like Jackie Chan. Bruce Lee was a wing Chung guy, and they didn’t do flips.
But anyway, so he didn’t fight white guys. It was some Chinese kid from unimportant family. So the police had heard about Bruce. He had been in so many street fights that his name was on a list. And so finally the police went around to his parents and to his mother actually, and said, if you don’t straighten him out, we’re going to have to arrest him.
And that’s when they had the conversation, which you see in the movie, but it was the mother and father saying, look. Things aren’t going well. Bruce was failing out of high school. it didn’t look like he had any job prospects. So they said, why don’t you go to American, straighten yourself out. And so that aspect is true, but, through the distortion of a Hollywood magic,
Dan LeFebvre: [00:08:03] why go to American?
And he’s in the movie, it’s like, Oh, you love American cars. You love American thing. So obviously America is, is where you’re going to go.
Matthew Polly: [00:08:12] It was America because he had an American passport. And so that was somewhere he could go. But also there was another reason, which was at that time, every American male of 18 years of age had to sign up for the draft.
It was a law. And so if Bruce Lee didn’t sign up for the draft, his American citizenship could be revoked. And so they also wanted to make sure that he secured this because for people living in Hong Kong, which at that time was very third world. And American’s birth certificate of citizenship had great value.
And so if he secured that, then the family could theoretically moved to America with him. And so this was something they didn’t want to lose.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:08:54] Ah, okay. Yeah. Movie doesn’t mention any of that side of it.
Matthew Polly: [00:08:59] No. Well,
Dan LeFebvre: [00:09:01] once Bruce arrives in America, in the movie, he’s in San Francisco and we see him as a dishwasher in a restaurant called Gussie.
Yang’s. Almost right away. He attracts the attention of a waitress named April, which then leads to a fight, another fight where he’s outnumbered with the cooks. They’re led by someone named mr. hope. Of course, versus a much better fighter than the cooks, so he defeats them pretty easily. But Ms. Yang gets upset, fires Bruce, but then gives him two weeks, pay two weeks severance on top of that, and then hands him some extra money as a loan.
She suggests that either he can just go blow his money and then wind up there as a dishwasher. I think she says something to the effect of, I can always use a good dishwasher or he should go get an education. Now, if we’re to believe the movie verse seems to go to America and then get in trouble.
Whether way is any of that true.
Matthew Polly: [00:09:59] So one thing I do like about that scene is the owner of the restaurant, and it’s true, he did work as a dishwasher in a restaurant called Ruby chiles. And the owner was a woman by the name of Ruby chow and onscreen, she’s played by Nancy Quan. Who is a famous Hong Kong actress who was also a personal friend of Bruce Lee.
So it was nice to see, and a personal friend of Bruce Lee play a character in the movie. That’s the best part of that scene. Actually, Bruce came to America and Ruby chow, husband was friends with Bruce’s father. That’s how he got a job in the restaurant. They put him up there, but Bruce actually, because his father and the owner’s husband were friends, thought he would just going to live there.
He didn’t realize he was going to have to do scutwork and so he was furious that he had to do the worst jobs in the restaurant, dish washing, cleaning up, and that they treated him like a servant because he actually came from a well to do family in Hong Kong and he never had to do, he had servants in Hong Kong.
So he never had to do any of this kind of work. And so he would complain loudly that he was being treated like an indentured servant. And all the other cooks were annoyed by this because they didn’t come from this kind of rich background. And they thought he was a snotty little brat. And so there were a couple times where he said something, and apparently once one of the cooks picked up a knife and threatened him, and Bruce said, come on, come get me.
And then it ended there. So. They took that moment, which is true, which is Bruce shot his mouth off and somebody challenged him with a butcher’s knife. And then they turned it into a whole fight scene
Dan LeFebvre: [00:11:38] in the alley behind the restaurant and this whole whole fight scene there.
Matthew Polly: [00:11:43] Exactly. And that’s actually one of the things Bruce Lee’s life has been turned into many different sort of projects, and they inevitably try to turn his life into a Kung Fu movie.
And that’s one of the problems is like, do you want to turn it into a genre Kung Fu movie? So you take things that are kind of true and then you turn it into these big fight scenes.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:12:01] Oh, you have to find somewhere in there to just throw in those fight scenes to keep the action in the movie. Cause people are expecting it at that point.
Matthew Polly: [00:12:07] Exactly. So they have this genre constriction they’re forced into. And so they tried to bend the biography to the genre.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:12:15] In the movie, we never, to my recollection, I don’t remember seeing or hearing any dialogue necessarily about where Bruce goes to get an education after this. We see him on some sort of a college campus, and then there’s another, another fight here.
It happens with somebody named Joe Henderson. Bruce is working out in the gym one day and Joe comes in, he spurts some racist remarks and picks a fight with Bruce Bruce again, pretty easily. Defeats Joe and the three other guys that he’s with. He’s always outnumbered in these fights. After the fight, a couple of the guys come up to him and ask, can you teach me how to fight?
I want to learn. Learn what you did. Little bit later, we see. Linda Emery, she enters the movie as the only woman in Bruce’s class. That’s how the movie sets up that he goes from it. Basically, he was a dishwasher and then he goes to get an education and then he starts teaching and then of course meeting Linda.
So how accurate was that, where he went from. Not teaching to teaching his, his martial arts to then meeting Linda. Was she one of the first students that he had in the U S
Matthew Polly: [00:13:24] no. so they, again, they play with the timeframe. So what happened was when he first got to America, he was already intent on going to college.
They signed him up for a, essentially a remedial or vocational high school to get his high school diploma because he hadn’t graduated from high school in Hong Kong. So he went to this high school for older students, vocational education, and in his class was a man, African-American by the name of Jesse Glover, who later shows up in the movie is his kind of best buddy.
He actually is the first student of Bruce Lee, and he had wanted to learn kungfu, but other Chinese teachers wouldn’t teach him. And he heard that Bruce Lee knew it, and so he’d befriended Bruce Lee and Bruce Lee actually didn’t really want to teach him that much, but because no one else, he didn’t have anything else to do.
But washing dishes, Jesse Glover became his first student. Jesse loved. Damn. He thought he was great. So Jesse pulled his roommate who became Bruce Lee’s second student, and then they told a couple of other friends and they became Bruce Lee’s third and fourth student. And then Bruce started doing things like going and giving demonstrations at high schools to gain more students.
And at these demonstrations, he would invite a tough guy in the crowd up on stage and say, Hey, try to hit me. And they would try to hit him and he would block all their punches and tie them up and knots, and then those people would become as students. So they took that and turn that into a fight scene on the college campus.
But before he got to college and he went to the university of Washington. He had already had about 10 or 15 students who are also best friends, and they trained in parks, et cetera. And then he opened a school his first year when he was at the university of Washington, and he had a school running, and one of Linda’s friends, female friends, was one of his students.
And she told him about Bruce Lee, and that’s how she became one of his students.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:15:21] But she, she did eventually become one of his students there, but she introduced through one of her friends. That’s right.
Matthew Polly: [00:15:26] Okay. So that’s absolutely true. And they, she was one of his students and he started to take a shine to her, and she was sort of Gaga for him from the very beginning.
And that’s how they ended up dating.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:15:36] Okay. So then that leads into the next part because in the movie we see when once they start dating the movie very heavily implies that it was Linda’s idea for Bruce to actually start his own school, not just students, but have his own school. We see like a, a rundown building that Bruce is going to fix up.
And you see on the glass pane of the door, it says it’s the Jun fan gung Fu Institute. Was it Linda’s idea for Bruce to start a school? I’m assuming not in San Francisco, but perhaps in Washington.
Matthew Polly: [00:16:08] No, it wasn’t her idea. So one thing you have to know is how this movie came about, which is Linda Lee ran the Bruce Lee estate and universal pictures bought all the rights to Bruce Lee from her as part of an overall deal.
So the movie rights, the TV rights, the game, video, game rights, the image rights, and also her book. In order to turn it into this movie because they were going to make Bruce Lee part of, you know, like Spiderman, one of their franchises. And so because it’s based on her book, this is really her story of who Bruce Lee was, and it’s from their perspective, which is why this is kind of a romance, because this is Linda’s version of Bruce Lee, how she met him.
How did, did. And of course, and with Hollywood magic, they make her sort of a, you know, I kind of feminist in the 1990s model as opposed to what she was, which was like kind of an Eisenhower girl who was very strong but quiet. And so, you know, Lauren Holly, who’s beautiful place, or is this kind of spunky thing, but actually Linda was much quieter as a person.
Bruce Lee already had opened the school. She went to the school that he had opened and he already had the idea of making it like McDonald’s, like a franchise across the
Dan LeFebvre: [00:17:24] country. Ah, okay. Yeah. Cause that’s something that she mentions to McDonald’s key there of franchising. Yeah.
Matthew Polly: [00:17:31] Yeah. So they gave that to her to make her sort of a stronger female lead basically.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:17:37] Okay. Okay. Well, once he starts the school, this leads back to something that you had talked about earlier, Bruce. He gets in trouble for teaching what they call or Westerners. We never really find out. Who they are really, but the other Chinese martial arts teachers around just, it goes into some roam around a table.
Yeah. Yeah. They’re, they’re playing around a table. Oh, you can’t teach non-Chinese our ways. Yeah. I think the movie just calls them the elders, you know, and they’re going to enforce this rule and the way they’re going to enforce it is by pitting Bruce Lee against who we presume is there. Fighting champion.
Johnny son. And in this fight, Bruce beats Johnny. Then at the very last moment, just as Bruce’s walking away, Johnny has kind of a cheap shot. He kicks Bruce in the back, breaking his back and sending Bruce to the hospital. That’s how the movie sets this up. Did this fight with Johnny sun actually happen because Bruce Lee wanted to teach anyone.
Who wanted to learn.
Matthew Polly: [00:18:44] Yeah, so again, this is one of those, this is one of the great myths of Bruce Lee, that this is why this happened. The fight did happen. It is one of the most famous Kung Fu fights ever. The real story is that Bruce Lee was opening a school in Oakland. He had one in Seattle, and he, this was going to be a second part of his franchise, part of his great empire.
McDonald’s can food empire that he was going to build, and he was having trouble getting students to Oakland because all the Kung Fu students were in San Francisco because that had the largest Chinatown. Now, there were people who knew that he was teaching white people, and there were people who didn’t think it was a good idea.
Chinese people at that time. For example, Ruby child told him not to do it, but they, there was no elders there. The Chinatown didn’t have a system of elders who enforce their laws. There were just people who like, okay between each other. We’re saying, that’s really stupid that you shouldn’t teach. Why low?
What actually happened was he was giving a performance in San Francisco, add a Chinese theater with a large crowd, and he was demonstrating his version of Kung Fu wing Chung. His style. And while giving the demonstration, he said, my style is better than everybody else’s style. And he also said, you’ve got a lot of old masters.
These old tigers have no teeth basically that their styles are useless and mine’s the best. So you should come study with me. Now every martial artist thinks his style is the best, but you’re not supposed to say it out loud because it gets people pissed off. And that’s what happened. They got pissed off, and so there were a couple of young 20 something kids.
Who were mad that Bruce Lee had said this. And so they started talking amongst themselves and they got this waiter who also studied kungfu and wanted to open its own school by the name of Wong, Jack man to challenge formerly challenged Bruce Lee. And so they went over and they challenged him, and Bruce Lee said, yeah, I’ll fight him, but you have to fight me at my school.
Another thing, the movie gets wrong. And so they went over to his school. And by the way, when they went over to a school, his wife was there, his friend was there. He didn’t sneak off and have this fight and he won the fight fairly quickly. It was within three minutes. At the end of the fight though, he beats up the, he beat up Wong, Jack man, one back man didn’t break his back, but that’s a total fantasy.
What happened was later, many, like four or five years later, Bruce Lee was doing an exercise. He hadn’t warmed up for it where he’s picking dead weight off the ground. And he strained his back. So he did have a back injury. They just collapsed the time frame. And then they had Wong, Jack man sneakily break his back at the end of a fight that he lost.
And so they’re combining several elements in order to sort of make the story more exciting.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:21:28] Okay. So that, that’s a common technique that a lot of movies do too. Compress a timeline of an entire lifetime into just, you know, an hour, hour and a half or so.
Matthew Polly: [00:21:37] Yup. I should say though, that one long tech man saw the movie, he was so furious.
he sued Linda Lee and universal studios for $2 million.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:21:46] Oh wow.
Matthew Polly: [00:21:47] So that went to court and the court ruled that he was somewhat of a public figure, so they threw it out. But he became a very respected martial arts instructor in San Francisco and for his whole career, he became the guy who broke Bruce Lee’s back, sneakily in a fight.
Oh, out. It’s so, but his, his students hate this movie and they hate Bruce Lee. So this has become a lot like within this little world. This is like a really contentious issue. What actually happened at that fight?
Dan LeFebvre: [00:22:16] Oh, wow. Yeah. That sounds a very, very different. Yes, yes. Okay. So as far as the movie is concerned, and I, it sounds like he did have some sort of a back strain, not necessarily a broken back.
Matthew Polly: [00:22:31] Right.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:22:32] But there’s a montage in the movie where Bruce is in rehabilitation and as he’s in rehabilitation, he can barely move. And he dictates this idea of a new form of martial arts to Linda. And this is where we get . Linda’s taking notes, sketches. We see her typing it out on a typewriter. I pause the movie to see the title of it, just called the book.
And we know from history that of course Bruce Lee really did write a book, but the publication date on that I looked was in 1975 after Bruce Lee’s death. And we see a scene in the movie where Linda is so excited. She comes and you can see the book is, you know, Oh, your books, your books here. So how accurate is the movie in depicting this montage of how Bersley came up with by dictating it to Linda while he was in rehabilitation?
Matthew Polly: [00:23:27] Yeah, so again, timeframe and compression. They tried to get all of this and do a very tight space. Bruce Lee came up with the idea of G condo in 1967 1968 and his injury wasn’t until 1969 so he had already had the idea himself and he’d been working on it for. Actually the Wong Jack man fight when it ended.
That’s true. He was upset by how it did and that led to his break with wing Chung and his desire to form a new style. So for maybe three to four years, he had already been taking notes aboutG condo and he had the name for it and he had already started teaching it before he had his injury. That said, Linda Lee was extraordinarily helpful to his career.
She supported him all the way. She was one of his students who was a pretty good martial artist. So they’re giving us a little more credit or specific credit than she deserves for this, but she was very much part of his life. And I think. What’s interesting, people should know the Dougie condos, the bestselling martial arts book of all time.
I’ve written three. None of them have sold anywhere near what that has. So all respect. But basically what happened is they went through and they found a box full of notebooks, and they just took those notebooks and splice them together. And that’s the book after he died. So he never finished the book. He didn’t write it.
It’s not, if you look at it, it’s not actually a book. It’s just a series of notes and sayings that he scribbled through, like, you know, eight notebooks as you do when you’re prepping to try to write something, but he never got around to the actual writing of it. He just got to the research phase.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:25:06] Oh, okay.
Okay. Yeah. Again, that’s a very different picture than him dictating and all and having it all typed out and, and published and received back in his lifetime. Okay. So I’m assuming based on what you had had said before, because after this we see Bruce Lee go proving his new fighting style, and he does this going to, I don’t remember if it was a high school auditorium or where it was, but he goes to this auditorium, he’s like pretty much pick out the alpha.
Anybody in this room improve that. My style is better. And you mentioned something. Earlier, similar to that, of course, the movie uses this as an example of bringing Johnny son back and he defeats him in under 60 seconds. I’m assuming that particular instance didn’t happen.
Matthew Polly: [00:25:53] No. So from the moment he opened his first school, he would go give demonstrations.
And what I think is interesting about that is that’s how he created the Bruce Lee character that we see on screen. Is he did it in essentially like a standup comic working his material. He would go on stage and give demonstrations of what his style was, and he would tell jokes and he would be funny, but he’d also be serious.
And he’d invite somebody up and he got to see from the crowds what worked and what didn’t. And he invented himself as Bruce Lee, the Kung Fu master on the sort of small stages of Seattle, Oakland in LA. And so when you understand who Bruce Lee was, you understand somebody who had honed this persona, which was part him, of course, like any standup, but was also a, we’re reaction to the crowd.
He knew what worked because he tested it. So he did go around and give these demonstrations, but he never, he was always in control and it was always like, I throw a punch, I’ll block it. It never turned into a full fight. He did have a few fights with people who didn’t like him. there was a Japanese master, not master, a Japanese karate student.
He fought and beaten like 20 seconds. So Bruce Lee was a real fighter and he could fight, but he never fought the Jackson Wong, Jack man guy ever again. The guy who didn’t actually break his back. So, and that scene leads up to him, his discovery in Hollywood right. What actually happened was he gave a performance in long beach outside of LA, and there was a hairdresser there, who was a famous Hollywood hairdresser by the name of Jay Sebring.
And he saw the performance and was impressed by Bruce Lee. And then. JC bring had a TV executive who was one of his clients talking about a new TV series he wanted to do with a Chinese actor who could do action. And so JC bring, put the TV producer together with Bruce Lee. So one of his demonstrations did lead to his Hollywood career, but it wasn’t a 62nd fight to the death with someone.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:28:01] Okay. Yeah, I think it was bill Krieger. Yes. Happened to be watching. One of the performances is, Oh Hey, can you do this stuff in front of the camera? I’ve got a show called the green Hornet. Let’s, let’s do this. That’s pretty much how the movie shows his transition from martial arts to acting. When he made that transition to acting, what happened to his schools?
Did he put that chapter of his life behind him and shift over to acting? The movie kind of seems to imply that he did. He
Matthew Polly: [00:28:29] actually, after he got offered the role of keto in the green Hornet, he opened a school in Los Angeles. He did close his Oakland school because it didn’t have enough students, and then he had a friend running his Seattle school.
So for the early parts of his Hollywood career, you basically still had two schools going. He did spend a fair amount of time initially with his Los Angeles school is LA based school and taught some of the students there and that was, he sort of had a bifurcated life. He had his Hollywood life and he still kept up as students, but eventually by the time he becomes world famous, he closed all of the schools down.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:29:08] Yeah. That’s a lot of different irons in the fire, right, to keep going, especially spread across the different locations. That’s right. Now there’s one scene I want to ask you about because. There’s virtually, he started his acting career and we see a scene where he’s walking with bill Krieger and the two of them are coming up with an idea for a new show.
They’re talking back and forth, and as they’re doing that from the dialogue, we start to get this idea that starts to take shape. It’ll, it’ll be a Western starring a Chinese immigrant. he’s searching for his brother, except he doesn’t use a gun. He uses kungfu. And both just excited about this show. And then later we see Bruce and Linda sitting at home watching a new TV show called kungfu starring David died.
You can just see that Bruce feels betrayed. So that’s how the movie sets up. This idea that Bruce Lee and bill Krieger came up with this idea for the show, and then it very heavily implies that David Carradine was cast over Bruce Lee for the lead role that happened.
Matthew Polly: [00:30:12] So no, again, this is one of the most annoying myths that continue to this day based on this movie.
So the TV series, Kung Fu was written by two Jewish comedy writers from Brooklyn by the name of , ed Spielman, and Howard Freelander. They came up with the original idea. They sold it to a Warner brothers, and the producer was Fred Weintraub, who is the bill Krieger character. So he had this idea. He went to Bruce Lee and said, I have this idea.
I hear you. You know, you’ve been keto. What do you think about playing the lead? And then the idea is a movie died and later got revived as a TV series. It was originally supposed to be a feature movie, and so it got revived as a TV series. But by this time it was 1971 and Bruce Lee had already gone back to Hong Kong and made the big boss.
And so after he finished the big boss, he flew to Hollywood and audition for the role. And the TV producer in charge decided, probably didn’t want to cast an Asian guy anyway, but he felt that Bruce Lee’s accent was too thick. And so the role went to David Carradine. So this wasn’t idea. He didn’t write the script.
He auditioned for the role and didn’t get it. There may have been some racism why he didn’t get it, but he didn’t leave Hollywood because of it. He’d already left Hollywood and gone to Hong Kong. So all of this is mixed up and it’s becomes this huge myth, which everyone tells, which is Hollywood was so racist.
Bruce Lee had to leave. Because they gave Kung Fu to David Carradine and go to Hong Kong and that it just doesn’t fit the chronology. Hollywood was racist. He did face racism, but this wasn’t the example that drove him to Hong Kong.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:31:59] What was his reason for going to Hong Kong then?
Matthew Polly: [00:32:01] He was really frustrated with the fact that he couldn’t get roles and the roles he was offered were really stereotypical, terrible roles, which you can imagine at that time.
He got offered a two movie deal by a man named Raymond chow who had started golden harvest studios, which was this upstart studio. And initially Bruce blew him off cause he’s still thought his Hollywood career was going to come to fruition. And then after a couple of years of it not going well, he changed his mind and signed the deal.
But as soon as they signed the deal, he got this role in long street, which did really well. And so he felt like Hollywood was gonna work out for him, but he needed the money. He had bought a house in Brentwood that was too expensive for him, and he’d also bought a Porsche because his students, Steve McQueen, had a Porsche and he wanted to be cool, like the other cool kids.
He basically was out of money. And so he agreed to go to Hong Kong and he planned on going for like two or three months and filming these two movies, getting a cash infusion, and then he was going to go back to Hollywood and continue his TV career, which right before he left, looked like it was very promising.
So, and that’s like a confusing storyline and that’s why they simplify it and make it just a simple racism story.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:33:21] Yeah, I think there’s little hints as you’re talking there. There’s a little hint of those types of things. There was, I think, one scene where we see Linda looking at some past due notices.
Yup. Giving the impression that they need the money, and there’s a scene, I think where we’re, Bruce has a, I don’t know if it was a Porsche, I didn’t look, I don’t remember specifically, but it was a pretty nice car that he was, he was driving around and yeah.
Matthew Polly: [00:33:47] And she’s gets like shit, and when he pulls up on it, she gives him a look like, what are you doing?
Dan LeFebvre: [00:33:54] yeah, yeah. Which leads into a, another aspect of it because the implication I got from from that side was they may have had financial troubles, but maybe Bruce didn’t really know about that. I guess the impression I got was that Linda, Linda knew about it. She kept track of the finances, but.
Bruce went off and bought this expensive car and when they, when they need the money, was that kind of that dynamic between the two of them?
Matthew Polly: [00:34:20] no. he knew about all the financial difficulties. There’s letters where he sends home, he sends letters. He had to borrow money from friends. And so he was like writing letters saying, I’ll get you your money now, or I’m really sorry I’m late with the money.
So, no, but. One thing that did happen was it right at this period when he had the house that was too expensive and the Porsche, that’s when he injured his back and he couldn’t work for six months and he was making his money teaching martial arts to Hollywood stars like Steve McQueen, who are paying him the equivalent of $1,000 an hour and he can no longer teach them.
And that’s when their financial difficulty got much worse. And so Linda had to take a job, which she had never done before cause it was very 1950s. She looked after the kids. He brought in the money. And so she did have to support the family during his period of convalescence. so I don’t want to, anyway, underplay her importance to Bruce Lee’s success.
It’s just they, they Polish it up and turn it kind of 1990s version.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:35:23] Okay. Well that touches on something else I want to ask you about, and that is the overall way that Bruce is portrayed in the movie as a family man. In the movie we see Bruce Lee, it seems like he loves Linda and his two kids.
He’s a workaholic, but it looks like throughout the movie, he’s really just trying his best to provide for his family. Toward the end of the movie, he says something along the lines of, I just want to spend more time with my kids and stop breaking my wife’s heart because. You know, I’m, I’m working all the time.
What was the Lee family dynamic like?
Matthew Polly: [00:35:58] And certain ways that’s very true, which is he did love his wife. They were great friends. He adored his children. Andy was a workaholic, but he was also a Hollywood actor and the era of free love and his friends were like, Steve McQueen. And so he had little things on the side here and there, that no one ever reported before.
I wrote my biography about him for him. He didn’t, I, it was just that, you know, he was a Hollywood actor in the late sixties. They all cheated and he did as well. That didn’t mean he didn’t love his wife. It just, he was doing what they all did. But the movie comes out and makes him the perfect family man.
And. Maybe that’s what a 1969 perfect family man look like, but that’s not what we think a perfect one does. And so they whitewashed his history in order to make him, you know, it was Linda’s book that they turned it into. They didn’t want to get into it. And you know what’s interesting is in the original screenplay, they had a scene where.
He’s in Thailand filming the movie, and there’s an actress who’s hitting on him and he’s awful tempted. But at the very end he says, no, I can’t because I love my wife too much. And they ended up feeling that was too racy. And they cut. Even that suggestion that there a hint that he might have been tempted away from, you know, heart and home.
And the truth was he had multiple affairs over the years. Once he became a Hollywood actor.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:37:27] Okay. Yeah. That’s a little bit of a different dynamic than we see in the movie then.
Matthew Polly: [00:37:31] Yup. Very much. It was, he was much more like mad men, you know, like when you think about mad men, you think about these guys who love their wives came home and whatever, but when they were off at work, they did, they had sex with the secretary or whatever, and it just didn’t interfere.
And that’s, that double standard was what he grew up with. And so it’s just a different dynamic than those of us who grew up kind of post eighties where that’s just not acceptable.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:37:56] Yeah. Okay. Well that’s a good way to phrase that in another TV show example, another theme throughout the movie that I wanted to ask you about was this concept we see of the demon.
It starts at the very beginning, right at the very beginning of the movie with Bruce as a child, all the way to what I thought was a very specific date, the 32nd day of shooting, enter the dragon near the end of the film, and then. It’s during that last vision that Bruce sees his own grave and on the grave as the date, July 20th, 1973 can you give a little more insight into the historical accuracy of this idea of the demon, that Bersley how if he’s hallucinating or how he’s seeing these visions in the movie, but then how well did the movie do depicting the end of Bruce Lee’s life?
Matthew Polly: [00:38:53] Again, they took some element of truth and then they ran with it, which is before Bruce was born, the first male child that his parents had did die, I think before it was one year old. And in Chinese culture, that’s considered a bad omen. And so as a kind of superstition, any child, any male child born after that is supposed to be given a female nickname.
and dressed up in female clothes. And so they did do that with Bruce Lee. In fact, they even pierced his ear and gave him an ear ring when he was a little baby. And so this is a Chinese custom from that period of time. But that’s it. Like that’s, that’s the end of the demon. He never, he never came up again.
Brucely never had visions of a demon. His father never warned him that the demon was going to get him. So you’d have to run off to America. Bruce probably had some bad dreams every once in a while, but it wasn’t a demon. The director has been interviewed and he said, I wanted to, you know, use that artistic license to speak about his inner struggle, but they also had another problem, which is how to deal with Bruce Lee’s death, and Bruce Lee died in another woman’s bedroom.
That’s how we know if he wasn’t a purely faithful husband. When that came out, it was a huge scandal in the Hong Kong press. And it was very tough on Linda. And so one of the things that she wanted to make sure and the, your sense is that no one really dug into the situation involving Bruce Lee’s death.
And so any Bruce Lee estate product, any, anything that comes that’s associated with the Bruce Lee estate. Pretty much avoids the gritty details of his death. And so using the demon was another way for them to kind of Skidrow by what actually happened, which was he was spending the afternoon with his mistress and for some reasons that are still under debate, he ended up dying in her bedroom.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:40:51] Oh wow. Okay. Yeah, I like it. I could see that then. Cause that would go against the family man that they set up throughout the entire movie.
Matthew Polly: [00:40:59] Yup. I mean, this is really the version they’re doing. It’s Bruce Lee, the family man, but also the romance, and I think they do a wonderful job of. Getting that part of it, but he was a more complicated person with more flaws and they just decided to, you know, scrub those away.
And the death obviously would make that much more complicated, a storyline. So him dying and that sort of almost mythical way is a way for them to escape that. But you know, one of the things that was spooky about the movie is that they had asked Brandon Lee if he wanted to play his father. Brandon’s being Bruce’s son, and he said, no.
He took the part in the Crow that last scene, Bruce is fighting the demon and then the demon goes after his son and Bruce has to kill the demon in order to protect his son. And within a year, Brandon had died, actually six months, I think, had died on the set of the Crow under like really weird circumstances.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:41:58] That was like a blink or something like that, wasn’t it? That don’t remember the specifics of it. I remember when that happened. Yeah,
Matthew Polly: [00:42:04] yeah, yeah. Very creepy. And so this movie came out and it has got this whole demon thing about a family curse. And then Brandon dies. And so in the public’s mind, there is this idea that somehow Bruce’s family has actually been cursed.
I’ve actually had producers in Hollywood call me and say, we’re doing the curse of the leaf family, will you participate in that? And I’m like, no, because there’s no curse on his family. But they’ve had two really tragic deaths, the father and the son. And part of the reason people believe this is because unfortunately, they use this demon sort of mythos in the movie itself.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:42:44] Well, we’ve talked about some of the big myths that come out of the movie. Are there any other major myths about Bruce Lee that people believe because of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story?
Matthew Polly: [00:42:55] I think we hit the main ones. I was rewatching it this afternoon, and. He never drove a motorcycle. That’s not a big myth, but it is funny because all of his friends said he was a terrible driver like he was.
He was like, he drove too fast. He scared the heck out of them. So they, the idea of him on a motorcycle, it’s kind of foolish. I think the biggest myth that the movie sets up, which is because they start with him training with it. Mine. They make it seem as if he was a martial artist who accidentally became an actor.
Everything up to this moment where he’s fighting Jackson, he’s just this martial artist, and then accidentally Hollywood discovers him. Actually Bruce Lee’s father was a famous opera singer, which they mentioned in the movie, but Bruce Lee was also a child actor and appeared in 20 Cantonese movies before the age of 18 he was kind of like the Macaulay Culkin of Hong Kong.
And so when Hollywood called, he was ready. He already knew how to act, and that’s why he succeeded because he was a great martial artist who also had a strong background in acting. And most. Martial artists who get cast like Chuck Norris don’t know how to act. Bruce Lee is the only one who could do both.
And that’s why he succeeded as a star because he was an actor. And then he became a martial artist and then he combined the two and this movie sets up the idea of Bruce Lee, the pure martial arts genius, perfect father, and he’s actually like an actor who became a martial artist. Who was not perfect, but combine those two skills.
And I think if they had just had one scene where they showed him as a child actor, it would have filled out his story much more.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:44:41] Yeah. Well, I’m wondering, just as you were saying that, it lends back to what’s something that you mentioned earlier where he thrown into, well, this has to be a Kung Fu movie because it’s about Bruce Lee and so.
If he was an actor, would he know how to fight the four cooks in the alleyway or, and you know, the, the sailors and you know, all these scenes that we have to set up for him. Well, he has to be a martial artist then at that point because yes, I already know how to fight. And so I’m wondering if that’s why they did that in order to tell the story, but mix up quite a few things along the way to do that.
Matthew Polly: [00:45:16] I th yeah. You know, that’s part of the issue and all, to be fair, I’ve seen much worse biopics than this one as biopic. SCO, it’s a perfectly decent version, the huge inaccuracy. But that’s sort of part and parcel. Part of the reason though, as I think this, it’s based on Linda Lee’s book and for her, she fell in love with Bruce Lee when he was a martial artist.
And she fell in love with her martial arts teacher. And I think for her, that’s the most important aspect of him, and I don’t believe she was ever particularly happy with him when he went back to being an actor.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:45:54] Do you think some of the affairs had something to do with that? I mean, that’s part of that lifestyle, I
Matthew Polly: [00:45:59] think the lifestyle, yeah.
After he died, very interestingly, she never, she pulled away from it. She kept her kids away from it. She didn’t want her son to be an actor. She was a quiet person who never cottoned to that world, and I think this was Bruce Lee’s dream to be a great star. Her dream was to marry a guy who had the McDonald’s chain of Kung Fu studios.
And so I think those two aspects of Bruce Lee, what’s interesting is when you hear her versions of the story, she recognizes he was both, but she emphasizes the part that she fell in love with and this movie does as well. And that’s created this image of Bruce Lee is this Kung Fu master and that sort of accidental actor when it’s actually the opposite.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:46:42] That makes sense. Now, if you put yourself in a director’s chair for a moment, if there was one thing you wish it was in the movie that didn’t put in there, what would that be?
Matthew Polly: [00:46:52] It would help if they just show, I think Jason’s got lead did a good job of catching Bruce’s emotional range, like his charm and his anger, but they should have showed his flaw and they should have had one scene where he was not the perfect husband.
They should have had one affair. Because I think that would have shown a more complex adult version of him and allowed us to appreciate the fact that he was a flawed human being who was also able to achieve greatness. And that would have made it less a child’s story and more an adult story. And every time someone, you know, there’s recently been a documentary that came out.
ESPN is doing. And again, they skip the death. They skip the affairs, and they focus on Bruce Lee’s accomplishments only, and they turn him into a Saint and almost a demigod. And I really think it’s important for us to appreciate him as a human being because as a flawed human being, his successes are more impressive.
But if you treat him as a demigod, then you know, of course he could beat 50 people from the get go. He never lost a fight. He was perfect. I don’t know why we feel the need to treat Bruce Lee is perfect. We have movies about other iconic figures where, you know, Martin Luther King had affairs like it’s not, these aren’t things that we can’t deal with as a culture.
So that’s the thing that annoys me about these films in general, which is this desire to make Bruce Lee a Saint. He wasn’t a Saint. He was a great man, but he wasn’t a Saint.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:48:18] We’re all human and we all make mistakes and they’re going to perhaps be different mistakes and the ones that that he made, but that would make for a lot more, a lot more character depth there and a lot more relate-ability to it.
Matthew Polly: [00:48:30] I think so. So I’m hopeful that someday they will do a more human version of Bruce Lee on screen. I feel like this was the kind of the kids starter version of the Bruce Lee story where they mix a bunch of stuff up and unfortunately, no one else has corrected it. And so when I wrote the biography, I felt in many ways I felt like this movie was the thing I was writing against because there were so many things that were wrong and that I didn’t know when I started because the movie’s been reinforced by magazine articles, et cetera.
And so while it’s a perfectly fine movie, it is pretty terrible
Dan LeFebvre: [00:49:01] history. Well, you mentioned your biography, and hopefully at the end of the day, everybody listening to this realizes that it is a movie. It’s going to be a movie. It’s not going to be historically accurate. So with that in mind, anyone listening to this that wants to learn the true story, can you share some information about your book and where they can get a copy?
Matthew Polly: [00:49:23] So the title of the book is Bruce Lee alive by Matthew Polly. It’s available everywhere so you can get it on Amazon. It’s in most bookstores still paperback versions come out. It’s being adapted into a documentary. It may be a movie someday. We’re working on that, so who knows. Maybe we will get the story straight on on in Hollywood, but until that day, the book’s there and it’s a available everywhere.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:49:48] Thank you again so much for your time.
Matthew Polly: [00:49:51] I really appreciate it.