Bruce Lee is considered to be one of the most influential martial artists that the world has ever seen. He is renowned for his extraordinary combat skills and physical prowess. Yet despite Lee’s incredible attributes and strength, a truly bizarre reason prevented him from serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.
Lee rose to worldwide fame in the 1960s when he began appearing on U.S. TV and then later in a number of hugely successful films. Before that, he had become highly regarded in combat circles for his Kung-fu mastery and the pioneering of his unique own style of martial arts. And the remarkable legacy he left in that field has lived on long after his untimely death.
The martial arts supremo enjoyed success in Hollywood, too; movies such as The Way of the Dragon and Fist of Fury are recognized as classics of their genre. Furthermore, Lee’s astonishing fitness levels and physical feats soon became legendary. These included having a striking speed of five hundredth of a second and the ability to do push ups with two fingers. Nevertheless, Lee’s almost unrivalled ability and strength in martial arts was not enough for conscription into the U.S. Army.
So, why would the American military not want the service of such a legendary martial artist? We’ll get to the astonishing details of that a little bit later. Firstly, though, we should take a detailed look at the remarkable life and career of the iconic star.
Lee Jun-fan entered the world in November 1940 at the Jackson Street Hospital in San Francisco. And a nurse at the institution is believed to have first bestowed him with the name “Bruce.” However, Lee apparently didn’t use that name until he began studying English in high school.
Lee actually arrived in both the hour and year of the Dragon. This, in Chinese Zodiac terms, is believed to be a powerful and fortunate sign for a newborn. And the mythical, serpent-like creature would become synonymous with Lee in later years. Nonetheless, Lee was a rather sickly baby, and he was given a girl’s name by his superstitious mom – reportedly to help defend him against evil spirits that were out to pinch cherished baby boys.
Lee happened to be born in San Francisco because his Hong Kong opera singer father was on tour there at the time. His dad’s name was Lee Hoi Chuen, and he had moved to the U.S. with his wife Grace Ho and Lee’s three siblings in 1939. The martial artist was the couple’s fourth child, and the family would go on to welcome another sibling, Robert, eight years later.
But Lee didn’t stay long in the country of his birth, and his parents took him back to Hong Kong when he was only three months old. And the future star later recalled that one of his earliest memories was the Japanese occupation of the island, which lasted for four years from 1941.
Interestingly, Lee had enjoyed a taste of stardom at a very tender age. He actually made his first film appearance as a baby just before leaving the United States. Yes, with his father’s connections, Lee made it into the Hong Kong flick Golden Gate Girl and played a female.
Lee’s father had introduced his son to acting at an early age, and it was the latter who helped coach him in the field as a child. Incredibly, Lee had already appeared in 20 films by the time he was 18 years old.
But it wasn’t just films and school work that were keeping the young star busy. No, Lee was also a multi-talented performer and an acclaimed dancer. He practised the latter regularly and even emerged victorious in the Hong Kong Cha Cha Championship dancing competition in 1958.
But more importantly for his future career and fame, Lee acquired another burning passion in his youth alongside dancing and acting. That passion was, of course, martial arts. It began when Lee was 13 and he met a teacher called Master Yip Man, who subsequently taught him the martial arts style of Wing Chun over a five-year period.
And Lee’s meeting with Yip Man would change the course of his life. The latter was an exponent and instructor of Wing Chun. And Lee would come to master all aspects of the fighting style under Yip Man’s tutelage.
Lee and Yip Man’s warm relationship would continue throughout their lives and the former regularly visited his teacher in later years. But the star didn’t just shine in Wing Chun, he also had a clear talent for boxing. While at high school, Lee would emerge victorious over an English student in an interschool competition using the orthodox rules of the sport which banned kicking.
Nonetheless, by the time he had reached 18, Lee was at something of a crossroads in his life. He hadn’t done so well at school, and his penchant for combat had spilled out of the classroom and onto the streets. So, in April 1959 Lee made a bold decision. With just $100 on him, he clambered upon an American Presidents Line steamship and began a voyage back to the place of his birth: San Francisco.
Lee wouldn’t spend much time in northern California, however. Instead, he made his way to Seattle, where a family friend called Ruby Chow ran a restaurant. She offered to put Lee up and give him a job working there. At this point, he had wanted to concentrate on his studies, so he completed his tenure at Edison Technical School and then later enrolled at the University of Washington.
According to the university’s alumni publication, Lee majored in drama and spent much of his time there writing numerous essays about martial arts. He had also been teaching a style of self-defense which he called Jun Fan Gung Fu in Seattle for several years by this point. And it was through these classes at the Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute that he would meet a University of Washington student called Linda Emery in 1963.
Emery had first become aware of Lee when he gave a guest lecture on Chinese philosophy at her high school in Seattle. Then, after some persuasion from a pal, she decided to sign up to martial arts lessons under Lee’s tutelage. The pair soon fell in love and within a year they were married. Their first child, Brandon, then arrived in February 1965.
Lee was by now concentrating fully on martial arts – putting any acting or dancing dreams he had firmly on the shelf. His devotion to it was now absolute, and in 1964 he handed control of the Seattle school to his assistant instructor Taky Kimura. Lee subsequently relocated to Oakland, where he founded his second institution with James Yimm Lee. And it was here that an arranged fight with a fellow martial arts supremo called Wong Jack Man would shape the former’s path.
According to Lee, a number of people in the Chinese community were angry at him for allowing non-Chinese students to take his classes. The ultimatum, therefore, was that the star would stop teaching the latter group in the event that he lost the fight with Wong Jack Man. Lee subsequently rose to the challenge and pinned his opponent down. But, according to the martial artist’s official website, his difficulty in winning the showdown using Wing Chun techniques led him to develop his own form of Kung fu known as Jeet Kune Do.
Then in August 1964 the esteemed don of American Kenpo Ed Parker invited Lee to the First International Karate Tournament. The event was taking place in Long Beach, California, and Lee provided the watching public with an electrifying, half hour-long demonstration of his martial arts skills.
Dressed all in black, Lee disseminated his personal philosophy and demonstrated his remarkable speed and power. Here, he showed the two-finger push-up and unleashed his ferocious one-inch punch, which sent an unfortunate volunteer sprawling into a chair. Richard Bustillo, a boxer and marital artist who attended the event, told Press-Telegram in 2014, “He just blew everyone away. When he spoke, that whole auditorium was quiet. You could hear a pin drop.”
In the audience on that day was a renowned celebrity hairstylist called Jay Sebring. And, mesmerized by Lee, he passed on the star’s details to the Hollywood producer William Dozier. Intrigued, the latter got hold of a recording of Lee’s exhibition, and he was also floored by what he saw. Dozier then contacted Lee to offer him a screen test in L.A. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Lee’s path to worldwide stardom didn’t happen right away, however. By early 1965 he had a major decision to make. Lee could persist with his martial arts teaching and the continual nationwide expansion of his schools, or he could try his luck in TV and film.
Lee subsequently decided to become an actor at this time and use his platform to showcase his love for martial arts. He landed several parts in both movies and television shows – including a co-starring role in the 26-episode run of The Green Hornet. The performances on the program showed off his fighting prowess and endeared him to American audiences, and he also appeared as the same character in a crossover episode of Batman.
But despite his notable work in The Green Hornet and a number of other shows, it wasn’t easy for Lee and his family to get by in the late 1960s. As a result, the star – whose daughter Shannon was born at the end of the decade – gave private schoolings in Jeet Kune Do to supplement his acting income. He didn’t teach just any ordinary Joe, however. In fact, his pupils included Hollywood actors such as James Coburn and Steve McQueen.
However, Lee badly injured his back lifting a 125-pound weight during a morning workout in 1970. Tests found he had damaged the fourth sacral nerve, and he was bedridden for half of a year. Doctors doubted he’d be able to do martial arts ever again, but they underestimated the iron will of Lee. He instead began writing again and implemented his own recovery plan which would see him back into health. Nevertheless, he would still suffer pain due to the incident in his final few years.
During his recovery period, Lee traveled back to Hong Kong with his son Brandon. And while there, he met with the movie producer Raymond Chow, who talked him into starring in two films for Golden Harvest. Lee said yes, believing that if he could become a major star in Hong Kong it would soon lead to an increased profile and success in the U.S. And as it turned out, he was completely right.
In 1971 Lee flew to Thailand to film martial arts flick The Big Boss, and it later became a huge hit in Hong Kong – smashing box office records there. The movie perfectly welded Lee’s Jeet Kune Do flexibility with his natural charisma and flair for the dramatic. Lee soon became a major star attraction in Hong Kong and subsequently moved his family there in September that year.
Soon after moving to Hong Kong, Lee began shooting for the final movie in his contract with Golden Harvest. That film would be Fist of Fury, and it surpassed the record-breaking success of his previous outing at the box office. Still, some U.S. critics were left unimpressed. Lee’s standing was so big in Hong Kong by now though that he could begin to call all the shots with regard to his films. So he duly set about setting up his own production company with Raymond Chow and began writing his own screenplay. That script would become The Way of the Dragon.
The hugely successful film turned out to be Lee’s breakthrough moment. A co-production was soon agreed with Warner Bros. and it became a turning point in the Cantonese film industry, too. As a result, the team set to work on a new hit: Enter the Dragon.
But after the movie had been filmed and was all set for release, a terrible tragedy occurred. On July 20, 1973, Lee took the prescribed painkiller Equagesic to try and quash a minor headache. Soon after going to rest he fell into a coma, and attempts to revive him were ultimately unsuccessful. Bruce Lee was dead, at the age of just 32.
So could how a man at the very pinnacle of good health have passed away so suddenly and at such a young age? Well, coroners and pathologists from across the globe attempted to figure it all out. The conclusion was that Lee had a sensitive response to an ingredient in Equagesic which had caused a swelling of fluid around his brain. Nevertheless, some cried foul and claimed that the star may have been murdered.
Another theory was that Lee had somehow been cursed to die at a young age, and the star himself had long said that he feared as much. In what could only be described as a cruel twist of fate, Enter the Dragon was a huge hit worldwide – raking in an eye-watering $90 million from a budget of just $850,000. Lee had finally achieved his Hollywood dream, but he sadly wasn’t around to see it.
In the years since his untimely death, Lee has become a cultural icon. And the sense of tragedy that surrounded him grew when his actor son Brandon passed away at the even earlier age of 28. He died on the set of The Crow in 1993 when he was accidentally shot during filming with a live round from a gun that was supposed to only contain blanks.
Then in 1994 an explosive biography of the star was released. Written by author Bruce Thomas, the book was the product of four years of painstaking research and interviewing that aimed to get a clearer and more truthful picture behind the exalted legend. Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit: A Biography contained several juicy revelations for his fans to digest. And one of them was the astonishing story of how Lee was passed over when the U.S. military was recruiting for the Vietnam War.
According to the book, Lee received a call to take a physical exam to be drafted into the U.S. Army in 1963 after he returned to Seattle. At the time, the U.S. was embroiled in Vietnam, where it was supporting the South in its war with the communist-run North. But the exam would make a surprising finding that ultimately stopped Lee from serving.
You see, Lee had an undescended testicle. And the stringent U.S. armed forces would not admit someone with such a condition. He was, as Thomas wrote in the book, considered to be “physically unacceptable.”
Interestingly, Thomas made the case in the book that Lee would have been unsuitable – but for different reasons entirely. He wrote, “If Bruce Lee was unsuited for work as a waiter, then he was hardly cut out to be a soldier. He probably would have been court-martialed within a week of being inducted into the Armed Forces. Not only did he hate routine and regimentation, but his temper was balanced on a hair-trigger.”
So there you have it. The history books could feasibly have been filled with legendary tales of the Lee’s heroic service in the Vietnam War. But he had to sit it all out. Nevertheless, almost five decades on from his death, the appetite for his movies and work appears to be as strong as ever. Clearly, not even a snub from the American military can keep the legend of Bruce Lee down.