With a blood-curdling shriek, the bare-chested man flew at his enemy. The startled opponent held up his arms in defence, but the kick to his face hit with such force he crashed to the ground. In a heartbeat, he was back on his feet, but the younger man was too fast - his muscular limbs a blur as he struck with lightning speed. Suddenly, he stopped. A red streak glistened on his rippling torso, and he slowly wiped his finger across the wound, then lifted it to his lips. As he tasted his blood, calmness washed over him. Now it was time for his enemy to die.
Enter The Dragon was Bruce Lee's first Hollywood film. Showcasing his incredible physique and extraordinary kung-fu skills, the movie was set to turn the Chinese martial artist into an international star. A glittering film career finally beckoned. But instead, by the time Enter The Dragon was released in August 1973, Lee was dead at age 32. Struck down in his prime, his was one of the most controversial and tragic deaths in movie history. He died of a swelling to the brain in July 1973, after taking a headache tablet at the Hong Kong home of his alleged mistress, Betty Ting Pei. An autopsy also found cannabis in Lee's stomach. But even before the ruling of "death by misadventure", rumours abounded that he'd been murdered by Chinese gangs, killed by the "death touch" of a jealous kung-fu master, or taken by a family curse - the same one that would seemingly strike again 20 years later when Lee's son, Brandon, 28, was accidentally shot dead while filming The Crow.
To his fans, Lee had seemed indestructible. A kung-fu expert, he'd honed his 170cm frame to perfection and his strength, suppleness and speed were unparalleled. He trained with judo and karate experts, and studied everything from boxing to ballet to create a unique style he called Jeet Kune Do ("The Way of the Intercepting Fist"). Due to this fusion, he was able to perform astonishing feats, like two-fingered push-ups and his "one inch" punch, which sent opponents flying with a flick of his fist at close quarters.
Phenomenally disciplined, he'd pump iron while reading (mostly about Chinese philosophy and martial arts) and made his own protein shakes using eggshells, banana and chocolate ice-cream. At home, he mixed weight training and family by bouncing baby Brandon on his stomach to strengthen his muscles, and practised moves on wife Linda ("Your hair would part just from the force," she said). Lee trained celebrities like Steve McQueen, yet dreamt of movie stardom himself. But racial stereotyping prevented him getting a break until 1971, when the Cantonese movie The Big Boss made him a huge star in Hong Kong.
Yet fame came at a price. Lee bought a $1 million home, but his children had to be escorted to school to avoid kidnap attempts. As he struggled to cope with his new lifestyle and a gruelling work schedule, the clean-living Lee turned to drugs. With Hollywood success finally in sight, he refused to rest - even after collapsing on the set of Enter The Dragon in May 1973. Two months later, he was dead.
Lee was the son of Grace and Lee Hoi Cheun, an actor with Hong Kong's Cantonese Opera. The family was on tour in the US when Lee was born in San Francisco on November 27, 1940. Three months later, they returned to Hong Kong, where Lee was raised with siblings Robert, Peter, Agnes and adopted sister Phoebe in a cramped apartment in Kowloon. At six, Lee's father encouraged him into acting. He appeared in some 20 films as a child, playing cute orphans and street urchins, and many of his on-screen gestures - the wagging finger, and thumb wiped across his nose - later became trademarks in his martial arts movies.
Although disarming on screen, in reality, young Lee was a brawler. At 12, he was expelled from school for fighting, and sent to Hong Kong's exclusive St Francis Xavier's College. There, he formed a street gang and would often come home with a black eye. At 13, after a particularly bad beating, Lee took up kung-fu. He trained daily and pounded his hands on a wooden stool to toughen them. Good-looking and cocky, Lee was never short of girlfriends and, at 17, he became a cha-cha champion (a popular dance in the late '50s). Nights, however, were spent looking for trouble and when the parents of one of his victims complained to police, Lee's mother decided to send him to the US.
Lee arrived in Seattle in April 1959, aged 18. He stayed with family friends, waiting tables at their Chinese restaurant by night and studying at a local college by day. After demonstrating his kung-fu skills at the college's annual Asian Day celebration, he was swamped by students' requests to teach them. In June 1961, after an appearance on local television brought in more pupils, Lee opened a kung-fu school, the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, in Chinatown. Now 20, he was studying philosophy at Seattle's University of Washington, where he met medical student Linda Emery. By 1963, they were an item. "He had a magnetism," explained Linda, who said Lee turned up for their first date with a curl of hair slicked onto his forehead. "He looked so much like my idol George Chakiris, the leader of the Sharks in West Side Story, I was instantly charmed." Linda soon fell pregnant and they married on August 17, 1964. Brandon was born the following February.
Lee dropped out of university and the newlyweds moved to Oakland, California, where he opened another kung-fu school with James Lee (no relation), a friend from the martial arts circuit. An ex-weightlifter and amateur boxer, James helped Lee bulk up his slender frame, adding muscle without compromising his speed and agility. Lee would run daily, followed by a punishing regimen of sit-ups, leg raises, shadow boxing and weights. He also rode an exercise bike while wearing a sauna belt to help him sweat away fat, had heavy medicine balls thrown at his stomach, and carried on conversations with friends while doing push-ups against a wall.
Later that year, Lee was invited to demonstrate his skills at an international karate tournament in Long Beach, California. Taking the stage in his black Jing Mo suit and slippers, he showed off his "one inch" punch. As he stood close to his opponent, the audience barely saw Lee's hand move as the man crashed backwards from the force of the blow. Next - to the audience's amazement - he floored karate black belt Dan Inosanto.
Jay Sebring - a hairdresser whose celebrity clients included Batman producer William Dozier - was in the crowd that day. Two years later, when Dozier was casting for a new superhero TV series, The Green Hornet, Lee's name came up. At the screen test, Lee was immediately hired to play Kato - the hero's chauffeur and kung-fu sidekick - at $400 per episode. In March 1966, he moved his family to LA and on September 9, The Green Hornet premiered. Lee's character proved to be the star and fan mail poured in. After one season, however, the series was dumped.
When other roles failed to follow, Lee opened a kung-fu school in LA, teaching celebrities, like actor James Coburn and director Roman Polanski, for $250 an hour. Now inside the Hollywood circle, Lee moved the family into a hillside home in up-market Bel-Air and went racing with Steve McQueen in his new red Porsche. But it was a lifestyle he couldn't afford. Of the few film roles that did come his way, the characters were depressingly familiar - a martial arts teacher in an episode of Ironside and a couple of scenes as Winslow Wong in the detective movie Marlowe. Frustrated by the lack of parts for Asian actors, Lee fronted one producer with an idea for a show in which he would play a Chinese monk who travels across America's Wild West. Lee was rejected for the role because he was "too Chinese". When the TV series Kung Fu became a hit show in the early '70s, its Caucasian star, David Carradine, was a household name.
Lee was down to his last $50 when Linda gave birth to daughter Shannon in April 1969. Compounding his money worries, Lee injured his back while training, putting his martial arts future in jeopardy. In his bleakest hour, Lee penned a mission statement: "I, Bruce Lee, will be the first highest-paid Oriental superstar in the United States. Starting 1970, I will achieve world fame and from then onwards, till the end of 1980, I will have in my possession $10,000,000. Then, I will live the way I please and achieve inner harmony and happiness."
Two years later, Lee went to Hong Kong to visit family, and was greeted like a superstar. Millions of people in Asia had watched The Green Hornet, and Lee conducted interviews in newspapers, magazines, and on TV chat shows. He was offered $15,000 to make two films with Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest, and flew to Thailand to start shooting. When The Big Boss premiered in Hong Kong in October 1971, Lee was mobbed by fans. The movie smashed box office records, and Lee repeated his success with Fist Of Fury, which took $700,000 within weeks of its 1972 release. Lee was dazed by success. "When I wake up in the morning," he noted, "I have to remember which side of the ocean I'm on and whether I'm the superstar or the exotic Oriental support player."
Hailed as the "King of Hong Kong", Lee's popularity was unprecedented. Producers placed newspaper ads offering $10,000 to anyone who could get his signature on a contract, and he was constantly challenged to fights by men who wanted to make a name for themselves (Lee stared at them with "controlled cruelty" to scare them off).
In a move unheard of in the Hong Kong film industry, he formed his own company with Golden Harvest executive Raymond Chow, and insisted on writing, directing and sharing in profits. In another landmark, in May 1972, he flew to Rome to work on Way Of The Dragon - the first Hong Kong-based picture shot in Europe. After just two weeks of frenetic filming, he returned to Hong Kong to work on Game Of Death. Meanwhile, Way Of The Dragon premiered in December 1972. It was another hit, and the Lees moved into an 11-room mansion in Hong Kong's affluent Kowloon Tong area.
Celebrity was a double-edged sword. Lee had to fortify his home after newspaper ads offered a movie contract to anyone who could beat him in a fight. Still, Lee's dream of fame spurred him on. Hollywood had taken notice, and he flew to LA to meet bosses at Warner Bros who offered him $2 million to make Enter The Dragon.
Filming began in Hong Kong in 1973, but, after months of gruelling work, Lee was alarmingly thin. He dropped from 65kg to 55kg. A perfectionist, Lee insisted on take after take - jumping, kicking and punching up to 12 men at a time in tightly choreographed scenes. He was exhausted and he was continually hassled on set. After crew nicknamed him "Three-Kicks Bruce" - due to his high-speed footwork - extras would challenge him to fight by tapping their feet three times. Under huge stress, Lee found solace in cannabis. Not wanting to damage his body by smoking it, he reportedly kept a jar of hash cookies on set to munch between takes.
During dubbing work on the film, Lee blacked out in a toilet on set and was rushed to hospital, where his body went into spasm. Three days later, though, he was back at work. With shooting completed on Enter The Dragon, he resumed work on Game Of Death, ignoring pleas from friends to stop. He seemed remote and agitated, and spent nights away from home - reportedly with Taiwanese actress Betty Ting Pei, who was rumoured to be his mistress. "He was a changed man," recalled Nora Miao, Lee's Way Of The Dragon co-star. "He used to phone me and tell me he felt lonely. I told him, 'No-one dares get close to you ... You've become an idol. People only flatter you. Then, when they do this, you despise them. On the other hand, if they criticise you, you resent it. You are a victim of fame.'"
Still, Lee pursued the global fame he'd long dreamt of, and as the buzz surrounding the soon-to-be released Enter The Dragon grew, it was almost his. A five-film Hollywood deal was in the offing and an elated Lee ordered a gold Rolls-Royce. He never got to drive it. On July 20, 1973, Lee complained of a headache after meeting with Chow and Ting Pei at her home to discuss Game Of Death. He took a headache tablet and lay down for a nap about 7.30pm. When Chow phoned later to ask why Lee and Ting Pei hadn't shown for a dinner date, Ting Pei said she couldn't wake the kung-fu master. An ambulance was summoned, but Lee was dead by the time it reached hospital.While rumours circulated about the cause of death for years to come, one thing remained certain - Lee had always pushed himself to extraordinary limits, and he was philosophical about mortality. "If you put limits on yourself ... you might as well be dead," he once said. "It will spread over to your work, your morality, your entire being. There are no limits, only plateaus. But you must not stay there - you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you."