Bruce Lee: the big boss and the $3 million man
The burgeoning film star was blown away by his success when The Post spoke to him in 1971
The first thing Bruce Li does when he meets somebody is to give them the most athletic handshake this side of the International Date Line.
The recipient of the handshake generally spends the following half-hour or so sitting around and gingerly counting his knuckles, just to make sure they are all still there.
Li, in case you have been hiding in a cave for the for the last few months, is the newest superstar in the Mandarin film world, and he reached that position chiefly by being a very tough guy indeed, trained in bare-handed combat and stuff like that.
It wasn’t until after he made his film “The Big Boss,” in fact, that most people discovered he was a heck of a good actor as well as being a formidable fistfighter.
In an interview this week, Bruce said he’d rather act than fight anyway.
“When I decided to come back to Hongkong and do the film for Raymond Chow, I prepared by going to see a whole bunch of Mandarin movies,” he said.
“They were awful. For one thing, everybody fights all the time, and what really bothered me was that they all fought exactly the same way. Wow, nobody’s really like that.
“When you get into a fight, everybody reacts differently, and it is possible to act and fight at the same time.”
He says he tried to do just that in “The Big Boss,” and it obviously worked.
At the time of the interview, the box office receipts for the film were well above $3 million and climbing.
“We knew from the outset that the film was going to be a success, but I have to admit we weren’t really expecting it to be THAT successful.”
(For the benefit of those cave-hiders mentioned earlier, “The Big Boss” earlier this month broke the record set several years ago by “The Sound of Music,” to become the most financially successful motion picture ever to play in Hongkong.)
“What I hope is that the movie will represent a new trend in Mandarin cinema. I mean, people LIKE films that are more than just one long armed hassle.
“With any luck, I hope to make multi-level films here – the kind of movies where you can just watch the surface story if you want, or you can look deeper into it if you feel like it.
“Most of the Chinese films to date have been very superficial and one dimensional.
“I tried to do that in “The Big Boss.” The character I played was a very simple, straightforward guy.
“Like, if you told this guy something, he’d believe you. Then when he finally figures out he’s been had, he goes animal.
“This isn’t a bad character, but I don’t want to play him all the time. I’d prefer somebody with a little more depth.”
Bruce’s first screen appearance here was about two and a half years ago in a Hollywood flick called “Marlowe,” a detective film starring James Garner.
Bruce played a thug named Winslow Wong.
Nobody seemed to notice at the time, but now the film has been brought back.
“They’re giving me top billing, too,” said Li. “I really don’t know how I’m going to explain that to Garner when I get back to Hollywood.”
“After I left the University of Washington in Seattle where I was studying — are you ready for this? — philosophy, I planned to open a whole bunch of schools, teaching martial arts.
“I started off in basements and parking lots and places like that, and then eventually I started teaching actors.
“I used to make very good bread doing that, man, I started charging US$500 for a 10-hour course, and wound up doubling it.
“Steve McQueen was one of my students. So was James Coburn.
“Just about the time I discovered that I didn’t really want to teach self-defence for the rest of my life, I went to the Long Beach International Karate Tournament and got myself discovered by Hollywood.
“That was 1964. Naturally, I was signed up to play the Number One son of Charlie Chan, only the movie never got made.
“Then I got into the Batman series, and finally did a season playing Kato in The Green Hornet.
“You know why I got that Green Hornet job? I’ll tell you why I got that Green Hornet job.
“Because the hero’s name was Brit Reed, and I was the only Chinese guy in all of California, who could pronounce Brit Reed, that’s why.
“Anyway, it was fun, and after that, I did this really beautiful television thing for a series called Long Street.
“James Franciscus played a blind dude who was out for revenge, and I played a guy who was getting him ready for a fight.”
(At this point in the interview, this really wild far-away look came over his face and he started, quoting dialogue from the script. The thing was written by Stirling Silliphant, who was THE great screenwriter of all time.)
“The thing was called “The Way of the Intercepting Fist,” and the lines went: Listen, man, can you hear the wind, and can you hear the birds singing? You have to HEAR it. Empty your mind, man. You know how water fills a cup? It BECOMES that cup. You have to be ready, man. You have to think about nothing. You have to BECOME nothing.”
Really gorgeous dialogue, it was, and Bruce obviously loved doing the scene.
Everybody else loved it, too, including America’s usually-unimpressable television critics.
The New York Times did a review and suggested that Bruce was so good he should have a TV series of his own.
Which is what’s happening now.
“I should find out within a week whether this thing is on. If so, I will hustle back to Hollywood to make a pilot for a series called The Warrior, which is a really freaky adventure series.
“It’s about a Chinese guy who has to leave China because he managed to kill the wrong person, and he winds up in the American West in 1860.
“Can you dig that? All these cowboys on horses with guns and me with a long, green hunk of bamboo, right? Far out.”
Bruce comes pretty close to being the ultimate Mid-Pacific Man, what with all sorts of good things happening, career-wise, on both sides of the ocean.
Right now, he’s making a second film for Golden Harvest which could prove as big a winner as “The Big Boss,” worrying about the proposed Hollywood TV series and planning about six other things.
His background and training has been acquired in both the Far East and the Far West, and he has even managed to have a couple of really international children, one of whom he describes as, “a six-and-a-half-year-old brown-haired blue-eyed, Chinese kid. He’s a gas.”
Bruce’s father had an outstanding career in Chinese opera, an art form that really interests Bruce.
“It’s one-dimensional, but it’s really stylised and formal, and very groovy indeed. But it’s not my bag.
“What I’m doing now is trying to find out exactly what IS my bag, and I think The Warrior series might help me discover.
“What’s holding things up now is that a lot of people are sitting around in Hollywood trying to decide if the American television audience is ready for an Oriental hero.
“We could get some really peculiar reactions from places like the Deep South.
“I was a little worried because a series like this means all kinds of work, like 365 days a year.
“But finally I said ‘I’m gonna do the series one way or the other — damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead and so forth,” and I decided to plunge right in.”
Aside from the hang-up of whether the United States thinks Bruce is too exotic to be a TV hero, he also has the additional worry of Far Eastern audiences thinking he’s too western.
“There were some scenes in “The Big Boss” where I really didn’t think I was being Chinese enough,” he said. “You really have to do a lot of adjusting.”
Not that Bruce is suffering from any kind of identity crisis, as any mid-Pacific Man might be expected to do.
He’s so busy at the moment he hasn’t had time to develop anything like that.
He even worries about arcane things like the artistic progress of the Mandarin cinema. (Which, he says, will only be possible when local directors get off their individual ego trips and studios start paying money for better quality.)
As for his own contributions to the betterment of Mandarin movies, he thinks maybe he can keep it up by simply not making any films that he personally does not consider quality material.
“Everything is overplayed in Mandarin films. To make really good ones, you’d have to use subtlety, and very few people in the business want to risk any money by trying that.
“On top of which, the scripts are pretty terrible. You wouldn’t BELIEVE all the stuff I re-wrote for “The Big Boss.”
“Still, with a lot of work and some luck, there’s no reason why the quality of Mandarin, movies can’t be improved all round.
“Quality has to come first. Bruce Li, Ray Chow, all of us have to be secondary to the quality of the film itself.”
Which HAS to be the most encouraging thing the Mandarin film world has heard in a long, long time.