Bruce Lee is remembered by many as a legend in the martial arts community. His innovative movies featuring epic fights continue to stand the test of time even decades after his death. His influence and success is no accident though — everything he’s accomplished is a product of his seemingly never-ending drive to succeed at all costs.
In 1961, Lee was 20 years old and a virtual unknown at the time. He made ends meet with small roles in TV shows, particularly the “Green Hornet” series. In January of that year, Lee sat down and wrote the following mission statement.
“I, Bruce Lee, will be the first highest paid Oriental super star in the United States. In return I will give the most exciting performances and render the best of quality in the capacity of an actor. Starting 1970 I will achieve world fame and from then onward till the end of 1980 I will have in my possession $10,000,000. I will live the way I please and achieve inner harmony and happiness.”
By 1971, Lee, then 30, had become an international superstar following his success with “The Big Boss”, “Fist of Fury”, and “Way of the Dragon”. Although these were all Hong Kong movies, it pushed boundaries for Asian Americans in cinema and challenged stereotypes of how Asian men are typically portrayed in the mainstream.
Around this time, Lee wrote a few treatments for films he wanted to produce. Among them was a pitch for a TV series call “The Warrior”, which follows a martial artist in the Old West starring himself as the lead. Surely, after all his success in Hong Kong and the subsequent legion of global fans to follow, Hollywood was ready for its first Asian TV lead.
Unfortunately, it was rejected. Even with Bruce Lee’s star power, the executives believed viewers were still not ready for an Asian lead on the big screen. Lee was forced to table the project.
In the year that followed, Hollywood released “Kung Fu” starring white actor David Carradine, who plays a half-Chinese monk fighting bad guys in the Old West. The show is identical to the show Lee pitched just a year before, so some couldn’t help but speculate that Lee’s idea was stolen and his character whitewashed.
Ed Spielman, the creator of ‘Kung Fu’, claims that he wrote the screenplay after exploring New York’s Chinatown. In 1993, Carradine claimed to the LA Times that Lee was also considered for the lead role and addressed accusations that he got it because producers didn’t want to cast a Chinese actor. He said:
“I only know what I know. And what I know is that I was sent a script and I said yes. What was I supposed to do, say no? I didn’t even know at the time that Bruce Lee had been considered. At that point in his career Bruce, as an actor, was a comedian. He had never shown any ability to do any dramatic acting. It was all fighting and jokes. What they needed for that part was somebody who could have a brooding quiet power. And I had more of that than Bruce did.”
Nonetheless, the show ran for 64 episodes until 1975, earning Carradine Emmy and Golden Globe nominations — awards Lee never received in his entire career, Inverse noted. Lee passed away unexpectedly in 1973. Despite all that he achieved and the roads he paved for future Asian talents, there were many passion projects of his that never came into fruition.
In the decades that followed, Linda Lee Cadwell, Bruce Lee’s widow, started Bruce Lee Enterprises to preserve her late husband’s legacy. In 2000, her daughter, Shannon Lee, took the reins as Cadwell prepared for retirement in 2001. Her first order of business was to sort through her father’s things which they now called “the archives.” Shannon Lee told NextShark:
“When I first took over for my mom in 2000, I was running the business from my house. My mom had sent the boxes down and I was keeping them in an off sight art storage facility. I would bring boxes home one or two at a time to go through. It was just me and my now ex-husband going through everything back then. We were a very small and truly family business. And in many ways, we still are.”
As she was going through her fathers old things, she came across pages of old notes, including the treatment for “The Warrior”.
“I’ve always known about this treatment, it’s part of my family history,” Shannon Lee told NextShark. “My mom had told us stories about it, so I knew that it existed but I had never actually seen it or read it until the end of 2000.”
However, she was still new to the business at the time and lacked the capital and resources to make her father’s dream a reality, so the project was shelved once again. For the next decade, Lee drove herself into debt negotiating and buying back rights to her father’s name. While she was ultimately successful, she is still working to pay off those debts to this day.
In the following years, a series of mainstream movies that originally had Asian leads but were replaced with white characters have drawn ire from the Asian community, from “The Last Airbender” and “Dragonball Evolution” to most recently “Ghost in the Shell” and “Aloha”. However, deep strides have also been made with Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow” and most recently Jon M. Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” helping propel more Asian faces into the mainstream.
In 2014, Director Justin Lin, who had heard rumors of the treatment, called up Shannon Lee personally to confirm its existence. Lee said:
“He just said, ‘Hey, I’ve always heard this story about how your father created this treatment for TV and then he wasn’t cast in it, is that a true story?’ And I said, ‘It is a true story and I have the treatment.'”
Lin was excited and wanted to see the treatment immediately, but Lee was slightly hesitant. The family had done a few film projects here and there, but most people who approached Lee didn’t want her involved at all.
“I’ve worked really hard to get my father’s legacy all moving in the direction that I think it should,” Lee said “I really need to be involved in trying to shepherd these projects just to make sure that they still within the guidelines of the legacy.
“Most people were like, ‘You’re not a producer, you’re just a rights holder and if we write you a check, won’t you just get out of the way?’ And I was like, ‘Well, no.'” she added.
But Lin was different. Aside from thinking the treatment was well-written, he immediately saw Bruce Lee’s vision and he strongly believed Shannon Lee needed to be involved.
“I told Justin that I really need to be involved and make sure that it unfolds properly,” Lee said. “And he was like, ‘Of course!’ And then I was like, ‘Okay, well we’ll see ’cause everybody says yes in the room.’ But Justin was great, he was like, ‘No, we can’t do this without you. We have to do this together.'”
Lin proved true to his word and “Warrior” was born with Jonathan Tropper, Justin Lin, and Shannon Lee acting as Executive Producers. Tropper wrote the script for it, but it’s based on Bruce Lee’s writings from his original treatment.
“I think we did work really hard to stay true to the essence of his vision and to tell the story that he wanted to tell in a contemporary way,” Lee said. “It’s been almost fifty years since he completed the treatment.”
The show is set in the late 1870s in San Francisco, California during the Tong Wars, a period of violent disputes in Chinatown between rival gangs that lasted until 1921. Andrew Koji, a British-Japanese actor, plays Ah Sahm, the main character who is a martial arts prodigy.
The first episode begins with Ah Sahm first arriving in San Francisco from China to look for his sister. As he gets off the boat, he witnesses a fellow Chinese person get racially abused by three white officers. They turn their attention to Ah Sahm, who then says the the most gangster quote ever:
“I didn’t travel halfway across the world in that damn boat just to amuse a few fat white fucks.”
The men then barrage him with racial slurs before Ah Sahm delivers the hardest ass-whooping of all time. He’s then quickly recruited as a hatchet man for the most powerful Tong gang in Chinatown.
It’s no secret that Asian men in mainstream media have consistently been emasculated, dehumanized, and reduced to caricatures and sidekicks. Asian females have been over-sexualized, exoticized, or as professor Nancy Yuen of Biola University puts it, “seen as tokens or missing from a white man’s story.” Despite how Asians were presented in media at the time, Bruce Lee became an international star and even a global sex symbol.
“I literally just this past weekend ran into this woman who is this blonde, tall, British woman around the same age as me”. Lee recalled. “She didn’t know who I was and she just started talking about how she had the biggest crush on Bruce Lee and my father was a good looking, dynamic, powerful, strong, romantic lead.”
“Warrior” goes completely against all the Asian stereotypes. The Asian male characters are presented as strong, masculine, sexy, and just overall badass. The Asian female characters are presented as strong, independent, and pivotal to the story. Perhaps, the most refreshing part of the whole series is that all the main characters have many layers. Ah Sahm, despite being the main character and “hero” to the story, isn’t perfect by any means and you’ll see why once you start watching.
“Ah Sahm has the skill, but he’s still got a lot to learn and that’s what makes him an interesting character to follow,” she said.
But most interesting of all, seeing sex scenes that include Asian males is an absolute rarity in media, and “Warrior” is not afraid to present them front and center.
“My father was definitely not prudish about this sort of thing, we wanted to get into the lives of our characters,” she said. “At the time, Chinatown was a place where there was a lot going on and a lot people went there for specific reasons. There were brothels, there was the opium trade, there was gambling, there were all different sorts of things.
“These characters that inhabit San Francisco Chinatown are full humans and we wanted them to be these full-fledged human beings. Even though the show is violent, the violence is still not just violence for violence’s sake. It’s part of the story, the conflict of the characters, of the different circles and spheres of power that are rubbing up against run another, and we didn’t want to hide it in any way.”
Despite all the challenges Lee still faced even after attaining so much success, he never showed any ounce of resentment or anger publicly. In fact, he seemed to look at everything with a huge level of understanding and positivity. During an interview with The Pierre Berton Show, which aired on December 9, 1971, he said:
“Well, such questions have been raised. In fact, it is being discussed, and that is why ‘The Warrior’ is probably not going to be on, I think, because unfortunately, such things does exist in this world, you see? They think that business-wise it’s a risk, and I don’t blame them. I mean, in the same way, it’s like in Hong Kong, if a foreigner comes and becomes a star, if I were the man with the money, I probably would have my own worry of whether or not the acceptance would be there.”
“He just had a positivity about the way he approached the new look,” Lee told NextShark. “In life, whether we’re talking about representation or being in a romantic relationship or about being in a work setting — people don’t want to work with angry people. Even if what someone is doing is wrong, they still don’t want somebody who’s yelling at them and blaming them.
“I think that as a society, we’ve gotten so polarized, everybody’s pointing the finger at everybody else and that doesn’t help create bridges. That makes everybody just standoffish with one another. I’ve already made up my mind about what I’m doing and where I’m going and it’s just on me to excite other people about me as opposed to tell them about how they’re being unfair to me. And I’m not making any suggestion about how to make those changes, but I just see what my father was able to do, and it takes a lot of energy and it takes someone to be undeterred along their path, but also to say, ‘Hey, check what I’m doing out. I’m feeling pretty awesome over here and you should do this.’ It’s like enroll people in the excitement, in the enthusiasm of that rather than ‘Hey, this isn’t fair. You should give me a job because it’s unfair that you don’t'”
The show has seen great success so far, with a 90% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a renewal for a second season. It has also received a stamp of approval from her mother Linda Lee Cadwell, according to Lee.
“I think my dad would be really proud of the project. I think we worked really hard to stay true to the essence of his vision and to tell the story that he wanted to tell in a contemporary since it’s been almost fifty years since he completed the treatment. That the level of care and enthusiasm that we all put into it, I think he would be thrilled that this is seeing the light of day.”