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Interview with Alex Ben Block

Author of the first Bruce Lee biography, "The Legend of Bruce Lee", a best seller released in 1974.

Alex Ben Block

1. How did you first hear of Bruce Lee? He wasn't a household name in America at the time you interviewed him, how aware of him were you before you began researching your initial magazine article on him? Was he well known in Hollywood at that time?

I first heard of Bruce Lee around 1972 when I was doing research for a magazine article for a now defunct rock and roll magazine. At the time I lived in New York City. Bruce had done Big Boss and Chinese Connection and they were big hits in Asia, but not yet in the U.S. He was not well known in Hollywood or America at the time, although he was known for playing Kato on The Green Hornet TV series. And he had a cult following inside Hollywood of insiders who knew him and in some cases who had studied martial arts with him. I learned that after he was denied the lead in Kung Fu, which he helped develop, he was frustrated and returned to China to make movies. I also knew he was talking about doing what became Enter The Dragon as his first mainstream Hollywood movie.

2. Could you kindly explain the background of the phone interview that you did with him in the summer of 1972? How did you set up this interview?

I pitched my idea for a Bruce Lee story to Esquire magazine and they gave me assignment. That summer I was editor of the Fire Island News (a small island south of Long Island, not far from New York City) living and working in an office in Ocean Beach. I had contacted Bruce through the studio, and we set a time to talk. I spoke to him in the Fire Island News office and taped the call. I had hoped we could talk at length but he was busy and had only a short time to talk between working on Way of the Dragon. I wrote the story but it was in process for a long time. By then I had moved to Miami, Florida to work as a movie critic on a local newspaper. The story finally appeared a week before Bruce died.

3. What was it like to interview Bruce Lee and what were your first impressions of him?

He was incredibly smart, spoke fairly quickly and was more philosophical than I expected. He was an athlete but not a dumb jock. He was very mature and seemed determined to pursue his career. He gave me pretty good answers; but I was frustrated we did not have more time. That interview is now available through martial arts magazines to anyone who really cares can hear it as I heard it.

4. How strange was it to go from a phone interview with Bruce, while production of WAY OF THE DRAGON being underway, to a year later hearing he had died?

I got the news of his death from an AP story while I was in Miami, and I was completely shocked. He was so young, in such physical shape, there were a million unanswered questions, which is why I decided immediately to pursue a book.

Bruce Lee The Legend Book

5. Was Bruce's posthumous fame and success a big surprise for you? Had you expected Bruce to succeed to such a degree as an international movie star when you interviewed him? How would you explain his long lasting appeal to fans (40 years later, Bruce Lee T-shirts, calendar's, books, and of course, his films, among other things, continue to sell)?

I wrote an article for The Hollywood Reporter in March 2010 which answers this question best, so here is an edited version: Thirty-seven years after his sudden death, Lee's lives on not only in Hollywood but all over the world. He has become an iconic figure alongside a handful of stars that includes Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and James Dean, whose images are instantly recognizable generations after their death. His name has become synonymous with action stars who use martial arts, and his influence as an actor, fighter and philosopher has been publicly recognized by stars like Jackie Chan and rapper LL Cool J, creators such as Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee, and movie directors John Woo and Brett Ratner. What is particularly interesting about the posthumous evolution of Bruce Lee is that he is not only remembered for the handful of movies and TV show in which he starred but also for breaking racial barriers, helping erase stereotypes and his contributions in such areas as mixed martial arts, fitness, health and a philosophy that recognized the commonality of all humanity. While a wax figure of Lee in Hollywood or a memorial in Hong Kong are not big surprises, there is also a life-size statue in Mostar, Bosnia erected in 2005 as a symbol of efforts to heal ethnic tensions in a place that suffered from civil war in the 1990s. "The reason they chose him is not because he's a martial arts star," said Shannon Lee shortly after the bronze was unveiled (at a wax museum in Hollywood), "but he represents somebody who had a lot of ethnic struggle in his lifetime and overcame it. So, to them, he is a unifying force and representative of somebody who overcame that." In the first years after his death, numerous imitators sprang onto the screen, often with confusingly similar names like Bruce Li (who was really Ho Chung Tao of Taiwan), Bruce Le (a Hong Kong actor) and Dragon Lee (from South Korea). They were part of a movement called Brucexplotation, a reference to the fact they traded on Lee's fame. In reality, the impact of these low budget, action heavy movies was to dilute interest in the entire genre. The next wave brought Jackie Chan and Jet Li and others who offered their own variation on Lee's legacy but still never quite replaced him as a martial artist or a movie icon. But that was only part of Lee's legacy. His impact was greater than movies. As the first Asian international action star he smashed the Western stereotype of the Chinese coolie, and provided reason for a whole generation of young Asians, as well as other minorities, to be proud of their heritage. Comedian Margaret Cho has said it was seeing Lee that made her realize her own possibilities in life. Until Lee, martial arts was a rigid system of schools and styles that fiercely competed to be called the best. Lee created his own style, Jeet Kune Do, which not only took the best of what the Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other martial arts offered but added in elements of boxing, wrestling and even the idea that weight lifting could be part of the system. His approach included health foods, running, aerobics and even electrical stimulation of muscles -- all of which are common today but were radical in the 1970s. His movies stimulated the worldwide growth of martial arts of all kinds, but it went beyond that. There is a clear line from what Lee wrought to the invention of mixed martial arts, which flourishes today in multiple forms, such as the Ultimate Fighting Championships. Lee's Jeet Kune Do has also been carried on by his students and their students and is considered a legitimate fighting art on its own today. It is taught on the university level in China. Interestingly, the acceptance of Lee as a hero was not instant in the People's Republic of China. At the time Lee died on July 20, 1973, China was only beginning to open up to the West and Lee was seen as a symbol of decadent Western influence. As China has become more involved with the rest of the world, the Chinese have seen the value of using Lee as a symbol. That was most obvious in 2008 when CCTV, the state TV channel, ran a 50-part series on the life of Lee that had the same title as my 1974 book, "The Legend Of Bruce Lee." It became the highest rated series in the history of the channel. The Chinese government has backed a Bruce Lee museum in an old teashop in Shunde in southern China, and a Bruce Lee theme park. Shunde is where Lee's family came from although he was only there once, when he was five years old. That project is being done with involvement from Bruce Lee's surviving brothers and sisters, but not his widow Linda Caldwell or Shannon, who is now head of a foundation in her father's name, as well as a for profit partnership, Concord Moon. Concord Moon has been developing Bruce Lee media projects such as a CGI movie, an animated film, a TV series and a Broadway musical in the final stages of creation by David Henry Hwang, author of the 1988 Tony Award winning play "M. Butterfly." The CCTV series was done with the approval of Linda and Shannon. After Bruce Lee died, there was a split between Lee's widow, who controlled his estate, and the Lee family, who she cut out of most of the revenue from his movies and ongoing licensing. Linda Lee said at the time she needed the money for her own family, including her son Brandon, who also became a movie star, but then died in a tragic on set accident in 1993 at age 28. A tense detente exists today between the Lee family and the estate. Linda and Shannon worry that activities they don't approve may tarnish the Lee image by licensing things like tobacco products, which they feel Bruce would have been against. However the family, led by Bruce's younger brother Robert, have shown they too care deeply about Lee's legacy. One project the family has approved is a trilogy of movies on Lee's life by China's J.A. Media Group, with the first installment due around the time Lee would have turned 70 on November 27, 2010. Lee as a youth is also being portrayed in the Mandarin Films Distribution Co. sequel to the successful Chinese movie "Ip Man," about Bruce Lee's teacher, due for release later this year. After years of biographical movies that didn't get made by Hollywood, there was "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story," released by Universal in 1993 starring Jason Scott Lee (no relation) as Bruce Lee. It cost about $14 million to make and grossed $35 million in the U.S. but drew mixed reviews. Director Rob Cohen, while a Lee fan, took many liberties with the story for dramatic effect. Linda and Shannon Lee had authorized that movie but a couple years ago made a deal with Universal to buy back the Bruce Lee life rights, which are the basis for projects they're developing. So the legend of Bruce Lee truly is going to continue through movies, TV shows, a musical play, books, licensed merchandise, martial arts, physical culture and much more. "Like everyone else you want to learn the way to win," Bruce Lee is quoted in the 2000 documentary "The Warriors Journey," directed by John Little, who devoted years to creating books and media from Lee's legacy. "But ... to accept defeat -- to learn to die -- is to be liberated from it. Once you accept, you are free to flow and to harmonize. Fluidity is the way to an empty mind. You must free your ambitious mind and learn the art of dying." Or in Bruce Lee's case, the art of how to live on even after you have died.

6. What is your favorite Bruce Lee movie and why?

No question Enter The Dragon, the uncut version, was his best and most professional work, but my personal favorite was Way of the Dragon because it is so classic in the approach and because he directed it and I believe was a writer as well. I say classic because what set Bruce's movies aside was the motivation of his characters. In the beginning, someone is bullied, killed, raped etc. which then sets him on a path to fight for what is right and in doing so he makes the audience cheer his accomplishments and no matter how violent, we know he is doing it because it is the right thing to do.

7. Was it challenging to get your Bruce Lee biography published? Did you have to deal with or have any difficulty in coming to agreements with the Lee Family Estate?

I made no deal with the Lee estate because it was a completely independent book. I did interview family members including Bruce's mother Grace, his brother Robert, two of his sisters and of course Linda and the then very young Shannon and Brandon, who I met with in person in Seattle where they then lived. The book could not have been an easier sale. I had a wonderful friend Liz Smith (later a famous columnist) who found me an agent, Gloria Safier, who sold the book in 48 hours. It was one of the very first instant paperbacks in America, and later was published in paperback and hardcover worldwide. As well.

8. I assume you interviewed various martial artists and movie personalities who knew Bruce; were their recollections mostly positive? Was Bruce well-liked by his contemporaries?

I spoke to a number of figures in martial arts, as well as people in Hollywood. Everyone was still stunned by his death, and in awe of how by then Enter The Dragon had become a huge hit. In addition to the sorrow of losing a talented friend, the common theme was how much more he might have done if he had lived. He was an artist who would not have repeated himself endlessly, and could have been a director, writer and fight choreographer as well as a star if he had the opportunity. With the exception of some competitive martial artists in the U.S. and China who were terribly jealous of Bruce, everyone I spoke with loved and admired him as a star, as a martial artist and as a fine husband and father.

Back Cover

9. I read that your book was a best seller. How many copies have you sold of your book and were you surprised at the figures?

I estimate that it sold 4 million copies worldwide in nine international editions, which was far beyond my expectations.

10. Did you have more conversations with Bruce after your phone interview?

Unfortunately not. We had agreed to meet when he returned to America but that was not to be.

11. We know how much Bruce loved writing letters; did he write you a letter after you sent him the Esquire article? If so, do you still have it?

There was no letter. Remember he died in the same week it was published and he was in Hong Kong, so it is unlikely he even saw it before his passing.

12. Did you ever meet or interview Brandon Lee?

Yes I met Brandon several times and interviewed him during the period he was making movies. His death was another tragedy, a terribly industrial accident caused by a producer who wanted to save a few bucks, so he sent the person who know how to handle firearms home and left it to untrained prop people to handle the gun that killed him.

13. The Hong Kong TV talk show, Enjoy Yourself Tonight Episode, (Lo Wei incident) you mention on page 117 in your book, during your research, did you have an opportunity to view this show? Also, do you know of any footage of Bruce that has not been seen by the public?

I did see a black and white version of the famous incident. I don't know of any other footage that hasn't been seen.

14. Did you have much contact with producer Raymond Chow from Golden Harvest Studios and what were your impressions of Mr Chow as a businessman and a person?

I interviewed Mr. Chow and his associate Andre Morgan in Hong Kong on my research trip there. Mr. Chow was a very polite, well educated and buttoned down producer who could easily have been in Hollywood and fit right in.

15. During your research for your book, did you interview any of the doctors that treated Bruce? Doctors Charles Langford, Peter Wu etc. And did you speak with any of the doctors from America as to Bruces exam after his collapse in May? If so, what is your opinion as to what they related to you regarding his health and untimely death?

I spoke to a doctor who treated him at UCLA Medical when he had the first collapse. I did not speak to the doctors in Hong Kong but did have a copy of the death certificate and his autopsy results.

16. Why do you think that Betty Ting Pei and Raymond Chow didn't call for an ambulance immediately on July 20? Especially knowing that Medical treatment saved Bruce just a few months earlier when he collapsed in May.

As I pieced it together, Betty went into a panic when she found Bruce dead. She called Mr. Chow and they then acted together in hopes of protecting Bruces reputation. They were worried about the impact of the news at the time on his widow, children and family.

17. During your research of the biography, was there ever a hint of "foul play" in your own PERSONAL opinion, and has that outlook changed at all in these 40 years?

There were lots of rumors but I believe Bruce died of natural causes.

18. If he had lived, what would Bruce Lee have done next in his career after Enter the Dragon became a big hit, in your opinion?

As I said earlier, I think he was a true artist and I don't just mean a martial artist. He would not have repeated himself but would have worked to make even better movies. He would have done martial arts movies but I believe, ala say Clint Eastwood, he would have grown to do all kinds of movies (remember he was a talented actor and comedian as well), and would have had a career as a movie director.

19. What was the strangest story that you have heard about Bruce Lee and what was the funniest?

The strangest remains the vibrating palm theory which I do not believe was true. Years later a fellow in England wrote a book about Bruce and put in a chapter taking me to task for even including the vibrating palm theory, because he said it gave license to all kinds of unsavory tabloid publications and TV shows to repeat it as if it were true because I said it in the book. The funniest? Bruce had a great sense of humor and made jokes frequently with his friends and family.

20. We've all heard many positive things about Bruce Lee but what were some of his weaknesses in your opinion? Can you touch upon his womanizing and extra marital affairs and was he a bully to co-workers that some have claimed like Albert Goldman. What did you think of Goldmans controversial article about Bruce?

Albert Goldman was a writer who looked for the worst in all mankind and usually found it. I heard the rumors about other women but I also know he was a good husband to Linda and a dad to his kids. As for co workers, there is no question Bruce was very demanding and had little tolerance for those who were not as able as he expected them to be. He could be a bully with other martial artists, but he had to be. He was often accosted and challenged because of his reputation so he had to stand strong.

Bruce Lee

21. What is your opinion that Bruce may have been a user of anabolic steroids?

I would not be surprised. At the time they were legal and not many people understood them and the downside. Bruce knew many boxers and body builders and he would have gotten info about such drugs from them. We know he tried strange diets and many products and I have no knowledge of what drugs he used or did not use, but it would not surprise me if he did try to enhance his muscles and ability with such drugs.

22. On page 161 of your book, you tell us what you think killed Bruce Lee (birth skull defect). Forty years later, is this still your belief?

No I am not going to say exactly what I think caused his death but I do believe it was natural in cause.

24. To what extent did Bruce Lee change your life, and what single influence stands out? Can you imagine what your life would have been like without your involvement with Bruce Lee?

I learned a lot from Bruce's life and philosophy that has become part of me. The huge success of the book at the time was very good for my career as a writer and journalist. I don't know how I would be if there had been no Bruce Lee, but I cherish my small role in his legacy and like others, mourn his loss and what might have been.

25. Finally, are you currently involved in any planned Bruce Lee related projects, books or otherwise, you could tell us about?

Not at this time, but who knows what the future may bring. As long as there are folks like you who remember him and remain interested, and as his legend continues to grow, and as other movies and TV shows come along about him or inspired by him, there may be new opportunities and I will forever be proud to have an association with this very special person.

Big thanks to Alex Ben Block and also to Tom Britt for arranging this interview and to the forum members who asked excellent questions - Nick Clarke Sept 2013