A Bruce Lee tribute in Seattle this weekend will honor the martial-arts star and include an announcement of plans for a new Bruce Lee museum to be built in the city.
Because, apparently, the world’s appetite for all things Bruce Lee knows no limits, there will be Bruce Lee, the musical, coming to Broadway.
But not before a 50-part Lee documentary airs in China after the Summer Olympics. Or the Lee documentary the History Channel has scheduled for next year. Or a Lee cartoon in development.
Dozens of other Lee projects are in the works, including a proposal to raise $50 million to build a museum in Seattle, where Lee lived from 1959-64.
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The Lee family will release details of its ambitious fundraising campaign this weekend, during a three-day tribute starting Friday at the Seattle Art Museum to commemorate his passing 35 years ago this week.
The event also marks the 35th anniversary of his groundbreaking movie, “Enter the Dragon.”
Lee died a few weeks before the film was released, but you would think his passing was recent by the surge of interest lately.
Last year, more than 1,000 University of Washington students backed a petition to build a Lee memorial on campus.
These days, young mixed-martial-arts fans often hear fighters cite Lee as an idol or a role model. And the resurgence of old kung-fu flicks also has fed the Lee frenzy.
Lee’s appeal (Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century) always has been complex, even contradictory.
Lee became famous by killing people on screen, yet he was honored with the Ethnic Multicultural Academy Legend Award in London in 2004, the same humanitarian media award given to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. In 2005, Bosnia erected a life-size Lee statue as a peace symbol in light of ethnic tensions.
“Bruce was so much more than just a bad-ass … that’s why people go back to his story again and again,” said Seattle’s Charles R. Cross, a biographer of Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix who is researching Lee for a possible book.
Lee was born in San Francisco and grew up in Hong Kong, but Seattle has always claimed him as one of its own. He attended Edison Technical School on Capitol Hill and then the University of Washington, where he studied philosophy for three years and married Linda Emery (Garfield grad ’63).
Lee, who ran a martial-arts studio in the University District, landed the role of Kato on TV’s “The Green Hornet” in 1966, which helped propel him to movie stardom.
On screen, he was charismatic. His kung-fu moves seemed less structured, less rigid than traditional martial arts. It looked like modern dance. He bounced around like a boxer and made screeching noises with his punches. The young crowd ate it up.
But before his Hollywood career took off, he died July 20, 1973, from cerebral edema from an allergic reaction, perhaps to painkillers. He was 32.
“He died looking great,” said Cross. “He never got old or fat like Elvis. That is part of the reason for his enduring legacy. Bruce Lee with his shirt off … 90 percent of people in the world know what that image looks like.”
Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) president Dana White, who will be in Seattle for the tribute, calls Lee the grandfather of mixed martial arts.
But his influence runs deeper, said Cross and UW assistant professor Chris Hamm, who teaches a martial-arts film course in the Department of Asian Languages and Literature.
Lee overcame illness in his youth and racism throughout his life. He often was credited with introducing the mainstream to martial arts. And he had a cultlike following for his philosophy on life and affirmations.
The themes that resonated with the first generation of Lee fans still ring true among today’s young followers, said his daughter, Shannon Lee, who runs the Bruce Lee Foundation and Bruce Lee Enterprises in Los Angeles.
Sure, he looked great fighting, but fans connected to him because “he played the underdog and was seen like that in his life,” she said.
“It’s not just his martial-art skills but the strides he made for us socially as a person of color,” said former UW student Jamil Suleman, 24, of Redmond, who is lobbying the university to build a Lee memorial garden.
Perry Lee, no relation to the superstar, recalls growing up in Seattle in the 1960s and not seeing any Asian faces like his on television — other than Hop Sing, the Cartwrights’ cook on “Bonanza.” So when Bruce Lee came along, thousands of Asian Americans in the Northwest became fans, said Lee, 60, of Renton who has collected thousands of items of the late superstar’s memorabilia.
Lee mania has created a new flood of projects, including the musical “Bruce Lee: Journey to the West,” scheduled for 2010 with David Henry Hwang writing the book, Seattle’s Bartlett Sher directing and David Yazbek (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) writing the lyrics.
This weekend at the tribute, Lee’s daughter and his wife, Linda Lee Caldwell, will unveil sketches for the Lee museum, which will include his writings, props and his signature weapon, the nunchaku.
The family has not found a location or detailed how the $50 million will be raised, but Lee’s wife said the proposed museum will be in Seattle for the same reason her husband was buried here, at Lake View Cemetery (their son, Brandon, is buried alongside). Lee “mentioned that some day, he would like to return to Seattle. It would be his ideal place to live,” she said.
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