Identity

We'll never know if Bruce Lee could've been America's first Asian leading man

Aug 09, 2018

Before Kungfu icon Bruce Lee became a star recognized worldwide, he struggled to be visible in Hollywood in part, he suspected, because of his race.

In 1971, studio executives scrapped his series pitch for a show called The Warrior. At around the same time, he lost the role of playing a Shaolin monk to white actor David Carradine, in a TV series called "Kung Fu".

After his string of losses, Lee gave a televised interview to Canadian journalist Pierre Berton.

Lee said the studio wasn't sure audiences in America were going to be able to accept a Chinese lead. Asked about whether industry executives had discussed the race issue, Lee responded: “Such [a] question has been raised, and it is being discussed. And that is why The Warrior is not going to be on. Unfortunately, such [a] thing [as racism] does exist in this world, in certain parts of the country … where they think, business-wise, it’s a risk.”

A lot of people are sitting around in Hollywood trying to decide if the American television audience is ready for an oriental hero.

Bruce Lee

Later, in a Nov. 1971 interview with a Hong Kong paper, Lee was more specific: “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 the Deep South.”

Perhaps what the industry didn't expect was the massive success of Lee's film, Enter the Dragon

Jackie Chan was in Enter the Dragon as well, earlier in his career as a stuntman.
Jackie Chan was in Enter the Dragon as well, earlier in his career as a stuntman.

Just six days before it premiered, however, Lee died.

The film would become one of the year's highest-grossing, and made Lee a huge star. In 2004, Enter the Dragon was selected to be preserved by the U.S. Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Adapted from an original article first published in the South China Morning Post.