A kung fu star was lost -- and a legend born -- when Bruce Lee died in 1973.

It was the sort of strange, early end that turns rising stars into screen immortals. On July 20, 1973, three weeks before the release of the film that would be his breakthrough, Enter the Dragon, kung fu star Bruce Lee died in Hong Kong, at 32. The official cause of death was cerebral edema, a swelling of the brain. But immediate—and ongoing—questions about Lee’s demise have only added to his legend.

Lee was at the apartment of actress Betty Ting Pei, his costar in the upcoming Game of Death, when he complained of a headache, borrowed a painkiller, and lapsed into a coma from which he never emerged. Though the coroner blamed the death on hypersensitivity to the painkiller, other medical experts pointed to the cannabis found in Lee’s body. One film producer suggested that the actor’s injury may have been the result of accidental blows received while filming his fight scenes.

Then there were the theories that Lee had died during sex with Ting Pei, that he’d been assassinated by envious kung fu masters, that he was the victim of a curse—a proposition that took on eerie resonance when, almost 20 years later, Lee’s son, Brandon, was killed while filming a shooting scene in his breakthrough movie, The Crow.

If any aspect of the Bruce Lee legend is dubious, his legacy is real. Born in San Francisco’s Chinatown while his Cantonese opera-star father was on tour, Lee spent his childhood in Hong Kong, studying wing chun kung fu, earning a cha-cha championship, and getting into trouble with the law. Sent back to America at 18, Lee gave dance lessons before enrolling at the University of Washington in Seattle to study philosophy. Dropping out after three years, he married and had two children, including Brandon.

Lee’s first showbiz break came in 1966, when he was cast as Kato in the TV series The Green Hornet. But it was his fourth starring film, 1973’s Enter the Dragon, that put him on the international map—and single-handedly popularized the martial arts genre for Western audiences, paving the way for dozens of successors, from Chuck Norris (who got his break as Lee’s opponent in Return of the Dragon) to Jackie Chan, who worked as a fight-scene stuntman in Enter the Dragon. “It was considered an honor to fight Bruce,” says actor-director Sammo Hung, star of this fall’s CBS action series Martial Law, “even when you knew you would lose.”

Enter the Dragon
  • Movie
  • 110 minutes