By Shannon Lee
In this first installment of a six-part series, Warrior Executive Producer Shannon Lee shares her father’s philosophies on navigating Hollywood.
Decades later, it’s easy to look back upon Bruce Lee and see a powerful, barrier-breaking innovator who, against all odds, became a Hollywood success story and ultimately a global icon. But when he was in the midst of accomplishing that, he was a struggling actor, martial artist and family man just trying to do his best to be recognized for his talents and make a living! Sound familiar? So how did Bruce Lee beat the odds in show business, and how can you do the same?
I was only four when my father passed away; however, stories of our struggles have been relayed to me throughout the years by close family and friends. Additionally, I can relate to the roller coaster of Hollywood because I attempted an acting career for a hot second in my twenties, and I am now a film and television producer. I also feel equipped to pass on some of my father’s wisdom because, aside from just having written a book about this very thing, I have run the Bruce Lee Family Companies for the past twenty years. So you could say I’m immersed!
Let me first give you some context for my stewardship of my father’s legacy. I do what I do because I’ve listened to the stories and I’ve applied the philosophies to my own life, and they’ve changed me in astounding and profound ways. I’ve learned to look inward at my own experience and adjust my perspectives to fit the life I strive to lead. So I bring to the work sincerity and genuine passion for the material. My father’s wisdom is game-changing if you can learn to apply it.
But don’t just take it from me. Bruce Lee’s philosophies have been used by people all around the world in a multitude of disciplines — from Kobe Bryant, who applied the principles of jeet kune do on the basketball court, to a hedge fund manager who uses my father’s philosophies to discipline his approach to investing, to artists and musicians who channel his ideas about honest self-expression. The list goes on and on. There is a wealth of inspiration here if you incorporate his ideas into your own life. As my dad once said, “Knowing is not enough, you must do; willing is not enough, you must apply!”
My father encountered many obstacles in his pursuit to be the first Chinese leading man in Hollywood. He was offered roles that were stereotypical and demeaning; rejected for roles because he was Chinese; paid less than actors in equal or even lesser roles; and sidelined for having an accent. He was also criticized for being “too Eastern” or “too Western,” depending on the circumstances. He did not have a cushion of financial resources, and he was completely unknown and unconnected when he started out in Hollywood. Many of those obstacles and others still exist for aspiring artists today. So what did Bruce Lee do that tipped the scales in his favor?
If I had to name the top two things that launched my father’s success, I would choose 1) his incredible work ethic, and 2) his ability to seek and apply wisdom to his goals. In other words, he worked his ass off and he cultivated a successful attitude.
There are always moments along any path where how you choose to face the road ahead can make all the difference in where the journey ultimately leads you. Such choices include disciplining yourself to remain positive, using your defeats as lessons, having faith in your uniqueness, cultivating yourself and not your image, and having the courage to forge your own path. There is no one-size-fits-all answer for any given situation. But I hope that by sharing some of my father’s journey as an artist, along with the philosophies that helped him to find success, you will find some useful guidance for your own path as you look within to discover the answers you seek!
Figuring out how to “be yourself” is truly the work of a lifetime. That said, it can be very useful to learn how to settle in and have confidence in who you are as an individual as part of a successful career, no matter what you do. But let’s focus on why, for creators, it is so important to be yourself. As they say, art imitates life. Introspection, and an understanding of what makes you tick, will help you bring a more personal and unique connection to your work and help you develop a signature all your own. My father was an actor who went on to produce, write, direct and, of course, choreograph. So why was it so important that he work to be himself? Well, my father discovered that if you go into your craft attempting to fit into a mold of how you think you ought to act, rather than how you yourself might fully inhabit and understand a character through the lens of your own experience, your performances won’t be as deep or intimately nuanced. You may go through the motions convincingly enough, but you won’t bring anything unique and personal to the table that would give that character a sense of real dimension. You then become interchangeable with a whole bunch of other actors who would do a competent job, but no casting director will say of you, “Oh, I’d love to see how that person would do this role!” My father learned this lesson the hard way in his first Hollywood role.
Bruce Lee was given the part of Kato in The Green Hornet after being discovered at a karate tournament in 1965 by hairdresser Jay Sebring, who knew his producer client was looking for a talented Asian man to cast in a project. My father got a call out of the blue from Hollywood producer William Dozier, who asked him to take a screen test. Now, that wasn’t entirely outside of my father’s comfort zone, as he had been an actor in Hong Kong and appeared in twenty films as a kid. But that was a life he had given up when he had come to the US and focused instead on teaching gung fu and opening schools in different cities. It had been several years since he had been in front of a camera, and he had certainly never acted in Hollywood; the industry was much different from what he had known in 1950s Hong Kong.
Not one to waste an opportunity, however, my father traveled from Oakland to LA for the screen test and ultimately won the role of Kato. Nervous about doing a good job and finding his footing on a Hollywood set, my father did his best to perform the part. He went to acting classes, he followed direction, he hit his marks, he did what was asked at every turn politely and efficiently. As he should have, right? Yes. But when my father looked back on his experience, he had this to say:
“When I first arrived, I did The Green Hornet television series back in 1965. And as I looked around, man, I saw a lot of human beings. And as I looked at myself, I was the only robot there. Because I was not being myself, and I was trying to accumulate external security and external technique but never to ask and learn what Bruce Lee would have done.”
Look at his words here: “I was trying to accumulate external security and external technique…” We often go about trying to find security in outside things rather than within ourselves. We attempt to accumulate validation and praise in order to feel as though we are doing it “right,” whatever “it” is, and we forget to check in with ourselves and see if we are also following our intuition, bringing our unique perspective to the table, and being personally fulfilled.
In later years, my father disliked looking back at his performance in The Green Hornet, which was canceled after only one season. He found himself to be mechanical and devoid of soul. But the good news is he was able to evaluate the experience and adjust how he wanted to move forward; he made a pledge to always be himself, express himself and have faith in himself. He later said, “An actor has to be real in expressing himself as he would honestly in a given situation. An actor’s problem, though, is not to be egotistical but to keep his cool and to learn through discoveries and much deep soul searching.”
So the lesson here is to bring your soul to work with you. Don’t check it at the door, but reveal it. Share it. Cultivate it. Integrate it into your work, and your work will become unique to you and nobody else. You know why there will never be another Bruce Lee? There are others who are better actors and who are great action stars and who are highly skilled martial artists, but there is no one who did it like Bruce Lee did — no one who moved like him, made sounds like him, gestured like him, or oozed charisma, energy and soul like him. You know why Bruce Lee’s movies are so awesome? Because Bruce Lee was in them. Full stop. So bring your own awesome sauce to the party, and the same may be said about you one day.
To learn more about Bruce Lee’s philosophies, check out Shannon Lee’s Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee, available wherever books are sold and on Audible.