Hollywood actor David Carradine is perhaps most famous for his role in hit TV show “Kung Fu”. He played Kwai Chang Caine, a martial arts expert from China, who travelled to the Old West of America to defend the helpless. But not many know that the 1971 show was actually based on legendary icon Bruce Lee’s writings.
Lee pitched the story to TV networks and had intended to act as the main lead, but producers not only cast him aside, as they felt the world wasn’t ready for an Asian lead actor, but Lee did not receive any credit mention as well. Fast forward to today, his writings are now given a new lease on life, in Cinemax’s original series “Warrior”, with Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, 49, spearheading this project as its Executive Producer.
We spoke to her face-to-face in New York about seeing her father’s ideas come to fruition, and fondly remembering her earliest memories with him.
How does it feel to see this show come alive?
It’s so rewarding and honestly touching on so many levels, to be able to see his vision through, and to be able to do this for my dad. This is an Asian-American story, and we have this fantastic cast. There’s just been so many layers of gratitude on top of gratitude, and it’s a really beautiful experience.
When you peeled through his writings, do you see another side of your father, besides a martial arts icon?
Martial arts was kind of everything to my father; he loved martial arts and he really felt like that was his passion. He said that he was a martial artist by choice, but he was an actor by profession. But what he really considered himself (is) to be an artist of life. And he was creating his life, for himself and every moment. His writings that I have are so deep and rich, and beautiful… and about the expression of the human soul, just over and over again.
For me, the reason why I got involved and looked after his legacy in such a direct way, is because of that – that’s the part of him that really speaks to me. I’ve done martial arts, but I’m not a martial artist. I have an understanding of it as I’ve studied jeet kune do – which is his art as well – so, that’s mostly a way of connecting with him, and knowing what he was passionate about. But to me, his legacy is so inspiring and uplifting to so many people, and I want people to know him also, as this philosopher and this creative artist.
Now with this show, do you feel that your father is still here with us, and that everybody around the world is going to know about him a little more?
I think the interesting thing is, when my father passed away, my mom always thought, ‘Well, at some point, this is gonna die down.’ But all these many years – with not much help from me – that interest and the connection that people feel to him is still very much alive. Now for me to be able to create this project and bring it out in a big way to the whole world, his legacy is still so relevant today. From the representation angle to what it is to be a human being angle, all of that…. It’s so wonderful that people are going to have more visceral touch points for (the memory of) him.
Does it feel weird that you were very young when he passed on and people were constantly talking about him but you never really got to know him? Does that make you feel bitter?
Certainly there have been moments of melancholy; I wish I got to grow up with my father. But there’s also this weird thing that went on my whole life, that I was finally able to put my finger on… which was that my whole life growing up, I always felt like I knew him.
I always felt like I just knew who he was as a human being and that I kind of could tell what he believed in, and what his energy was. I kept thinking to myself, I must be insane because I was four when he died, so how can I feel such an intimate connection to him?
The truth of the matter is I have that of what I remember about him. I remember the feeling of him and his energy, and because when he was with you he was so present, and he was so engaged. Nobody forgets that experience because he had this massive amount of energy.
It took me a long time to understand that that was my memory of him. And that in fact, I have this almost crazy pre-consciousness, I guess, connection to him. I remember him in glimpses but the real way that I know him is (seeing) some of the images (through) lenses. I still remember my memories which began in Hong Kong (where) we lived from 1971 to ‘73.
What were some of the images or glimpses you’ve remembered?
I remember being in the yard at our house. I remember we would go visit him on set because they always filmed movies without sound. So, the kids could be making noise in the background and nobody really cared. As long as we didn’t run across the frame, we were fine. I have little glimpses of what our house was like… to our pets….
My mum was 28, and she had two small children. When my father died, she was living in a foreign country. (Her) intention has always been to move back to the United States, but we certainly weren’t planning on doing it right at that moment. She had a lot of stuff to figure out, settle and deal with, and a lot of grief to manage as well. It’s a testament to her strength as a human being that she was able to take care of us kids, (to) provide for us and handle all of that at the same time.
When you first found the manuscripts, what were your first thoughts?
I always knew that my father had created this show (as) part of our family history, but it wasn’t until 2000 when I stepped in to start running the legacy, my mom sent all of my father’s things down to me. I started looking through them and I came across the treatment… but I wasn’t ready to do anything with it at that moment. So I just kind of put it away and thought, well, maybe one day, I’ll get to this. It’s always with the promise of maybe doing something at some point, but there were other projects that we were trying to get going.
Then all of a sudden, (‘Fast & Furious’ director) Justin Lin calls me out of the blue, and he said, ‘hey, I’ve always heard the story about this show that your father created, is that true?’
So we got together and I showed him the pages. He read through them and he was really taken aback. He was like, not only is this really good, but this represents so many things that we could do well, and do right, if we really have the care to do it. He said we should make this the way my father wanted it to be made. That was about four years ago; so it’s been a long journey. I like to say this project has been in development for 50 years.
Are you happy with actor Andrew Joji’s portrayal of the martial artist in the story?
I am! Yeah, I think Andrew does a great job! When we were casting this (role), I think a lot of people got caught in the trap of trying to imitate Bruce Lee, which we didn’t really want, because it’s never a good idea. You’re never going to live up to being Bruce Lee. What we wanted was someone who was really interested in making the character come alive. Someone who had the raw ingredients like charisma, and physicality, and acting chops, which Andrew had. When he came in for the audition, he just really wanted the role. He tried so many different things, and he just had this soulfulness to him and I think we all said, “this is our guy.”
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“Using no way as way; having no limitation as limitation.” The idea of being limitless was a core tenet of Bruce Lee’s approach to his art and his life. In our fifth and final episode in our podcast series on “Change + Flow,” join Shannon and Sharon as they discuss how Bruce Lee’s idea of being limitless is a mindset and a sense of freedom within one’s own life. Listen to this episode “#132 Limitless” at BruceLee.com/Podcast, scroll down to our earlier episodes! The episode is also linked in today’s instagram story. Listen, subscribe, and download on iTunes. #BruceLee #BruceLeePodcast #Unity #Change #Flow
A post shared by Bruce Lee (@brucelee) on Mar 27, 2019 at 10:40am PDT
Warrior begins its ten-episode season on Saturday 6 April, same time as the U.S. at 10am, with a same day encore at 10pm, exclusively on HBO GO and CINEMAX. New episodes debut every Saturday at the same time.
This trip was sponsored by HBO Asia.