Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) shot Jason Scott Lee, an obscure, unknown actor of Hawaiian and Chinese descent, into stardom. Appearing in the role of Bruce Lee was the opportunity of a lifetime, plastering Jason Scott Lee’s face on movie posters and in a video game based on the film.
Years before he became a leading man, Jason was a small-time actor appearing in bit parts in Back To The Future II and Cheech Marin’s 1987 satirical comedy Born in East L.A. After a while, the actor’s lucky break came in 1993 when he was chosen for the role of Bruce Lee, Jason’s ticket to fame and mega-stardom. However, instead of becoming a household name, he vanished from the limelight, and his performance as Bruce Lee has been mostly forgotten.
Bruce Lee‘s life has been explored in many biographies and documentaries. The actor and martial arts legend has legions of fans who are as obsessed with his mysterious and fascinating personal life as they are with his films. Therefore, any true Lee fan knows that the best biography on the icon was written in 1975 by his wife, Linda Lee Cadwell.
Linda writes with depth and intimate knowledge about her late husband’s life and his tragic early death. The book explores Lee’s personal life as he walked the joyous path of marriage and family life and his experiences in Hollywood, which were often dark and painful.
Bruce Lee fans also know that the best film and actor to depict his life was Jason Scott Lee in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. The film takes much of its inspiration from Linda’s biography and weaves an inspired yet tragic story of the star. The movie is one of the best biopics ever made and was made in the early nineties when biopics were not as fashionable as they are now.
Back then, biographical movies were mainly centred around a particular event in some person’s life, like Schindler’s List and Goodfellas. On the other hand, Dragon revolves around Bruce’s life in America – just after he leaves Hong Kong. From there, the film explores his life as a martial arts instructor and his subsequent success as an actor. Bruce’s romance with Linda Cadwell is also central to the story.
Upon release, the movie was loved by audiences and critics alike. The story was endearing and entertaining, thanks to Rob Cohen’s electrifying directing style. The rest of the praise went to Jason Scott Lee’s fantastic portrayal as one of the most recognisable martial artists ever.
Jason Scott Lee (no relation to Bruce Lee) was a relatively unknown actor when he starred in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and wasn’t the first choice for the lead. The original actor the casting team had in mind was Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon Lee. However, producer Raffaella De Laurentiis thought Brandon didn’t look “Chinese enough” for the role. Additionally, Brandon refused to play his father in a biopic, as he thought it strange to delve into his parents’ love story.
At the same time, Jason Scott Lee was just turned down for a role in The Last of the Mohicans because he didn’t “look Native American enough,” so the chance to star as Bruce Lee was the perfect opportunity to launch his career.
Even though he was a skilled gymnast, Jason had no previous martial arts training. Instead of recasting, the producers decided to retain Jason, rationalising that teaching an actor martial arts was more manageable than teaching a martial artist how to act, thus securing Jason’s talents for the film.
Jason’s inspired performance as Bruce Lee was lauded by filmgoers and critics. The actor, however, paid an emotional price for his portrayal of the martial arts star and was mired in self-doubt about portraying the icon. The pressure to accurately embody Lee was immense.
Jason feared fumbling this great opportunity, thinking he might blow his career before it even began. Reflecting on Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story’s 30th anniversary, Jason Scott Lee was interviewed by Yahoo Entertainment and mentioned the turmoil and stress he experienced during the making of the film.
“I had an emotional breakdown while I was training. Everything was too heavy, you know? It was so much pressure and I just fell apart,” Jason said. The actor admitted he was afraid of being mocked if he didn’t live up to expectations, saying, “Looking back now, I can laugh about it, but when I was in the middle of it, it felt like my whole world was collapsing. All I thought was, ‘I’m going to be the one that everyone mocks.'”
Jason’s ordeals were eased when Bruce Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Cadwell and their children, Shannon and Brandon Lee, assured the Haiwan actor. The Lee family approved of Jason’s casting, with Linda reassuring the young up-and-coming actor his career would not be jeopardised if he played the part of Bruce Lee.
Jason’s most significant support came from a former Bruce Lee student, Jerry Poteet. Jerry, a martial arts instructor, was Jason’s trainer for the film, helping the actor to imitate Bruce Lee’s techniques accurately, especially Lee’s famous martial arts style, Jeet Kune Do.
Jason told Yahoo that Poteet empowered him not to give up. Training together and Poteet’s encouragement helped Jason realise that Bruce Lee never gave up, nor should he.
“Jerry used to tell me that what a lot of people didn’t know about Bruce is that he spent a lot of time in bed, because he’d push himself too hard and injure himself-he was constantly laid up. That’s what he said I’d want to get across that he’s not going to give up. And it was in the training that I felt that…there was a definite transformation,” Jason said.
Poteet’s ability to convey Lee’s martial arts ability convinced Jason he could play the part of Bruce. “I told Jerry, ‘You are the person that can take me to the place where I can perform this and honestly feel like I’m doing the man justice.'”
Lee gave an impeccable performance in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, but Jason’s career nosedived soon after despite the film’s critical and financial success. The actor gradually vanished, making a notable appearance in 1994’s Disney live-action Jungle Book film as Mowgli, alongside Sam Neill and John Cleese.
Jungle Book is one of Disney’s best live-action adaptions; unfortunately, it faded into obscurity despite a decent box office of $70 million and high critical acclaim. Jason’s portrayal of Mowgli was soon forgotten, and he, together with the film, was lost amidst the success of other more significant Disney films like Lion King, also released in 1994.
Jungle Book was the last big live-action film Jason starred in for many years. Shockingly, the actor had plenty of other famous films that were offered to him after Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, which he rejected for various reasons. In 2016, Lee was cast in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon II: Sword of Destiny.
The film’s producer, Bey Logan, was interviewed on YouTube by Viking Samurai and spoke of his time working with Lee. During their time together, Logan said he spent many hours talking to Lee. In their discussions, Jason highlighted some of his career mistakes. He told Logan, ‘In retrospect, I made the same bad decisions as Brandon Lee. I did the Bruce Lee thing – I don’t want to do any more action stuff.’
Logan then cites a few of these egregious mistakes, saying that Lee was offered the role of Kato, Green Hornet’s sidekick, in a reboot of the famous radio series. George Clooney was set to star as Green Hornet, but Jason rejected the part outright. “I already did that,” Jason told Logan, declining the coveted role. Logan said that instead of rejecting action roles, Jason should have continued to appear in a few more action films to secure his burgeoning career.
Jason’s interview with Yahoo Entertainment corroborated Logan’s assertions. The actor told Yahoo,
“There were opportunities that I passed on that maybe I shouldn’t have, you know, that maybe were great opportunities. I don’t know, you know I was just looking at it from a different perspective.” Jason also dropped a bombshell, saying he was considered for Speed; he had the script but declined the role, which instead went to Keanu Reeves.
Another huge film Jason was linked to was 1996’s Independence Day, which eventually landed in Will Smith’s lap. These action films were massive box office hits that, if Jason had starred in them, would undoubtedly have bolstered his career. Instead of helping Lee, they helped Smith and Reeves further their careers in Hollywood.
Jason’s appearance in Jungle Book a year after Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story was perhaps a career misstep. Fans wanted the actor to star in martial arts and action films, not a family-friendly children’s film. The actor, however, picked his film roles according to his artistic taste, rejecting leading roles that typecasted him. Jason’s meteoric rise and dramatic descent have encouraged curiosity and speculation. What happened? Where is he now, and why did he never become a superstar after Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story?
After Jungle Book, Lee’s career consisted of mainly direct-to-DVD films and minor roles in movies like 2002’s Lilo and Stitch. Some might argue that instead of choosing one genre over the other, Lee could have simultaneously appeared in action and dramatic roles. However, Lee refused to conform to typecasting, telling Yahoo Entertainment that he passed on those big films because they were not ’emotionally driven’.
Lee is an individual who prefers that his values and principles lead his career decisions. From a purely business angle, Jason squandered unique opportunities, diminishing his success and stunting his potential in Hollywood.
Yet, from a holistic and personal perspective, the actor followed his heart even if that meant stifling his career. Lee was frustrated by Hollywood, but the actor found solace with his wife and children in Hawaii. Jason turned to gardening and farming. “That’s what I have been doing for twenty years,” Lee told Yahoo Entertainment. The actor channelled his talents and is involved in sustainable farming. Lee, the farmer, took the lessons he learned from martial arts and adapted them, serving nature and empowering local Hawaiian communities to grow organic produce.
While Jason Scott Lee didn’t realise his full potential as a film star, he understands that acting is only one part of his journey. The narrow definitions of success we use to judge people are misleading, and acting is only one aspect of a person’s life. Jason might not have become as popular as Keanu Reeves, but he is doing what he loves. On the other hand, Lee is still fit and healthy, and Hollywood can still come knocking and offer him an exciting role that could refresh his career.
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