Podcast #428: The Life of a Dragon — The Untold Story of Bruce Lee

If you were like most boys, you probably went through a karate phase as a kid. When I went through my karate phase as a 5- and 6-year-old, I demanded that my family called me “Daniel-san.” Unfortunately, they did not comply.

There’s one man you can thank for your karate phase: Bruce Lee. 

As my guest will show us today, Bruce Lee nearly single-handedly popularized martial arts in America thanks to his breakout Hong Kong kung fu movies in the early 1970s. My guest’s name is Matthew Polly and he’s the author of the new definitive biography of Bruce Lee called Bruce Lee: A Life

Today on the show, Matthew and I explore the creation of the legend that is Bruce Lee, starting with his unique family history that had him straddling Eastern and Western cultures his entire life. Matthew gives us vignettes into Lee’s early life that show his fire, scrappiness, and love of martial arts, including his rise as a child star in Hong Kong and his love of street brawling. We then discuss how Lee started formal kung fu training as a teenager and how his ambition caused him to bump heads with his teachers. Matthew then shares how coming to America helped Lee refine and reinvent his martial arts practice, how Lee got his break in Hollywood, and how he ended up teaching kung fu to movie stars like Steve McQueen and James Coburn. Along the way, Matthew shares details of Lee’s relentless fitness routine and talks about Lee’s personal library of over 2,500 books that included a lot of philosophy and psychology. We end our conversation discussing Lee’s legacy and how he changed not only cinema, but our idea of manhood in America. 

Show Highlights

  • Why is there such a dearth of Bruce Lee biographies out there?
  • Lee’s interesting familial makeup 
  • Lee’s lifelong East-West struggle and straddling 
  • His early life as a child star in Hong Kong 
  • The street fighting prowess (and style) of Bruce Lee, and the rooftop fights of Hong Kong
  • Why Lee had to keep his kung fu training a secret 
  • How Lee ended up in Seattle, and his early experiences in America
  • Bruce Lee, cha-cha king and kung fu instructor 
  • Lee’s big dreams for his life
  • The true acting and martial arts genius of Bruce Lee 
  • Lee’s obsession with physical fitness/training — lifting weights, taking supplements, etc. 
  • Lee’s voracious reading habits and voluminous library
  • How Lee’s reading influenced his kung fu 
  • Some of Lee’s famous kung fu students in Hollywood 
  • The ups and down of Lee’s acting career 
  • How Lee’s movies changed American cinema and culture 
  • Some of the life lessons Matt took away while writing the book

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Connect With Matt 

Matt on Twitter

Matt’s website

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