#91 Brandon Lee
This is a special episode of the Bruce Lee Podcast honoring Brandon Bruce Lee. We just celebrated Brandon’s birthday February 1st and coming up on March 31st is the 25th anniversary of his passing, so Shannon wanted to share some stories of growing up with Brandon as her big brother and share some excerpts from Brandon’s journals.
Shannon and Brandon had a very special relationship and Brandon viewed himself as her protector. Brandon was also the typical older brother in that he loved to mess with Shannon playing pranks and picking fights, but there were instances where he would come to Shannon’s rescue. If he thought Shannon was in trouble, or had really hurt herself, or if someone was picking on her, he would come to save her.
After their father died, after the funeral, their mom had to go back to Hong Kong to sort out their belongings back there. Shannon and Brandon had to go stay with their aunt and uncle for several weeks in Canada. Shannon had this blankie that she carried with her everywhere, and for whatever reason her aunt decided that it was time for Shannon to stop using a blankie. Brandon stood up for Shannon, and put his hands on his hips and was yelling at their aunt to give Shannon back her blankie. This role of protective older brother was one that Brandon would continue to fulfill throughout their lives.
Brandon was a larger than life soul. He was a voracious reader and would have a dictionary with him so that when he encountered a word he didn’t know he would look it up. Brandon knew the definition of everything and he got a perfect score on the English portion of the SATs. His favorite book was “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”
Brandon was super sharp, smart, and theatrical and he loved to tell stories and capture the attention of the room. Brandon was able to sell any story he told.
This is the story of Samson the kitten:
When they were kids, Brandon had a fort he had made in their backyard of plywood, complete with a padlock to keep out their mom (even though she had a key.) One day, their mom was walking past the fort and she heard meowing coming from inside. She got her key and discovered a little kitten that Brandon had been keeping in his fort. When Brandon got home from school, she said, “What are you doing with a kitten in your fort?” He said, “Oh my god, mom, you’re never going to believe this. I was walking home from school, and I found this kitten, it was near death. It was in the gutter, it was all dirty, it had ants crawling on it. I didn’t know if it was going to live, so I brought home and I cleaned it up, and I was just keeping it in my fort. I honestly had no idea if it was going to live or not, but I think he’s going to make it! He looks ok.” Their mom’s heartstrings were being tugged, and she went on about how amazing it was that Brandon had nursed this kitten back to life. They named the kitten Samson because he had the strength of Samson to rise from near death. They came to find out years later that Brandon’s friend’s cat had just had kittens and Brandon just brought a kitten home.
Brandon always knew that he wanted to be an actor. He would put on his own plays. One time, he copied down word-for-word a few episodes of the Twilight Zone and stage directed them at school.
Even though it could have been daunting to go into acting like his larger than life father Bruce Lee, Brandon saw himself as different from his father because Bruce Lee’s passion was martial arts and Brandon’s passion was acting. Brandon was an artist through and through.
He only went to one semester of college at Emerson before dropping out to pursue acting. Since he was Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon was expected to do martial arts and be in action films. So while being Bruce Lee’s son opened some doors for him, he was pigeonholed as an action star. However, neither Brandon nor Shannon studied martial arts after their father died.
Brandon eventually started to study martial arts around the age of 19, and because he was naturally coordinated he was able to pick it up quickly. He studied at the Inosanto Academy with Dan Inosanto and picked up proficiency in muay thai and JKD, and while he enjoyed martial arts it was not his life’s passion. Brandon studied martial arts because he kept being asked to do action films, but ultimately wanted to be a real actor and not be stuck in action roles.
Brandon was romantic, bohemian, and literary. He kept journals and wrote letters written in a way that reminds Shannon of an old timey “days of yore” style of writing.
Fun epitomized Brandon. He loved to play jokes, and had a big boisterous laugh and a huge smile. He was a daredevil and used to skateboard and ski, he was constantly breaking bones, getting stitches, and even knocked himself unconscious a few times. He was always building rickety skate ramps in the backyard.
Brandon loved nature. From when they were young, their mom would take them on camping trips and he continued to love nature and camping as a teen and adult. He went on Outward Bound (and intense camping trip) and could read a topographical map. When he was an adult he would take his motorcycle and go on solo camping trips.
On one such camping trip, when he was around 19 or 20, Brandon rode up with some friends and then he went off on his own into the wilderness. He ended up in a meadow when a rainstorm hit. He threw up the tent, but it was old and had holes so it was waterlogged and leaking, barely keeping him protected. Here he wrote some journal entries.
“Day 5: I am depressed again. This trip, which was supposed to save me, is failing. I am having extremely fatalistic feelings. I’m in the woods now – alone. Right now, I wish I had some other people around. This small blue tent has become a prison of sorts. Outside, it’s raining, and if it rains much harder, I am going to die. Literally. I am far from help and it is cold and wet. Never have I been alone for this long. The tent is sagging around me, and a flood of water is rushing into the meadow…I want to go home. If the weather doesn’t improve tomorrow, I may snap.”
“Day 6: Aha! I have it figured out. The day began with rain. There was a brief period of sunshine, which induced me to begin packing up. I was in high spirits. But then the crafty rain caught me just as I was taking the tent down and utterly soaked both it and me. I reset the tent and huddled within. This brief period while I sat in a water-logged tent – which bore a new rip made by my careless step – was, in a sense, my catharsis.
I was truly fearful, with that gut fear one may experience after losing large sums of someone else’s money – but I do not believe I was fearful for my life. No, I was fearful for my ego, for my comfort.
The rain eventually stopped and the sun actually shone intermittently. With a zeal born of fear, I rushed forth, took down the dilapidated tent, packed my bags and set off at what can only be described as a dead run. The meadow had seemed to have acquired evil – bad karma. Through some sort of grace (the good karma of affirmative action) it did not rain again. In fact, I had the distinct impression that I was the storm front, for the small patch of blue sky through which the sun peeked occasionally seemed to center itself directly above my head and follow me as I walked.
I made it to China Camp without further ado. Whereupon, being a man of extreme good taste, I moved into the men’s bathroom where I am at present and where I expect to remain. …The weather is a great gumption effector, and I hope I did not carve “I’M HAPPY” on the bathroom door ephemerally. I am no longer alone, for I have as company now myself. After you have been away from other people long enough, there is nothing to do but be with yourself. Your ego – which operates solely for others – is gone.
Hopefully I will make it to a town tomorrow where it is my fervent desire to check into a hotel. This tent has had it anyway. An interesting note – my flashlight batteries just died very slowly. Good thing I have more.
Brandon always had an excellent grasp of writing. Here’s an excerpt from his 8th grade graduation speech his teacher had them write as an exercise:
“To me, my educational career thus far, seems to resemble (in a way) the myth of Sisyphus; who was forever condemned to push a boulder up a steep hill in Hades; but ere he reached the top, the boulder would slip from his grasp. …The more we learn, the more we are forced to realize we do not know. As Socrates said, “I am the smartest man in all Athens because I know how ignorant I am.”
As an aspiring actor, Brandon understood that being Bruce Lee’s son gave him access to the industry and landed him meetings that he would not have had normally. But being Bruce Lee’s son also pigeonholed him in the action genre, which is not where he wanted to be. Brandon approached the roles he got wholeheartedly, but he was using these action films toward the goal of landing future dramatic roles.
When Brandon got “The Crow” he was very excited because it was a different genre than the typical action films. While there was some action, the role was dramatic with the main character being a tortured soul. One of the reasons that this role was successful for him was because Brandon’s portrayal of this role was very engaging, emotional, and deep.
Even though Brandon struggled with being Bruce Lee’s son in the acting industry, he knew what he wanted and did not rely on the legacy of his famous father. With just the short time that Brandon was working in film, he had begun to be recognized as Brandon Lee, not just as Bruce’s son.
“Yes, I think that I could share the fact that I am Bruce Lee’s son with someone else. It is a fact that it is both a burden and a blessing, which one it is will be determined in years to come when I intend to share it with the whole world.”
Shannon firmly believes that her brother Brandon was set to be a major star. “The Crow” was critical from the soundtrack to the look. When the film came out, even though it was ultimately the film that ended her brother’s life, Shannon went to go see it because she knew how proud Brandon was of his performance and how excited he was to do this project. Shannon felt that there was no way that she could not go see this movie, even though it was hard to do. She went and saw it and Brandon was phenomenal in it.
Brandon was incredible in “The Crow” and touched so many people with his performance. The bittersweet aspect is that the film and the role Brandon played are both so dark, and Brandon himself was so light. Shannon wishes that Brandon’s fans could also know his literary, nature-loving, goofy, soul.
From a camping trip in northern California:
“Gorgeous. It is absolutely gorgeous. The sun is out, the sky is blue. Few black clouds mar the horizon. Time passes slow up here. I will make a concerted effort to concentrate on it alone.”
Brandon was the only other person who walked in shoes similar to Shannon. Even though they were four years a part, they had a deep bond between them. Brandon died just a few weeks before his wedding and he had asked Shannon to be his best man. While they lived a part when they were adults, the times that they spent together were very meaningful. Shannon always knew that he was there for her, and that he still is.
Thank you Brandon for sharing your artistic beauty and work you gave the world. Today we honor Brandon Bruce Lee.