The truth behind Bruce Lee's tragic death

Bruce Lee was a man who could flow like water, scream like an animal, and spin some nunchucks like nobody's business. With his crazy kicks and lightning-fast speed, the man went from TV sidekick to blockbuster star in just a few years. But in a devastating twist of fate, the Hong Kong actor didn't live to see his big breakout moment. Right before he reached the heights of international A-list glory, Lee died at the shockingly young age of 32. Martial arts fans and moviegoers around the world were both heartbroken and baffled by the news, and to this day, there's still an air of mystery surrounding Lee's death. After all, how could someone so physically perfect (those lats are amazing) just suddenly die in his sleep? Well, put down that bo staff and prepare to enter the Dragon as we discover the truth behind Bruce Lee's tragic death.

Bruce Lee went from sidekick status to big boss

Bruce Lee was made for the movies. As a kid growing up in Hong Kong, Lee was a prolific child actor, playing in around 20 films. And when Lee moved back to his birth country of America, he opened martial arts schools, taught stars like Steve McQueen, and donned a black mask and started fighting crime.

Playing Kato on The Green Hornet, Lee introduced kung fu to the American mainstream. Unfortunately, the series only lasted 26 episodes and failed to launch Lee into the big time. Frustrated by Hollywood executives passing him over or giving him bit parts, Lee packed his bags and returned to Hong Kong … where he discovered he was the most famous man alive. The Green Hornet was so popular in his homeland that it was known as The Kato Show, and soon Lee was getting leading man parts in Hong Kong pictures.

Lee's first film as the main character was The Big Boss, which became the highest-grossing movie in Hong Kong history. It held that record until Lee's second film, Fist of Fury, came along. Soon after, Lee even got a chance to direct, working on both sides of the camera for Way of the Dragon. With just three films, Lee was suddenly the king of Asian cinema, and that's when Hollywood finally decided they wanted to be in the Bruce Lee business. Unfortunately, Lee wasn't going to be alive much longer.

Bruce Lee broke out with Enter the Dragon

When Bruce Lee started breaking Asian box office records, that's when Warner Bros. gave the man a call. This was Lee's big Hollywood moment, and he was going to make good with a little film called Enter the Dragon.

His first English-language movie, Enter the Dragon was the perfect film showcase for Lee's philosophy, charisma, and ability to beat bad guys senseless. The plot finds Lee playing a Shaolin warrior tasked with sailing out to an island fortress, joining a martial arts competition, and busting the drug lord running the show. It's all in a day's work for Bruce Lee, and when he's not teaching us about the emotional content of kicks or how boards don't hit back, he's showing off his one-punch knockout power and incredibly impressive nunchaku skills.

With on-screen backup from uber-cool Jim Kelly and a groovy score from Lalo Schifrin (the same guy who wrote the Mission: Impossible theme song), Lee crafted a kung fu flick that still is one of the best action movies ever made. Who can forget when Lee fights an entire army of dudes down in a dungeon, or when he battles a knife-handed bad guy in a maze of mirrors? And when the film hit theaters in August 1973, it became a box office smash, nabbing $20 million and earning the top spot internationally. Bruce Lee had finally hit the big time, but tragically, he wasn't around to enjoy his newfound fame.

Bruce Lee's bad health leading up to his death

With his bulging biceps and incredible abs, Bruce Lee was what you might call a "physical specimen." Whether he was skipping rope, circuit training, or doing isometric exercises, Lee was constantly working on his superhero physique. The man seemed absolutely unstoppable, but despite his amazing build and unbelievable speed, the Little Dragon was suffering from some major health issues.

On May 10, 1973, an exhausted Lee was working on the post-production of Enter the Dragon. He was doing some dubbing in a Hong Kong studio booth when he suddenly keeled over and began shaking and vomiting all over the place. Lee was rushed to the hospital, and it took him a couple days to regain the ability to speak. After he was feeling better, Lee got an extensive checkup, but doctors weren't sure what had happened. They knew he'd suffered from a cerebral edema — which is when fluids build up around the brain, causing it to swell — but they weren't sure what had caused the edema. It was a shocking moment for the 32-year-old Lee, who always looked invincible on the big screen. Sadly, it was a harbinger of very bad things to come.

Bruce Lee was having an affair before his death

On the screen, Bruce Lee was a lone wolf, turning his back on romance so he could focus on getting revenge or serving justice. But in real life, Lee was a married man with children. He met his wife, Linda Lee Cadwell, while they were both studying at the University of Washington. Eventually, the two got hitched, and Lee was soon the proud dad of two kids: Shannon and Brandon. However, just because Lee had a family didn't mean he was the world's best husband.

Lee was a bit of a womanizer, and in 1972, he met a 25-year-old actress named Betty Ting Pei (pictured). She was known for playing in musicals like The Yellow Muffler and The Millionaire Chase, as well as wuxia films like The 14 Amazons and sexy comedies like Apartment for Ladies. Ting Pei met Lee at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Hong Kong, and the two hit it off really, really well. When they weren't hooking up, Lee was giving her elaborate gifts, like a Mercedes, and he reportedly promised her a role in Enter the Dragon (but eventually went back on his word).

But what's all this got to do with Lee's tragic death? Well, as it turns out, Betty Ting Pei would be the last person to ever see Bruce Lee alive.

Bruce Lee's last day on Earth

Bruce Lee shuffled off this mortal coil on July 20, 1973. The man was just 32 when he passed away, but how did he spend his last day on Earth? Well, Lee was busy with his upcoming film, Game of Death, and he was meeting with George Lazenby, hoping to get the James Bond actor on board. After talking with Lazenby, Lee did some hash with a buddy, and then drove to Betty Ting Pei's apartment for, uh, non-business purposes. The two spent the next couple hours making love and getting high, only pausing when Lee's producer, Raymond Chow, showed up at the door, and Lee began eagerly acting out scenes from Game of Death.

That's when things took a tragic turn. Lee started feeling dizzy, and his head began hurting. So Ting Pei offered Lee an Equagesic pill — a prescription drug that's part painkiller and part tranquilizer — and after taking it, Lee went into Ting Pei's bedroom to rest. Chow took off, leaving the two alone, and Ting Pei let her lover sleep for a few hours. Unfortunately, when she finally went to wake him up, the Dragon was unresponsive. Freaked out, Ting Pei called Chow for help, but even though a doctor and paramedics rushed to the scene, they were too late. Bruce Lee, the great movie star and martial artist, had died in his sleep, about a month before Enter the Dragon would hit theaters and turn him into an international star.

What was the cause of Bruce Lee's death?

Bruce Lee's death sent shockwaves around the world, but what exactly caused Lee to give up the ghost? Well, after an autopsy at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, doctors discovered that Lee's brain had swollen nearly 13%. According to the official report, Lee had died of "congestions and edema of the brain," the same exact thing that hospitalized Lee in May 1973.

The edema was originally blamed on the cannabis in Lee's system. However, the theory was called into question when Donald Teare showed up. A forensic expert recommended by Scotland Yard, Teare was the guy who performed the autopsy of Jimi Hendrix, so he knew a thing or two about drug overdoses. And after Teare finished his investigation, he concluded that Lee had an allergic reaction to the Equagesic pill that Betty Ting Pei had given him to help with his headache.

However, Ting Pei has said this wasn't the first time she'd given Lee an Equagesic pill, and obviously, the drug didn't kill him on those occasions. Still, Teare's version of events is the accepted storyline, and honestly, it's the most logical and likely. Of course, whenever a major celebrity dies under strange circumstances, you're bound to get some truly insane conspiracy theories, and there are plenty about Bruce Lee.

The crazy Bruce Lee murder theories

Producer Raymond Chow made a big mistake after Bruce Lee's death. Hoping to protect Lee's image, Chow's production company claimed the actor died at home with his wife, Linda. But once the press found out the truth, the tabloids got going. In fact, a lot of people pointed the finger at Betty Ting Pei, claiming she was responsible for Lee's death and that perhaps she'd even poisoned him. Unfortunately, that wasn't the only rumor involving murder.

One of the most popular theories says other martial artists were angry at Lee for teaching their secrets to Westerners, so they decided to bump him off. Some say ninjas were responsible, and others claim Lee was killed with the "Dim Mak," a mythical martial arts move that supposedly kills a victim with one fateful blow. Others believe he was killed after refusing to pay protection money to the Triads, while others claim the Mafia did the deed because Lee wouldn't let them control his career.

The more mystical conspiracy theorists even say there's a family curse that took the life of both Bruce and his son, Brandon Lee. But despite the wild speculation, Lee wasn't murdered by a mob boss or poisoned by his lover. The master of the one-inch punch was almost certainly taken out by a tiny pill.

Did Bruce Lee die of heatstroke?

There are all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories about Bruce Lee's death, but while most of them involve murder, author Matthew Polly has a theory that's a little more scientific. In 2008, Polly published a biography titled Bruce Lee: A Life, and in his book, Polly claims Lee didn't die from taking a tranquilizer. Instead, the author asserts that Lee actually died from heatstroke. So how could that happen while Lee was hanging out in Betty Ting Pei's apartment? Well, according to Polly, Bruce Lee had his sweat glands removed from his armpits so he wouldn't be soaking wet when he started flexing in movies like The Way of the Dragon. Polly also writes that July 20, 1973, was the hottest day that month, and since Lee's body was unable to cool itself, Polly believes the movie star suffered a deadly case of heatstroke and passed away because he couldn't perspire. Admittedly, the idea is a bit out there, but hey, it's more reasonable than putting the blame on a "death touch" or family curse.

Bruce Lee's death majorly impacted his last movie

Game of Death could've been the greatest martial arts movie ever made. Starring Bruce Lee in all his jump-suited glory, the movie would've followed the head-kicking hero as he battled his way up a pagoda, searching for a valuable treasure and fighting a new boss at every level. Each bad guy would be the master of a particular martial art style, and Lee would have to display different tenets of Jeet Kune Do (his philosophy of flexibility and adaptability) to defeat his foes.

Unfortunately, Lee only filmed 40 minutes of footage before passing away, so to complete the film, a Bruce Lee double was hired to play the main character. The double spends a lot of time wearing a fake beard and a motorcycle helmet to hide his face. In fact, in one scene where the double looks into a mirror, the filmmakers taped a cardboard cutout of Lee's face on the mirror to serve as a reflection. And we're not even counting all the times the movie cuts to scenes stolen from other Bruce Lee films.

The plot was also completely changed, with the hero becoming a movie star whose girlfriend is kidnapped by the mob. Perhaps the worst moment comes when the movie uses footage from Lee's actual funeral, even showing the actor's corpse. Adding insult to injury, the theatrical version of Game of Death only uses 11 minutes of Lee's original footage. Fortunately, the 40 minutes Lee shot are still out there, and at the very least, the film gave us the iconic image of the Little Dragon trading punches with NBA giant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Lee's death caused a wave of Bruceploitation

Immediately after Bruce Lee's death, Hong Kong filmmakers seized the moment, beginning a genre called "Bruceploitation." Hoping to capitalize on Lee's posthumous stardom, studios hired actors who vaguely resembled the movie star, gave them off-brand names (like Bruce Le and Dragon Lee), and tossed them into knock-off movies that weren't exactly tasteful.

For example, there's I Love You, Bruce Lee, a sleazy softcore drama about Lee's relationship with Betty Ting Pei … with Ting Pei playing herself. One of the truly bizarre Bruceploitation flicks was The Clones of Bruce Lee, where an evil scientist forces three Lee clones to fight to the death. And in Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger, we learn the "real Bruce Lee" was a reluctant drug mule for the Triads and eventually murdered, so now, a successor named Bruce Li wants revenge against the gangsters.

But without a doubt, the weirdest Bruceploitation flick was The Dragon Lives Again, where a recently deceased Bruce Lee wakes up in the afterlife and fights pop culture characters like James Bond and the priest from The Exorcist. The Godfather and Popeye make appearances, Dracula shows up with a gang of mummies, and "Clint Eastwood" kicks fake Bruce Lee in the face. Yeah, it's pretty disrespectful to Bruce Lee's memory, but at the same time, who doesn't want to see Lee going hand to hand with 007?

How Bruce Lee's death impacted his wife and daughter

Bruce Lee's family never escaped his monumental legacy. Instead, his wife and daughter have been growing it. In 1975, Linda Lee Cadwell published a book about her husband, and in 2002, she and her daughter, Shannon, co-founded the Bruce Lee Foundation. The organization keeps Lee's legend alive and promotes his teachings and philosophies. With Shannon running the show, the foundation gives out scholarships, runs a martial arts program for kids, and even hosts a Bruce Lee summer camp.

Shannon Lee has also been in charge of Bruce Lee Enterprises, the marketing arm of the Lee Industry, and she's done a ton of media work to protect her father's memory. She was behind a 50-episode TV show about her dad, a History Channel documentary, and the Cinemax series Warrior, which was based on his writings. Granted, the Lees have a tendency to overlook some of Bruce's flaws. For example, after the Los Angeles Times ran a story about Lee's death, an angry Linda Lee Cadwell wrote a letter to the paper in 1998, sticking up for her husband and saying there was no evidence he was having an affair with Betty Ting Pei, despite the fact that he died in Ting Pei's bed. Regardless, Linda and Shannon Lee have dedicated their lives to their Bruce's memory, ensuring his Jeet Kune Do teachings and larger-than-life persona will carry on for quite some time.

How Bruce Lee's death impacted his son

Bruce Lee's son, Brandon, was more than a little reluctant to take up his father's mantle. Brandon was just 8 when his father died, and for a while, he refused to have anything to do with martial arts. Evidently, Brandon was dealing with a lot of anger, as Entertainment Weekly reports he was kicked out of two high schools before dropping out of a third. Brandon admits he felt a lot of pressure to live up to his dad, and at the time, he had no intention of following in his father's footsteps. As he put it, "I was like, 'Hey! Wait a minute! Where was my vote in this? So I blew it off."

His mom acknowledged being Bruce Lee's son wasn't easy. "It was a blessing because Bruce was a wonderful father," she told the New York Times. "But for Brandon, it was also a burden to live up to what other people expect of you because of who your father is." However, Brandon was eventually bitten by the acting bug, and with his martial arts base (he trained with his dad as a kid) and the Lee family name, he nabbed his first role in the TV movie, Kung Fu: The Movie, starring David Carradine. His first feature film was the 1986 Hong Kong flick Legacy of Rage, and in 1991, he teamed up with Dolph Lundgren for his first American movie, Showdown in Little Tokyo. Obviously, the movie that made him big was The Crow, but tragically, Brandon died on set before the film was completed, passing away right before he was about to become famous, just like his father.