Bruce Lee Myths You Can Stop Believing

A good, plausible legend is way more fun than reality. There's always the "Did that really happen?" test, and just how much is reality being bent. According to Mark Twain's rules for writing, "the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable." Twain was specifically going after the novels of James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans, among others), but today, the legend of Bruce Lee is no exception.

There's no question that Lee was an extraordinary athlete, teacher, actor, and director. Even within the strictures of a 1960s TV series, The Green Hornet, his remarkable agility and grace are truly mesmerizing. Dying far too young, at 32, only adds to the tragic mystique. Along with the tragedy come stories — so many stories — attached to a man whose reality was more than remarkable all by itself.

As detailed in Matthew Polly's 2018 biography of Lee, there are still some myths about Lee that persist. Among them:

Spruce Lee

Lee didn't avoid alcohol because of discipline, per Entertainment Weekly. The reality is that he didn't like to drink alcohol because it caused an unpleasant physiological reaction, which he shared with an estimated 35 percent of Asian people. After even a few sips (sake was the exception) Lee would become flushed and nauseous. He did, however, enjoy other substances, specifically cannabis, according to CNN.

After a long day of training at home, Lee would head out to the garage for a marijuana cigarette, eventually moving on to hashish, "carrying it around in little bags and nibbling on it like edibles." When asked why he got high by a fellow martial artist, Lee replied, "It raises the consciousness level." Occasionally, that level was too high for training partners. Polly cites a judo expert who allegedly stopped training with Lee "because he was sick of all the pot smoke swirling around."

Lee's surprisingly cavalier attitude towards pot also translated to his look, for a time. CNN reports that "he wore his hair long, sported love beads and donned dashikis."

He could have used training wheels

Lee was known to the world as a "kinetic genius", totally in touch with his body — a champion ballroom dancer able to quickly master any martial arts fighting style. There was but one obstacle in his way — learning to swim. He was also declared medically unfit for the draft after failing his physical — perhaps for being too powerful? He was human after all — a fact easy to forget in the wake of his ascension to mythical status.

Though he was a sage, Lee was not always the picture of calm. In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Lee's daughter Shannon stated: "He was definitely human. He also had a temper. He was also quick to anger. He wanted things a certain way and he had high standards and sometimes he could lose it." Never for long, though. "He knew when he had had a blow up and he would recover and reset and apologize and work on doing better next time."

Another human element lost in his legend is the reality of his path to America. Though he is often portrayed as an "impoverished immigrant who came to America to make it big," Lee came from a very reputable Hong Kong family, with its own chauffeur and two live-in maids. His father was a Chinese opera star, per History, which helped Lee secure an early foothold as a child actor. By the time he had arrived in the US, he'd appeared in around 20 films. 

His death created more myths

Polly reports that the TV Western/Martial Arts hybrid series Kung Fu wasn't actually Lee's brain child. "It was written by two Jewish comedy writers from Brooklyn, Ed Spielman and Howard Friendlander," Polly told Entertainment Weekly. Lee auditioned for the lead role, but that went to David Carradine instead.

As for that very premature death: was Lee actually murdered in some mysterious, arcane, possibly mystical fashion? Because he had betrayed ancient secrets of the martial arts, even daring to teach Caucasians? Part of the problem arises because Lee died in the apartment of an actress to whom he was not married. The actual cause of death was a cerebral edema, but the source of the condition is unknown. Some have suggested he was allergic to aspirin, which he'd taken for a headache, but Polly believes the underlying cause was actually heat stroke. Lee had been intensively rehearsing action sequences for the movie he was shooting, on the hottest day of the month in tropical Hong Kong. "I'm fairly certain it wasn't ninjas," said Polly.