ROARING DOWN MULHOLLAND DRIVE AT 75 m.p.h., hunched over the tank of his motorcycle, Brandon Lee, 27, is definitely showing off. At one point, the son of the late, legendary martial-arts film star Bruce Lee cockily lets go of the Harley’s handlebars and extends his arms to all Los Angeles. Lee’s girlfriend of two years, Lisa Hutton, 28, a story editor for Billwater, Kiefer Sutherland’s production company, stands beside the road unfazed. “I must think he’s invincible too,” she says, sighing. Lee pulls up beside her and hastily jams a fragile-looking helmet over his long black hair, just in case a cop comes by. “This goddamn helmet law!” he rants. “If I want to put my head in a brick wall, it’s my business.”
Lee’s principal business these days is following in the high-flying footsteps of his famous father, whose balletic acrobatics in chop-socky classics like the 1973 Enter the Dragon made him an international star. The son also rises (or hopes to) in the current Rapid Fire, his first U.S. solo starring vehicle, in which, as a college student battling gangsters, Lee (like his dad) choreographed most of his own fight scenes. Comparing Brandon with Bruce, producer Robert (A Kiss Before Dying) Lawrence observes, “His father had a burning intensity onscreen; Brandon’s more fun. He’s freewheeling, hip, and tongue-in-cheek.”
Offscreen, Lee’s humor isn’t always apparent. “When I first met him, I thought he was arrogant,” says Hutton, with whom Lee shares a rented two-bedroom chalet-style house in Beverly Hills. “But he’s not. He’s confident, intense and direct, and a lot of people find that intimidating.”
Including, no doubt, the burglar who broke into Lee’s pad two years ago, confronting him with a kitchen knife. “You want to put that thing down,” intoned the lean (6′, 160-lb.), mean Lee, who, at age 2, was taught the martial art of Jeet Kune Do by his father. The intruder lunged anyway, slashing Lee on his left arm but receiving, in turn, a separated shoulder and a broken arm.
Actually, Lee would rather talk than fight. Says his actor pal Miguel (Twin Peaks) Ferrer, son of Jose: “We’ll sit around drinking, listening to Jackson Browne, solving the problems of the world until the sun comes up.” One early topic of their bull sessions was Brandon’s father. In 1973, Bruce Lee died without warning at age 32, from an edema (swelling) in his brain. Lee had been shooting a movie in his native Hong Kong, accompanied by his American-born wife, Linda, daughter Shannon, 3, and Brandon, then 8. Shannon, now a singer who lives in New Orleans, says Brandon “was gravely affected” by their dad’s death. “But he has definitely come to terms with it.”
The process was long and painful, though. “Like everyone, I was real respectful toward my dad,” says Brandon. “He was quite a hero.” But his sudden death triggered rumors of drug abuse, foul play, even voodoo, garishly served up in the tabloids. Not until he was a teen did Brandon realize the stories were “right about on the same level as Elvis sightings at McDonald’s.” By then he also came to appreciate that his diminutive father (5’7″, 130 lbs.) wasn’t superhuman but “just a guy.” One of his biggest regrets, says Brandon, is “that I never got to spar with my dad alter I was bigger than him.”
He got into plenty of scrapes, however, with kids his own age after his mother moved the family first to Seattle, then to posh Rolling Hills, Calif., where Brandon was constantly challenged to prove himself as Bruce Lee’s son. And, he says, “I always had a pretty good knack for raising hell.” Indeed, he got kicked out of two high schools for insubordination and quit the third one in his senior year. But then his father’s profession beckoned. He took drama classes at Boston’s Emerson College (where Jay Leno studied) and won roles off-Broadway. In 1985, at 20, Lee went to Hollywood. Though the family name opened no doors and he wound up as a script reader, casting agent Lynn Stalmaster finally got him his TV debut in the short-lived Kung Fu: The Next Generation.
To leap onto the big screen, Brandon, like his father, had to go back to Hong Kong, where he starred in a Cantonese martial-arts film and later teamed with Dolph (Universal Soldier) Lundgren in 1991’s Showdown in Little Tokyo. Negotiating his next movie, The Crow, about a rock star back from the dead, Lee is living as fast as he can. A night owl (“I really kick into gear at 2 or 3 in the morning”), he jumps rope and bikes daily and trains at a martial-arts gym three times a week. “My dad said time was the most valuable thing a person had,” he recalls. “That really struck me. I’ve made a conscious effort not to waste it.”
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles