Bruce Lee was appearing in movies long before becoming a martial arts star. Though the actor was in the entertainment industry for most of his life, he’s primarily known for the kung fu movies he made between 1971 and 1973.
Years after starring in The Green Hornet as the main character’s sidekick, Kato, Bruce Lee started making kung fu movies with Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest. His first was The Big Boss, a movie about a former martial artist who is forced to break his vow to never fight again. The movie was followed by Fist of Fury, and then Way of the Dragon, where he battled Chuck Norris in a showdown which has been called by many the greatest martial arts fight scene of all-time. Due to Way of the Dragon’s success and a heightened interest in the kung fu genre in the West, Warner Bros. enlisted Lee — who was in the process of making Game of Death — to take the lead role in Enter the Dragon. The movie wasn’t released until after his death, but it cemented his status as the top martial arts star.
This is the period of Lee’s life that fans are most familiar with, but the actor was actually involved with films as far back as 1941. His father, being a movie star in his own right, was able to get Lee parts in Hong Kong films as a child actor. This started when a one-year-old Lee was used briefly as a baby being held by one of the actors in Golden Gate Girl. As a child actor, he received other bit roles in Hong Kong movies in the 1940s, which all led to 1950’s The Kid, which marked the first time Lee was able to play the main character. He was only nine-years-old at the time. More movies with comparably major parts followed.
Lee’s career continued into his teenage years. At age 18, Lee starred in The Orphan as a boy whose poor choices put him on the wrong path. After the movie, Lee’s parents sent him from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, where he looked to start a new life as a kung fu teacher. During this time, Lee dreamed of becoming a Hollywood star and landed some roles on TV, including The Green Hornet, which was the show that allowed him to show off his skills as a martial artist. In 1968, Lee got back into the movie business with The Wrecking Crew, a movie which starred Dean Martin. However, Lee didn’t get to do any acting. Instead, Lee handled the martial arts training as the “karate advisor”. He did the same job for 1970’s A Walk in the Spring Rain with Anthony Quinn and Ingrid Bergman.
Lee made his first big screen appearance in an American movie in 1969 with the release of Marlowe. Starring James Garner as the titular character, Marlowe was a noir movie about Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled private detective, Phillip Marlowe. In the movie, Lee played a kung fu enforcer sent to attack Garner’s character. It was after Marlowe that Lee’s career really took off. Having failed to land the big roles that he wanted in Hollywood, Lee returned his attentions to Hong Kong cinema, where martial arts movies had become popular at this point. After turning down an offer from Shaw Brothers (the biggest kung fu studio in the industry) Bruce Lee signed a contract with their competitor, Golden Harvest, to make The Big Boss — and that’s how it all started.