Bruce Lee's 'Warrior' Corrects 40 Years of a "Travesty"
Bruce Lee's TV pitch was originally passed over "because he was Chinese."
In 2000, Shannon Lee, the daughter of martial arts film icon Bruce Lee, assumed stewardship of her father’s legacy with vague ideas to make it a business. (Today, there is official Bruce Lee merchandise, ranging from licensed apparel, Funko toys, and comics that have the approval of Lee’s family.) Then she found The Warrior, and everything snapped into focus.
Sifting through her father’s things, “I came across the treatment and the notes,” Shannon tells Inverse. “I was like, here’s the thing I’ve heard about my whole life.”
"It was just part of the story: That my father had created a show he pitched and was not given a lead because he was Chinese.” — Shannon Lee
Inside a box sent by her mother were eight pages of notes that served as Lee’s treatment for The Warrior, an unmade TV show about a Chinese immigrant who comes to America and fights injustice with fists of fury. In the 1970s, Lee, then on the cusp of Hollywood stardom, pitched to television networks his show. He was rejected, on the basis that viewers would be uncomfortable with an Asian male lead. Even if that lead was Bruce Lee.
“This was a story that I always sort of knew about in my family,” Shannon says. “It was just part of the story: That my father had created a show he pitched and was not given a lead because he was Chinese. That was just what I knew of my family.”
Now, over 40 years after his death in 1973, Lee’s vision is realized. Warrior, a new Cinemax series co-produced by Shannon Lee, Justin Lin (Fast & Furious), and Jonathan Tropper (Banshee) proudly states in the tagline, “Based on the writings by Bruce Lee.”
In lieu of Lee, the series stars British-Japanese actor Andrew Koji as “Ah Sahm,” an Asian immigrant who comes to America in search of his sister, only to become a hatchetman in the middle of a violent Chinatown gang war in 1880s San Francisco.
When Shannon first unearthed the treatment, she had only begun shepherding her father’s legacy into a brand. She didn’t have any capital or contacts in Hollywood to begin producing her father’s dream project, so The Warrior laid dormant in that box for years. Then, Justin Lin called.
“As an Asian-American growing up, I would watch Westerns and the Chinese were always the extras,” Lin says. A young Justin Lin constantly asked himself: “Who were they about?”
A Taiwanese-born director who grew up in Cypress, California (six hours from Oakland where Lee established his kung fu schools), Lin achieved mainstream Hollywood success through films like Fast & Furious and Star Trek: Beyond. He is also a die-hard fan of Bruce Lee; in 2007, he directed the mockumentary Finishing the Game, in which hapless producers audition replacements to finish Lee’s unfinished film, The Game of Death, posthumously released in 1978.
One day, Lin — who had met Shannon on a previous occasion — had a conversation with producer and friend Danielle Woodrow about Bruce Lee’s unmade series. “I’ve heard of it my whole life,” recalls Lin, who promptly decided to call Shannon to find out. “She said, ‘Yeah, it’s true.’”
Before Lin, Shannon had spent years rejecting offers to make her father’s show a reality. She even had one pitch for an animated series. “It took someone like Justin, who had come up and had success who also cared in a real way about my father and his legacy,” she says. “I have people coming to me all the time who want who just want to exploit [my father’s] name. It really took this meeting and Justin actually having the wherewithal to make this happen.”
Shannon Lee and Justin Lin together, along with Jonathan Tropper at Cinemax, are now the architects behind a pop culture legend dating back to 1971.
In a December, 1971 interview with Canadian journalist Pierre Berton — Bruce Lee’s only recorded interview — Lee openly talks about The Warrior as a show set in the Old West. With cowboys and everything. (Shannon Lee says her father had “many treatments” that differed in setting.)
Despite his high profile, Lee expressed doubt over his show. His ethnicity, Lee said, “is why The Warrior is probably not going to be on,” he told Berton. “They think that business-wise it is a risk. I don’t blame them.”
"The treatment he wrote was ahead of its time. It was post-modern. It was layered.” — Justin Lin
Because of the Berton interview, it is widely believed among fans (thanks to the 1993 biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) that The Warrior was stolen from Lee and turned into Kung Fu, a similar series that became a massive hit. That show, which ran for 63 episodes, starred white actor David Carradine as a half-Chinese monk who used martial arts to fight outlaws. For his role, Carradine earned Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, recognition Lee never had.
“I had heard about this myth of Kung Fu and I remember being confused as a kid,” Lin says. “No one explained to me why there was a Caucasian man playing Asian. When I got older, I heard the backstory that Bruce Lee had pitched an idea and they didn’t want to go with an Asian lead, I thought it was a travesty.”
Whether or not Kung Fu was stolen from Lee is unknown. There’s evidence it was just a coincidence, as creator Ed Spielman asserts he wrote Kung Fu in New York after exploring the city’s Chinatown neighborhoods. And Carradine confirmed in 1993 that Lee was also considered for the starring role.
One thing is for sure: The Warrior would have had what Kung Fu didn’t: Bruce Lee.
“My father always wanted, and was searching for ways to give an authentic portrayal of the Asian experience,” Shannon says. “That was his idea. To set it purposefully in this time period right before the Chinese Exclusion Act.”
In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law, which prohibited Chinese from entering the United States. Chinese already in the U.S. also became permanent aliens who were barred from citizenship. It was the first time the federal law discriminated immigration based on a specific ethnic group. It would not be repealed until the Magnuson Act in 1943, when the U.S. relied on China against Japan in World War II.
“It’s still a world and time period we’ve not seen before in media, and from the Asian-American experience especially,” adds Shannon.
“Reading it blew my mind,” Lin says of Lee’s story notes. “The treatment he wrote was ahead of its time. It was post-modern. It was layered. You can engage [with it] on a genre level but it brought in American history, this Chinese-American experience that to me was so important.”
While Carradine beat up cowboys in the very familiar Wild West, Warrior is showing audiences a time and place they’ve maybe never seen before: the Tong Wars of 19th century San Francisco. Glossed over in high school textbooks, the Tong Wars were a period of violent unrest for Asians in the new world. From the 1880s until the 1930s, Asian immigrant gangs turned San Francisco into a war zone, to the ire of the city’s white law enforcement as they fought over neighborhood territories.
“Growing up, that was two sentences in the history books,” says Lin. But Warrior isn’t trying to make up for lost chapters in a history textbook. Producer Jonathan Tropper says they weren’t trying to make a historical docudrama, but portray a “heightened version of that world.”
“We took liberties to make it the graphic novel representation of San Francisco’s Chinatown,” he tells Inverse. “The way our gangsters dress is not how they dressed back then.”
Although a period piece, Warrior is thoroughly modern as a show about American immigration.
“It is about American Immigration,” Tropper says. “The Irish [in our show] are angry at the Chinese, that fuels the rage that leads to violence. The way immigration works in this country is it is in this bedrock of institutionalized racism. You can’t get away from the fact that this country is built by immigrants we don’t treat very well. That’s going on today.”
The show’s scripts, penned by a writing staff that includes Chinese-Americans, is populated with period-specific racial slurs for a reason. “I wanted to start raw,” says Lin, who wanted “to be true to the verbal abuse” that the Chinese endured at the time.
As Andrew Koji’s Ah Sahm navigates Chinatown, he finds himself in a hotbed of crime, prostitution, and corruption riddled with racial tension. Between the city’s white law enforcement, its resentful working class Irish community, and opportunistic crime lords who want to hire Ah Sahm for his fists, Ah Sham is the fuse that lights the powder keg that blows up San Francisco.
Ah Sahm would have been Bruce Lee nearly four decades ago, introducing mainstream American audiences to their first Asian male action hero. With Lee’s show rejected, American television didn’t see a heroic Asian male lead until 1994, with Russell Wong in Vanishing Son.
But Shannon Lee says now is the time for Warrior. Maybe 40 years had to pass before “Based on the writings of Bruce Lee” really meant something. But despite the legacy of her father, Shannon didn’t want to concern herself with rules of what her show should or shouldn’t be.
After all, it’s how dad would have wanted it.
“I never want to be overly precious in that aspect of my father’s legacy, she says. “We don’t want to box ourselves in. My father was not about staying in the lines. He wanted to play, to express the totality of the experience. The essence is important for me here, and that it stands in the boundaries of his legacy. But those boundaries are quite broad.”
Warrior premieres April 5 on Cinemax.