Actor and marital artist Bruce Lee is one of the rare people who became more famous after he died. While many people have written about Lee’s life, Matthew Polly’s new book published by Simon & Schuster “Bruce Lee: A Life” provides the most intimate and detailed account of the icon’s life to date. Polly, who teaches a class on Lee at Yale University, interviewed hundreds of people for the book and spent years researching the martial artist’s life.
Polly discusses why he wanted to write the book, the connection between Lee and Steve McQueen and Lee’s early acting career as a kid.
DJ Sixsmith– How long have you been teaching your class at Yale?
Matthew Polly– Off and on for a couple of years. I started at the Singapore campus and then I do some stuff here in Connecticut.
DS– I can only imagine the reaction initially bringing this type of class to Yale, I’m sure it was pretty interesting.
MP– [Laughs] That’s right, actually the students, especially the Asian American students, really love it.
DS– I’m sure, so take me back a little bit, why did you want to write this book?
MP– I’m one of those kind of archetypal skinny bullied kids who saw Enter The Dragon when he was 12 and Bruce kind of jumped off the screen into my imagination and became my hero. I immediately rushed out and bought a nunchaku, spent an afternoon cracking myself in the skull with it – put that down and never studied that again [laughs]. But I took up the martial arts and ended up going to China to study Kung Fu with the Shaolin Monks. Really, the entire course of my life was changed by Bruce Lee for the better and I feel, in a way, writing this book was my way to payback that debt.
DS– I feel like there’s a lot of really interesting things about Bruce Lee that I didn’t realize. What did you learn about Bruce Lee from the hundreds of interviews you did for this project?
MP– I think it’s interesting that Bruce Lee is the only star of the 21st Century who died before he became famous. So his image was created completely posthumously and it was based on his movies, so many people didn’t know who Bruce Lee was. They couldn’t separate him from the characters they saw on screen.
What I found fascinating, or one of the biggest things, was watching the 20 movies he made as a child actor in Hong Kong – the fact that none of them were Kung Fu films lets you get that feeling that he was an actor first and foremost. He did comedies, he did tragedies, he did melodramas – he had that acting skill and then later in life he became obsessed with Kung Fu and then merged those two passions and that’s what made him a star was that he synthesized two aspects of his obsession and love.
DS– What was the most interesting interview you did?
MP-Betty Ting Pei was quite remarkable. She’s the woman, in whose bed he died and for about 40 years everybody’s been pretending that he went over there for a business meeting. Most people will realize that was not what happened, most actors don’t go to other actor’s apartments for a business meeting. But she finally decided to fess up and she just said to me directly, “I was his girlfriend,” and we’d all been waiting for years and years and years to hear that.
DS– How about this whole Roman Polanski subplot. Why did Polanski think Bruce killed Sharon Tate?
MP– Yea, that’s amazing. So two of Bruce’s closest friends were Jay Sebring and Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski was one of his students. In the Manson murders Tate and Sebring were killed and at the scene of the crime, one of the murderers left a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and Polanski came to believe that he could find the killer by finding out who had lost the pair of glasses.
Then one day just randomly while he was training with Bruce, Bruce had mentioned that he had lost his pair of glasses and for a short brief moment Polanski was terrified and he says to him, “Let’s go to the optician store and I’ll buy you a new pair of glasses.” So for the entire ride Polanski is thinking, ‘Could it be Bruce? He has the skills to do it, it might have been him.’ Then they get to the store and Bruce orders his glasses and the prescription is not the same and Polanski breathes a sigh of relief and never tells Bruce of his suspicions.
DS– Very interesting. I know that Bruce and Steve McQueen had a complicated relationship. What happened there?
MP– So, Steve McQueen was one of Jay Sebring’s clients – Jay Sebring cut his hair and that’s how Bruce met all of his celebrity students because he was friends with Jay. Steve McQueen was one of Bruce’s favorite students, they had very similar personalities they were kind of street tough guys who didn’t mess around. Bruce really wanted to make a movie with Steve. He was hoping he could make the first Kung Fu martial arts movie in Hollywood. He was hoping Steve McQueen would be the A-list actor who would get it green lit, but they ended up falling for the same actress, Sharon Farrell, and so they had a love triangle between the two of them. Steve ended up deciding he wouldn’t do the movie Silent Flute and Bruce was furious with him and he vowed that one day he would be a bigger star than Steve McQueen.
DS– Wow, that’s a pretty crazy story. You mentioned before that so much of Bruce’s legacy was shaped after he was gone – what do you think his legacy would have been if he had lived longer?
MP– I think, while he wanted to be a bigger star than Steve McQueen, he modeled his career after Clint Eastwood. He went to Hollywood in the same way Eastwood went to Italy to make a few cheap movies to prove his bankability to Hollywood and he thinks he would have done what Clint Eastwood did. He would’ve acted for a couple more decades in various films and then gone behind the camera. I think his reputation today would have been a former action star who’s a great director. We wouldn’t think of him just as a Kung Fu guy, I think we would have thought of him as a film maker and artist.
DS– When you teach your class at Yale, what is the biggest thing that you want your students to take away about Bruce Lee?
MP– I think the most important thing for them as young people is to realize that, it’s a cliche, but every once in a while you can do what you set out to dream. Bruce’s main accomplishment was to become the first Asian American male actor ever star in a Hollywood movie and at that time he faced insurmountable odds. He didn’t quit, he never gave up and through sheer will and ambition he achieved that dream. It cost him his life, but he managed to do it and that’s something I hope anyone takes away from that including my students.