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The untold truth of Brandon Lee

Brandon Lee has been an enigmatic figure ever since his accidental death at the age of 28. Son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, Brandon lived much of his life trying to escape his father's wide reach in the film and television industries. While he eventually kickstarted his career in the action genre, it was his breakout role as an avenging angel in The Crow that would catapult him into stardom. Unfortunately, he died before getting to see his big Hollywood moment. His haunting performance as Eric Draven — a man returned from the grave one year after his death to enact revenge on the men who murdered his fiancee — caught the eyes of critics and won the hearts of fans across the world. Brandon Lee might've died young, but he managed to live a full life, one jam-packed with interesting stories. From his martial arts childhood to his incredibly tragic death, here's the untold truth of Brandon Lee.

Brandon Lee learned to walk and then fight

Brandon Bruce Lee was born on February 1, 1965, in Oakland, California. He was he firstborn son of Chinese martial arts teacher and action movie star Bruce Lee and an American woman named Linda Emery, and as a result, the kid grew up throwing kicks. "I got into martial arts from the time I could walk," Brandon once said. "There wasn't a lot of escaping martial arts in my household." Brandon was trained in Bruce's own style of kung fu, Jeet Kune Do, which was a hybrid style that Bruce culled together from many Chinese and other martial arts disciplines. According to Entertainment Weekly, by the time the kid was just six, he could destroy a wooden board with a single kick. After his dad's untimely death, Brandon continued his training and development in Los Angeles with Bruce's former protegees, Dan Inosanto and Richard Bustillo. He also began taking up other fighting styles like Muay Thai, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and boxing, and he soon integrated these into his personal style. In other words, Brandon Lee was born to be a martial arts master.

Lee had a tumultuous early life

Brandon's grandfather was Lee Hoi-Chuen, a famous comedic star of the Chinese Opera, but the man died about a week after Brandon was born. Three years later, the Lee family moved from Oakland to Los Angeles, and lived there until 1971, when they relocated to Hong Kong for Bruce's film career. In 1973, after Bruce Lee died suddenly from a cerebral edema while still filming Game of Death (pictured above), Brandon moved back to America with his mother and sister, Shannon. He was just eight at the time of his father's passing. 

The surviving Lees returned to Los Angeles where Brandon struggled to find his place. He wanted to act but not in martial arts films like his father. However, the young boy struggled with school, and he was kicked out of two high schools (and dropped out of a third). Lee eventually earned his GED and went on to study theater at Emerson College for a year before attending the famous Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York, the home of method acting. While Brandon Lee's life got off to a really rough start, it seems that he was starting to flow like water once he got involved with acting.

Brandon Lee was living in the shadow of his father

Brandon Lee resisted becoming a martial arts film star even though he was primed for the camera, just as his dad was. He even turned down the opportunity to play his father in the biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. As Lee explained, "I was a little scared by the whole thing, really. It's strange to play your own father, you know? I couldn't really wrap my mind around it." Honestly, that makes a lot of sense because if he'd played his dad, he would have to feign a romantic relationship with a woman pretending to be his mom. That would've been really awkward. Jason Scott Lee went on to play Bruce to critical acclaim, but by 1985, Brandon could no longer fight his reality after a successful audition for the television film, Kung Fu: The Movie. He was cast in the lead role beside veteran actor David Carradine, and soon enough, Lee would start popping up in more and more action movies. 

Lee enters the world of action movies

In 1985, Brandon Lee made his first and only film in Hong Kong, Legacy of Rage, and even though the film was in Cantonese, it got Hollywood's attention. Being as photogenic and talented as his father, it only took a few more TV movie projects for him to land his first English-language lead role in 1989's Laser Mission, which also starred acting legend Ernest Borgnine. 

By the early '90s, Lee's star was on the rise after his first studio film, Showdown In Little Tokyo (co-starring Dolph Lundgren of Rocky IV fame), led to a three-picture deal for the actor, which included the 1992 action flick, Rapid Fire. But it was his haunting and emotional performance in Alex Proyas' The Crow that would simultaneously make and end his career, garnering a cult following that persists to this day. Unfortunately, the young actor wouldn't live to see his success.

Brandon Lee was a daredevil on and off-screen

Brandon Lee had a reputation for being a brash daredevil. As his fiancée, Eliza Hutton, explained to People, "He's confident, intense and direct, and a lot of people find that intimidating." In fact, Lee was so confident that he often rode his Harley Davidson motorcycle with no helmet and his hands off the handlebars. According to Lee, "If I want to put my head in a brick wall, it's my business." He even had a Cadillac hearse he used to joke was good for taking on camping trips. 

In an interview with Jay Leno in 1992, Lee talked about coming home to find a burglar in his home. Instead of calling the police, he confronted the robber who came at him with a knife, cutting his arm. The two fought, and Lee finally called the cops ... after he separated the thief's shoulder and broke his arm. It just goes to show that Lee was a major risk taker.

The man was even super intense while making movies. For example, Brandon used his method acting training to prepare for The Crow by soaking in a tub full of ice so he could feel how cold Eric Draven must've been as a dead man in the ground. A producer berated him for this dangerous stunt and told him to mind his health, not risk it. But clearly, Lee was always flirting with danger and always one step away from death.

The Crow flies into Brandon Lee's career

It's almost impossible to imagine it now, but Brandon Lee wasn't the first choice to play Eric Draven in The Crow. At first, producers were interested in casting an actual musician for the role of the murdered indie rocker. Names like Michael Jackson and Charlie Sexton were kicked around before the team realized there wouldn't be as much singing or performing as originally thought. But still, Lee's name wasn't at the top of the list. Comic book writer James O'Barr wanted Johnny Depp to play the dark superhero, but in the end, Brandon Lee's martial arts experience (as well as his smoldering good looks) won him the role.  

Lee was heavily involved with the film even before shooting began. According to The Independent, Lee worked with director Alexas Proyas during to pre-production to rework a portion of the script that involved a villainous character Lee thought was a racist portrayal of an Asian man. But while Lee was doing good work both behind and in front of the camera, making The Crow wasn't a pleasant experience. 

According to co-star Jon Polito, the conditions on The Crow were terrible. Lee lost 20 pounds off his already-lithe frame while filming. Plus, the dark tale of revenge and murder was mostly filmed at night in North Carolina's freezing winter conditions. Lee was constantly being drenched with water, and filming was constantly interrupted to fix his make-up that was far more complicated to apply than it appears. Lee even filed a formal complaint against production conditions days before his death. In fact, things were so rough that his manager called the producers in a rage, accusing them of trying to kill the actor. Granted, The Crow wasn't really killing Brandon Lee ... but it would.

A tragic on-set accident takes Lee's life

With just a few days of filming left on The Crow, Brandon Lee was accidentally shot on set in the abdomen by co-star Michael Massee on March 31, 1993, with an improperly loaded prop gun. The scene in question was not the "Big Moby" shootout, but rather, when Eric comes home to find his fiancée being assaulted. The tip of a dummy bullet — a mock round used in a close-ups — was lodged in the barrel, in front of the blank, and when Masse pulled the trigger, the blank sent the fragment flying. 

Sadly, it lodged in the actor's spine, and after six hours of surgery, Brandon Lee died in Wilmington, North Carolina, at just 28 years old. His death was ruled an accident by negligence. While his mother Linda and fiancée Eliza Hutton agreed to let the production finish out its work, Linda still filed a lawsuit against the production company that named 13 people at fault for her son's wrongful death. They eventually settled out of court for damages.

Adding even more melancholy to The Crow's gothic plot, Lee and Eliza Hutton were set to be married just a couple of weeks from the day he died, an eerie callback to events in The Crow comic and film.

The Crow without Brandon Lee

Contrary to popular — and morbid — belief, Brandon Lee's death is not seen in the final cut of the movie. However, Lee did in fact die before all his scenes were completed. But since the show needed to go on, filmmakers decided to go the old body double route, and future John Wick creator/director Chad Stahelski was hired as a stand-in for the martial arts actor. The stunt man was used to film the remaining scenes, and in post-production, Lee's face was superimposed over Stahelski's. (The famous face-painting scene was one of the most expensive since Brandon's visage had to be digitally inserted into the broken mirror.) But hey, we're pretty sure Lee would've approved of Stahelski filling in, as the two had been good friends and even trained in the same studio in L.A. And if you look closely at The Crow, you can notice Stahelski's much broader shoulders in the eight scenes where he stood in for Lee.

The Lee family curse

Because of the suspicious and sudden circumstances around both Bruce and Brandon Lee's deaths, rumors continue to this day about a family curse that took their lives. Of course, in reality, both deaths were tragic coincidences. Bruce Lee's death by cerebral edema, or brain swelling due to excess water, was ruled an allergic reaction to a headache pill he'd taken earlier in the day. Brandon Lee's death was also ruled an accident due to negligence, and no charges were ever filed. 

But that hasn't stopped people from speculating that the Triads or Cantonese mafia were responsible for the deaths. Others have blamed everything from voodoo to secret drug abuse. Since Bruce Lee's character in Game of Death was shot while filming a movie, and Brandon died filming a similar scene, it's easy to see why some would connect these events. But as spooky as the parallels and foreshadowing may be, the truth is these were simply two terrible and heartbreaking accidents that took Brandon and Bruce's lives. 

Filming The Crow was incredibly difficult

Long before the heartbreaking tragedy of Brandon Lee's death, rumors abounded about The Crow itself being cursed. Lee wasn't the only one to suffer during production, and his accidental shooting wasn't the only injury he incurred on set. During the scene when Eric Draven crashes through the door of a pawn shop, Lee was actually cut quite badly with prop glass, prompting co-star Jon Polito to express concern about the risks his colleague was taking. Polito likened the accident to Vic Morrow's death, who died while filming Twilight Zone: The Movie. 

Other on-set injuries included a horrific event on the first day of filming that involved a crew member on a cherry-picker driving into a power line and getting electrocuted. The man was severely burned, and he almost died on set. It would be years before he would be back to good health. Another near-death accident occurred when a stuntman fell through the roof of a set during rehearsal and broke a number of ribs. Another crew member accidentally drove a screwdriver through his own hand. And one day, a fire of unknown origins started on a prop truck, but nobody was injured.  

But hey, we're not done listing all the disasters just yet. After having a series of conflicts with his colleagues, a disgruntled employee drove his car onto the lot and through a studio shop. Plus, a series of hurricanes tore through North Carolina during filming that destroyed a number of The Crow's sets. In other words, the film was as brutal to make as it is to watch.

Lee makes a posthumous appearance

Brandon Lee only made a handful of films, including Legacy of Rage (pictured above) and Showdown in Little Tokyo. But oddly enough, seven years after Brandon Lee's death, he was spotted in a cameo role in the Swedish film Sex, Lies, and Video Violence. Directed by Richard Holm, the film is a horror fantasy about a young man named Micke (Mikael Beckman) who loves to watch violent films. One night, when watching Die Hard, the television screen opens up, and a German terrorist emerges into his world. As the film goes on, Micke finds out that all of his favorite violent films have come to life, and all the escaped characters are going on gory murder sprees around Stockholm.

The hour-long film was released in 2000, so Brandon would've filmed his appearance all the way back in 1992 or 1993, before his death. On top of that, Mel Brooks also makes a cameo in the movie, and the film references everything from Alien and The Terminator to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and RoboCop. As for Lee, he cameos as a disturbed bystander who's witnessed the crazy events of the day, and his last words on film involve telling Micke that he just saw a German terrorist go by with a gun.

Lee is survived by his sister, Shannon

Before Bruce Lee died of a cerebral edema, the martial arts star had two kids: Brandon and Shannon. Today, Shannon Lee is his sole remaining child, and she's doing her best to preserve the memories of both her father and her brother. She runs the Bruce Lee Foundation and oversees movies and documentaries about her dad's life, and on the 25th anniversary of her brother's death, she appeared on the Bruce Lee Podcast to talk about her beloved big brother. She even shared some of his journal entries that hadn't been made public before. 

During the show, Shannon talked about how Brandon would often prank her, but when it came down to it, he was her fiercest defender. She tells a story about how their aunt tried to force Shannon to stop using her comfort blanket just after their dad's death. Brandon stood up to the adult, and he got his sister her blankie back. She also talked about Brandon's love of reading and books (particularly Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), and how he would sit with a dictionary to look up words he didn't know. And evidently, Lee was a born showman, because as a kid, he would write down episodes of The Twilight Zone by hand and perform them on stage at school. 

Shannon was supposed to be the best man at her brother's wedding, but unfortunately, that never came to pass.

Brandon Lee's final resting place

More than two decades after his death, Brandon Lee is still loved and missed by family, friends, colleagues, and fans alike. Buried next to his father in Seattle's Lake View Cemetery, the site has become a shrine to both legends, and it's visited by fans from around the world. People leave flowers, notes, and other memorabilia to pay their respects to the father and son who touched so many peoples' lives through their work as martial artists and performers. Their graves get so many visitors that the cemetery had to install bushes and shrubbery so that other graves in the area wouldn't be disturbed by the steady stream of guests coming to pay their respects to Bruce and Brandon Lee. 

For the 25th anniversary of The Crow, The Saturday Evening Post said the film "captured the angst of a generation." And it's true. Fans of the film continue to watch it and listen to the soundtrack all these years later because it still resonates. Brandon Lee's iconic performance has only become more melancholy over time as we reflect on his life cut so short and the development of his various talents that we didn't get to see. Still, every time someone watches The Crow or reads about his life, Brandon Lee's beautiful and heartbreaking legacy lives on.