Why Hollywood Finally Cast Bruce Lee (After Rejecting Him For So Long)

After years of being ignored by Hollywood, Bruce Lee was finally cast in an American movie in 1972. His first and only Hollywood film was Enter the Dragon, which he made with Warner Bros. The movie, which made him a household name in the United States, was released in theaters shortly after his death in 1973.

Becoming a movie star was Lee’s dream when he was living in California. During the 1960s, The Green Hornet actor hoped that one day he would surpass the fame of Steve McQueen himself. Unfortunately, his career didn’t go the way he planned it. He was consistently passed over for roles, thus making it difficult for him to find work in the movie and TV business. Aside from The Green Hornet, most of his jobs were guest appearances in various TV shows. With help from James Coburn, Lee tried to make a movie called The Silent Flute for Warner Bros. but the studio’s lack of commitment to the project caused it to be scrapped. Unsatisfied with the direction his career was taking, Lee relocated to Hong Kong and decided to make movies there instead.

Related: The Movie Bruce Lee Almost Made Instead Of Way Of The Dragon

Lee didn’t become a Hollywood star until the end of his career simply because Hollywood wasn’t interested in him during those years. What ultimately changed their minds was the success he achieved after moving back to Hong Kong. According to Bruce Lee: A Life, Warner Bros. liked what they saw when from the figures for Lee’s first kung fu movie, The Big Boss. The Big Boss turned out to be a sensation when it hit theaters in 1971, and the same was true when Fist of Fury was released in March 1972. Not only that, but the popularity of kung fu films in general was starting to surge. Plus, it helped that ABC’s Kung Fu show had really taken off with viewers.

How Lee’s movies had taken the Hong Kong box office by storm in combination with these other factors motivated Warner Bros. to take a chance both on Lee and the martial arts genre. Thanks to The Big Boss, producers set aside their long-held reservations about casting an Asian actor in the starring role and had Lee sign a contract. But even then, some doubts lingered, especially since Enter the Dragon was so different from anything they had ever tried before. Understanding the risk, Warner Bros. planned for the possibility of it being a failure by working out a deal with Golden Harvest to co-finance the project. This way, the studio’s losses would be limited if Enter the Dragon bombed (which it didn’t).

It's likely that Lee never would have received that opportunity at all if he hadn’t changed his career plan. Waiting for Hollywood to cast him wasn’t working, so it made sense for Bruce Lee to try making a name for himself somewhere else first. Lee getting cast as the main protagonist of Warner Bros.’ Enter the Dragon proved he made the right call.

More: Bruce Lee's First Hollywood Job Was A Dean Martin Movie (But Not As An Actor)

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