Bruce Lee stands among the greatest icons on the planet. But such notoriety comes with a price and it’s one that Bruce pays more heavily than any other celebrity. He’s also the most ripped off. Brucesploitation is an entire genre of film dedicated to Bruce Lee impersonators. Bruce Lee clones proliferate fighting video games more than any other person, real or imagined. His image has been poached illegally for all sorts of random things like for Zhen Kungfu, a major Chinese fast food franchise with some 300 restaurants, all of which use his likeness without permission. No one else can claim this level of image piracy.
For years, Shannon Lee has fought hard to guard the family name and see that her dad receives the respect he is due. Now at the helm of the Bruce Lee Family Company, Shannon continues to champion her father’s work, dedicating herself to preserving his message of harmonious individuality and curtail those who would steal his image for their own gain. She has dedicated herself to bringing the real Bruce Lee to the world.
As we approach Bruce Lee’s 80th birthday this November, the Little Dragon remains as hot as ever. The Bruce-Lee-inspired Cinemax series Warrior has kicked off its second season. On October 6th, Shannon releases a new book, Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee. And there’s more coming in November in celebration of her father’s auspicious birthday. Den of Geek caught up to Shannon Lee to talk about where the Bruce Lee estate is now.
Den of Geek: Warrior is based on the treatment that your father did that was allegedly turned into David Carradine’s Kung Fu series?
Shannon Lee: Well, I guess that’s a matter of some debate.
Yeah. Which is why I’m asking you this.
Yeah. My father was definitely up for the lead in Kung Fu, and he was definitely not given that role because he was Chinese interestingly. And at the same time, he had also developed and pitched this show. Warner Bros.’ point of view is that they had been working on a show – their show – for a long time prior to involving my father. And if you speak to my mother, she will say that my father was working on this treatment for a number of years before he pitched it as well.
So the two shows are very similar in some ways and very different in some ways. What we do know is that my father was turned down to star in the show and we have no idea how much his ideas influenced the ultimate vision for Kung Fu.
Very diplomatic answer. One thing that’s continually impressed me about your father was how incredibly prolific he was. Even today, and I remember when he passed, I still see new material from him. Did he have any other show ideas that you might have kicking around?
Oh, that’s very intriguing.
Yes. So he did have a number of other treatments in various states of readiness and even one full script that I still have, and that I am working on developing, in different ways.
That’s incredibly exciting. How close do you feel that Warrior is to your father’s original vision of it?
I think it’s actually very close, in the sense that I think that the show captures the perspective that he was hoping to capture. Meaning, his treatment was written more as 1970s episodic television; it was more of an adventure of the week format, which shows were back then…I think he would be really pleased with how the show turned out today, because I think we have more of an opportunity to tell the story that he would have wanted to tell, than he would have had back then.
What can fans expect from Season 2?
We have the warring Tongs. We have the political goings on and plotting. We have the Irish labor workers really coming into more conflict with the Chinese workers. We have the cops on all sides of this as well, really coming up against the Chinese. So it’s very complicated and the weaving of the story is really brilliant and the stakes are really high. And you’ll see what happens.
As an immigrant tale, how do you feel this is playing out given the current politics surrounding immigration right now?
It’s crazy how relevant our show is. I think that its issue’s not just of immigration, but also of racism, of the involvement of the police, of xenophobia, of ‘us versus them’ mentality. There’s a lot of themes in the show and, quite frankly, where the show culminates toward the end of the season is very reflective of where we find ourselves right now, which is interesting since we filmed it last year.
But I think that it’s because this is the natural outcome of these types of policies and attitudes toward our fellow humans. And also what happened historically, so history is rather repeating itself.
How does it feel to be working on this show with a predominantly Asian cast?
It’s phenomenal. I know that there are a number of shows that, especially in the half-hour genre, that have Asian casts, but in the one-hour television format, there really aren’t that many. Even shows like Into the Badlands who have Asian characters, they’re not necessarily predominantly Asian characters.
So I feel really proud of our show that we got to make the show we wanted, that we got to create these multi-layered, complicated three-dimensional characters for all our cast. And I think that it’s actually a huge win for representation.
You used to have a pretty wicked spinning back kick. Are you still practicing?
[laughs] Not as much as I used to. Every now and again, I get back to it. It’s been a little harder in quarantine, not because I’m not able to exercise on my own. Certainly I am, but I’m much more used to working with others in the space. So I would say I’m a little rusty right now.
I think we all are during the pandemic. I could totally see you doing a cameo in Warrior like a singer at Ah Toy’s place or something. Are you thinking about that?
We definitely talked about it for Season 2. Just by the time we were talking about it, the season was already written and there didn’t seem to be the perfect and right feeling opportunity to do something like that.
Right now, Season 3 is a little uncertain. There are not plans to move forward, just given that Cinemax has canceled their programming and their original programming… If there are, then I will definitely look to try and sneak on set for part of that.
Do you ever think about going back into acting?
I don’t think about it as a career. I think if there were opportunities, if the right opportunity came along, I think it would be a lot of fun. I would definitely have, from a creative standpoint, an interest in doing that for myself, but not as a career.
You have a book coming out the same week that Warrior drops. Tell us about Be Water, My Friend.
I wrote this book, over the last year or so, and it is called Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee. It is a book about my father’s water philosophy, what it means, and what it meant to him, what it means to me, and also how it can be accessed and utilized by the reader.
And, for me, it was a really personal, internal journey to write this book, to really sit with my father’s words and to really try and express in as simple and in as simple and clear a way as I could, what this is and to provide it as a tool for the reader to utilize, or even just something to think about for themselves.
I find my father’s words to be extremely soothing and extremely healing and extremely thought provoking. And my hope is that people will pick up this book, regardless of whether they’re into martial arts or whether they’ve recently had, because it’s really for everyone. It just really speaks to this human journey that we are all on. And I hope that people will find something beneficial for them in it.
I really admire what you’ve been doing with the Bruce Lee Family Company. Your dad has been the most ripped-off icon of all. Nobody has an entire film genre like Bruceploitation that’s dedicated to him. What are some of the battles you’re fighting trying to control his image?
Yeah. Look, it’s always a challenge. It’s really hard to know what the best course of action is. I’m certainly very protective of him and his legacy. And at the same time, I try not to be unreasonable or overly difficult, but I really do think he requires respect. And that’s really what I’m asking for most of the time.
If somebody can show up and have a honest conversation with me and be open minded and listen to me, then I will always give them the same in return. It is really hard. The laws are different in all different places and it’s really challenging because it’s on a global level and you got to pick your battles and you only have so many resources to put towards these different types of things.
But I really feel like when I’m asked to speak up about, and give my opinion on something, I definitely will and do. And when it seems like a fight worth fighting, then I have no problems with that. I’m willing to stand up for myself and my family. And it doesn’t mean I’ll always win, but for me, it’s not about winning. It’s about doing what I feel is appropriate and right.
The CW reboot of Kung Fu is getting some buzz again, which feels as if it is in the wake of Warrior now. That’s ironically recursive given the unusual relationship that Bruce Lee’s treatment had and what we spoke about, when we first started this conversation. They’re putting out that it’s going to be all female leads, and that Asian community is reclaiming this property, but who knows? What are your thoughts on that?
Listen, I’m not in competition with anyone. I’m trying to put forth the best projects that I could put forth. And I never want to be in a place of wishing someone to not do well or be well. Right?
I don’t know anything about that show other than its existence and exactly what you just said. I haven’t read any scripts. So it’s really hard for me to say what it is. I don’t even know. And look, it’s hard to get a show made. I think that whatever happens with the show, I know these things are always a labor of love and or just a labor. So either way, it’s hard enough. And I just really couldn’t comment because I really don’t know, but I certainly never wish anyone any ill will.
That’s fair. What does your mom think of Warrior?
Oh, she loves it. She really loves it. She really is like, “Oh, I think your dad would love this show. I think you really did your dad proud.” My mom was married to Bruce Lee, so she’s no shrinking violet when it comes to action. She just thinks the show is great and a lot of fun. She’s really impressed with Andrew Koji and with the whole cast, and she just thinks it really captured the right energy and the right spirit.
What’s next for the Bruce Lee Family Company?
Oh, my gosh. So much. We’re really excited. In November, we’re going to be celebrating my dad’s 80th. How crazy is that? Eighty years of Bruce Lee in the world. And so we have a lot of celebrations planned, mostly virtual and online and through our store, and on social media and those types of things.
We were hoping to be able to do some kind of bigger events, but of course, with the current state of the world, we’re changing it up a little bit, and our timelines have been a little delayed on some of the bigger things that we’re working on, but we will be having some interesting announcements and fun drops and things that’ll be available in November. And so I’m super excited to celebrate that. I’ve got a number of other film and TV projects in the works, which hopefully I’ll be able to announce soon.
We’ve got a bunch of exhibits that we’re working on with different museums around the world, revamping the exhibit in Hong Kong and in Seattle but also other places. We have our social initiatives we’re doing through the foundation. We’re about to launch and revamp that website to have some different social initiatives that we’ll be promoting as well as our camps for kids that we do. And the exhibits that we’re doing, and we’re working on a permanent exhibition space as well for my father. So there’s no shortage of things going on. And we’re all really excited to share what we can do with the world.
That’s great timing because it will still be in the rollout of Warrior Season 2. You’ve got the show, the book, and the celebration, so we’re looking at a Fall season of Bruce Lee.
Yeah. And we have a new season of the Bruce Lee podcast. That’ll be dropping in October also.
Has Warrior met up to your expectations in terms of what you envisioned when you first embarked on this?
Absolutely. I would say it met it, and it exceeded it. Obviously, in small details, sometimes there are things you’re, like, “Oh, I wish we could have done this differently or that differently.” But those things are nothing in comparison to the full force of the project, the scope, the storytelling, the cast that we have, the crew that we have, the writing that we have. I really couldn’t be happier.
Look, I think there are always places to go and things to be improved. Nothing is ever perfect, but I think that it’s as good a show as I could have hoped for. I’m so thrilled because I think it captures my father’s spirit and his energy without being like a copycat of him in any way. I think it tells his story. I think it’s entertaining. I think it’s got awesome action. I think it’s got amazing characters with storylines. I think it’s dramatic. I think it’s very binge worthy. It’s like one of those shows where you’re like, “Oh my God, what’s going to happen next.” You know?
Warrior Season 2 can be seen exclusively on CINEMAX. Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee is available wherever fine books are sold. For more on Shannon’s work and the Bruce Lee Family Company, visit BruceLee.com.