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Brandon Lee’s loved ones remember ‘The Crow’ star 30 years after his death

<i>Courtesy Everett Collection</i><br/>Brandon Lee learns some martial arts moves from his father
Courtesy Everett Collection
Courtesy Everett Collection
Brandon Lee learns some martial arts moves from his father

By Alli Rosenbloom, CNN

To quote one profiler’s words back in 1992, he was “the hunky heir.” Brandon Lee’s athleticism made him a natural fit for the martial arts-forward roles that got his foot in Hollywood’s door and the perfect person to take up the mantle left by his legendary father Bruce Lee’s death.

But there are a lot of Brandon Lees the world didn’t get to meet before an accident on the set of his movie “The Crow” took his life a little more than 30 years ago.

There was the Brandon who physically dispatched a burglar whom he caught in his own home and held down until police arrived to apprehend the crook.

The Brandon who, as the president of his high school senior class, staged a rebellion of sorts during which he urged his classmates not to take school seriously. He was expelled.

The Brandon who had his eye on a pretty girl he met while taking a meeting at a production company, charmed her with his faux arrogance and later shared a first kiss at the company Christmas party. He would go on to ask for her hand in marriage.

“Brandon’s personality led him to being a ‘character’ in everything he did,” his mother, Linda Lee Cadwell, told CNN.

Brandon Bruce Lee was a brother, son, fiancé, friend, hopeless romantic, literary savant, lover of animals, avid reader, prolific storyteller and talented actor on his way to becoming a bona fide movie star. Then he was accidentally shot and killed by a jammed prop gun in March 1993. He was only 28.

He’s now been gone longer than he was alive. But those who knew him — the whole, complicated him and the man he eagerly wanted moviegoers to become better acquainted with through his work — know their memories of Brandon are as formidable as he was. Like his father, his loved ones say, he was too big of a mind and spirit to be contained in something as fleeting as time.

“My brother’s fearlessness and his sense of adventure and freedom, his inherent artistry and creativity, and his desire for learning and growth all came from the time that he spent with my father,” Shannon Lee told CNN in an interview. “My father was my brother’s hero.”

A father’s influence

Bruce Lee delighted in sharing martial arts with his son, Cadwell remembers, sharing her memories in a statement to CNN.

Brandon spoke often about his father’s training in his early interviews, proud that he’d gotten years of study under him and at the same time, deeply saddened that it was cut short.

Brandon was just eight years old when his father died from cerebral edema in 1973, mere months after the release of “Enter the Dragon” turned him into a global icon. He was 32.

His mother described Brandon as “terribly hurt” when Bruce Lee died, and it took some time for Brandon to pick the art back up.

After spending parts of his childhood in Hong Kong, where many of his father’s movies were filmed, Brandon fluently spoke Cantonese and had to readjust to speaking English when Cadwell relocated the family to Seattle following Bruce Lee’s death. After a year in the Pacific Northwest, the Lees settled in Los Angeles, hoping for a fresh start.

When he was a teenager, with the help of Danny Inosanto, Bruce Lee’s protégé, Brandon began training again, eventually becoming proficient in his father’s style, Jeet Kune Do (“the way of the intercepting fist”).

Soon, Brandon was back on track to pursue his lifelong dream of acting.

“I’ve always wanted to be an actor,” Brandon said in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen in 1992. “I never wanted to do anything else even when I was in elementary school.”

Brandon’s first acting credit came in 1986 when he starred in “Kung Fu: The Movie.” He went on to star in “Legacy of Rage,” a traditional Hong Kong-style action film, and later starred alongside Ernest Borgnine in the action film “Laser Mission” in 1989.

In the early ’90s, Brandon starred in action movies “Showdown in Little Tokyo” and “Rapid Fire.” He often drew comparisons to action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean Claude Van Damme, and, most frequently, his father.

Cadwell said she had many conversations with Brandon about the expectations put upon him as Bruce Lee’s son. But Brandon’s goal, she said, was always to “be his own man.”

“Brandon was so much like his father in that he thought long and deeply about his passions,” Cadwell said.

Bruce Lee used to say that he was a martial artist first and an actor second, Cadwell remembers. Brandon would say the opposite.

“I firmly believe that my father would not have wanted his life to be a problem to me,” Brandon also told the Ottawa Citizen in 1992. “If I had a son, I would want to be a benefit, not a burden.”

Being a father himself is something Brandon was looking forward to experiencing with his fiancée Eliza Hutton, his sister said.

Hutton, the aforementioned production company employee who he became smitten with and took to a Melissa Etheridge concert on one of their first dates, says “there were so many things to love about him.”

“He was genuine, charming, highly intelligent, insightful, moral, fearless, romantic, and hilarious—all wrapped up in drop-dead gorgeousness,” Hutton told CNN in an email exchange.

After an “unforgettable” proposal in Venice, Italy, Hutton and Brandon were set to marry just weeks after he was supposed to have completed filming “The Crow.”

“Brandon was a gifted and dedicated writer, actor and athlete with a sensitive soul who was wrongly taken from us too soon,” Hutton said. “No matter how deep the pain I’ve endured in losing him, I wouldn’t trade our time together.”

Her memories of their time together read like pages ripped from a romance novel. These days, she says, “I am reminded of Brandon in all things true, beautiful and strong.”

A rising star

“The Crow” was set to be Brandon’s doorway to bigger opportunities.

A noir supernatural thriller based on James O’Barr’s graphic novel of the same name, Brandon played Eric Draven, a rock and roll guitarist who is summoned by a mysterious crow to rise from the dead and seek justice for murdering Draven and his fiancée Shelly (Sofia Shinas) on the eve of their Halloween wedding.

The Alex Proyas-directed film had an estimated $23 million budget and was produced by Miramax. O’Barr, along with David J. Schow and John Shirley, wrote the script.

After the film, Brandon was ready and willing to work for opportunities that would allow him to stretch other muscles — especially ones that didn’t necessarily show off his physical skills.

It’s not hard for Shannon Lee to imagine her brother starring in movies of today like “The Matrix” or “Gladiator,” but she also said he had the range to handle a major dramatic role akin to Adam Driver’s performance in the 2019 romantic drama “Marriage Story.”

“He would have loved the opportunity to stretch and do dramatic roles,” Shannon Lee said. He even auditioned for “Say Anything,” the 1989 rom-com starring John Cusack. It was a role he really wanted.

He quickly learned that as a matter of pragmatism, Shannon Lee said, he had to use his martial arts skills and his name to get his foot in the door — or, rather, to kick the door down.

The tides turned when “Rapid Fire” came out in 1992. Shannon Lee was her brother’s assistant on the movie and remembers him finally starting to feel hopeful that he was on his way to stepping outside of his father’s shadow.

By many accounts, “The Crow” was a film that Brandon was immensely excited about, and he was having the time of his life.

Jeff Most, a co-producer of the movie, told CNN in an interview that Brandon’s “brilliant” notes about the script added to the film’s emotional depth amid the physical brutality.

“We really tailored the role and much of the world to Brandon’s vision,” he said.

He added: “Obviously this role of Eric Draven showed the world how great an actor, truly great of an actor he was and what he would have gone on to do. I think the fact that we have this from him is just a blessing and it’s a gift.”

It was not uncommon for the bookish Brandon — a walking dictionary, according to Shannon Lee — to call upon his vast literary knowledge to inform his decisions on screen. In an interview in support of “The Crow,” he described his character by quoting a line from Paul Bowles 1949 novel “The Sheltering Sky.”

“Because we do not know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well,” he quoted. This, he said “is the point of view that this character is coming from in the whole film, because it has been brought sharply into focus for him how precious each moment of his life is.”

The movie was filming when he turned 28, and when Shannon Lee called to wish her brother a happy birthday, he told her that he was having an “amazing” day because he was “doing the thing that I love most in the world.”

A tragic end

The night before Brandon died, he called his mother.

“He was so happy that that night would be the last of the scenes that involved weapons,” Cadwell said. “He was so looking forward to his next project, which was to be a film that did not include any martial arts. I felt so happy for him that he had reached his goal of being signed as a serious dramatic actor.”

While filming the final scenes of “The Crow,” Brandon was accidentally shot and killed when actor Michael Massee, who played drug dealer Funboy in the film, fired at Lee during a scene with a prop gun that was later found to have been improperly loaded.

Hit in the abdomen, Brandon died hours later in a nearby North Carolina hospital. Massee died in 2016.

In their hearts, the Lee family and Hutton knew that Brandon would’ve wanted the movie to be completed and released, Shannon Lee recalls, knowing how proud he was of his work and his excitement for the opportunity.

Looking back, she says “it would have seemed really unfair for him not to get to share that with the world.”

Brandon’s remaining scenes were filmed using his stunt double, Chad Stahelski, who went on to direct the “John Wick” movies. When the film was eventually released in 1994, it went on to gross over $50 million worldwide at the box office.

Most said that he has been committed to not using practical firearms on his sets since Brandon died in 1993.

On-set accidents before and since Brandon’s have brought forth renewed calls for tighter safety measures to be taken on TV and movie sets.

The call for action happened again in the wake of the death of Halyna Hutchins, the cinematographer who was accidentally shot and killed by a prop gun held by actor Alec Baldwin on the “Rust” film set.

Shannon Lee, speaking, she says, as somebody who has been “spiritually, mortally and soulfully wounded by these sets of circumstances,” commented that 30 years later, she doesn’t see why practical firearms are used on sets at all these days when special effects are safer and can be more cost effective.

“There is no reason to harm another human life, one human life should be enough,” she said.

Brandon reunited with his father on April 4, 1993, when he was laid to rest at Lake View Cemetery in Seattle.

Shannon Lee says her brother’s legacy “was about not wasting life and time” and “following your heart.”

Brandon lived his life as fully as he possibly could, those who knew him best say, an expert at fearlessly dipping into life’s inexhaustible well.

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