Thursday, August 12, 2010


Do you remember where you were when you heard that Bruce Lee died?

Jim Kelly remembers. “I was teaching martial arts to kids in Los Angeles and they came into class and told me that Bruce Lee had died. I thought they were just kids kidding me. But after I called Warner Brothers, they told me it was true. It was a sad day for me.”

Kelly was the SDAFF’s (San Diego Asian Film Foundation) special guest last week, August 4, 2010, for an exclusive, one night only, outdoor screening of Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973) at the Piazza Carmel Shopping Plaza in celebration of this year being Lee 70th birthday.

For me, I remember hearing about Lee's death on the car radio as my father was driving me to the public library in Endicott, New York. I sat in the car dazed and then cried. You see, Bruce Lee saved my life.

When I was 16, my doctor told me I’d be dead in 5 years due to the deadly disease cystic fibrosis. At that time I was taking 30 pills/day and in the hospital every 3 months. Two weeks later I saw my first Bruce Lee film, Fists of Fury. About 1/3 of the way into the film, Lee lets loose with two of the fastest kicks ever. I instantly went from being depressed and waiting to die, to wanting to live and practice martial arts.

I learned that strengthening one’s Qi could save one’s life from disease. So in the late 1970s I moved to Taiwan, found a teacher and 5 months after learning Qi I’ve been off all medication and therapies since. To show my health improvement wasn't a fake, in 1986 I walked 3000 miles across America, 26 miles/day. This shows how potent the martial arts and qi can be if one learns how use it for their health.

Many youngsters may truly never know the impact Lee had on martial arts cinema and martial arts history. He was instrumental in giving the Chinese people an identity and giving pride to Asian-American kids facing racism during the 1970s in America.

The jam packed crowd huddled around the screen near the famous Star of India eating establishment were not only imbibed by the wonderful aroma oozing out of the restaurant but were also greeted by the spirited “wooo-oooos” of the SDAFF’s fearless leader Lee Ann Kim, who gleefully introduces Jim Kelly to the appreciative cheering crowd.

After greeting the crowd and sharing that he was honored to be there, Kelly quickly notes how impressed he was with Kim’s accomplishments in life. The ever-humble Kim graciously laughs and about faces asking Kelly what was his favorite scene in the film.

Kelly blushes, laughs, then coyly clears his throat saying, “Let me first say that I enjoyed working with Bruce more than with any other actor or athlete. In my opinion he’s the greatest martial artist out there. Many world champion martial artists won’t admit that, but I want to say that Bruce Lee was incredible.”

Kelly contemplatively continues, “I learned so much from him and we both shared a similar struggle. He was Asian and I was a black man in America. The studios really didn’t want those images on screen. I’m telling you like it was back then. You all know the TV show Kung Fu was written for Lee, but at the last minute the studios gave it to David Carradine, because they said you can’t have a Chinese guy be a hero in America.

“But retrospectively things happen for the best. Lee went to Hong Kong. He later told me, ‘Jim, I really wanted the part, but in the long run it worked out better that I didn’t.’“

So what was his favorite scene?

After the crowd roared with “Wooooooos,” Kelly smirks and recites his dialogue from the film, “I’ll take that one, that one, and that one,” which is in reference to the scene where his character Williams is offered his choice of one of several ladies for a night.

As we all know, in the film, Williams chose more than one.

Kelly fondly interjects, “I liked all the scenes but that fight Lee did in the dungeons, with the nunchakus, was great.” He appreciatively adds that after Enter the Dragon, his film career took off as Warner Brothers offered him a three-picture deal, movies that my good friend Paul Heller produced. (He also produced Enter the Dragon.)

Lee Ann applauds Kelly’s words and mentions that since it was an outdoor, family screening, some of the film’s scenes had to be cut out, spelling out the naughty parts that wont be seen, in hopes that the children would not know how to spell those words.

It was a comedic interlude that happily and beautifully prepares the audience for the film.

Then similar to the philosophical tenet of the Yin Yang, where there must always be a balance, Kelly closes by sharing a wee sad note.

Kelly shares with a grievous smile reflecting, “We were on set and in between shots Bruce came up to me, showed me a picture of a Rolls Royce and said, ‘Look at this Jim, it’s a convertible Rolls Royce and it’s my car. It takes a long time to get them in Hong Kong. I ordered it about a year ago, and it should be here in another month.’ (Back then each Rolls Royce was hand made to order, thus taking a long time to build and ship it.)

“He was so happy.” A moment of silence later Kelly sighs, “He never got to see it.”

But then moments later we were all honored to see Lee’s film.

During the screening, I spoke to Kelly about what it was like being a black actor in Hong Kong in the 1970s as well as bits and pieces of other things about his time with Lee and his training background. Watch for them next week as well as a few inside stories about the film you may not know.


  1. This was so much fun! Jim Kelly was really nice too! :)

  2. Hi, brilliant article. I'm a student in England and am currently writing a dissertation on Jim Kelly (how cool!) and would like to get in contact with him for an interview- if anyone has any details I'll be eternally grateful. Please reply so I can forward on my email address. Thanks!

  3. Bruce Lee was the MAN , and always will be !! He was before his time !

  4. Jim Kelly good to see you , but you were always 'to busy looking good' Lol !!!