How Did Bruce Lee Die?

45 years later, Bruce Lee's death is still shrouded in mystery.

Bruce Lee was far more than just an action-movie star. In a film career that spanned just four years and five completed films, he symbolized a new kind of movie stardom before his untimely death at just 32 years old.

Born in San Francisco in 1940, Lee moved back to his parent's native Hong Kong when he was just three months old. His father, Lee Hoi-chuen, was a famous Cantonese opera star and film actor, and Bruce was acting in Hong Kong movies from childhood. He returned to America at 18, enrolling at the University of Washington and marrying an American woman, Linda Emery.

Lee was first and foremost a kung fu expert, even developing his own style, Jeet Kune Do, or "the way of the intercepting fist." A Hong Kong-American with a Eurasian mother, he broke down racial barriers, teaching his fighting technique to students from all backgrounds. His strength was never just brute force—Lee also preached flexibility, grace and precision. His martial arts prowess earned him his first acting role, as the masked sidekick Kato on TV's The Green Hornet.

"Every kid, I believe, in America noticed that guy behind the Hornet— the one who could kick, the one who could punch, the one who could move so amazingly—all eyes centered on him," film critic Ric Meyers told Newsweek. "The makers of The Green Hornet had to actively restrain Bruce Lee from being himself because they realized every time they saw the rushes that everything else was wiped off-screen."

The series marked the first time that kung fu had been seen in the West, and earned Lee a fair amount of fame, but he was unhappy with the cartoonish aspects of his role. When Green Hornet was canceled after just 26 episodes, he returned to Hong Kong, where the show was a hit and he was viewed as a national treasure. He made a string of martial arts movies, including Big Boss, Fist of Fury and, in 1972, The Way of the Dragon, which he wrote, produced, directed and starred in. The movies were smash hits across Asia and soon Hollywood was calling for his return.

bruce lee death 4
'Enter the Dragon' was released in 1973, just months after Bruce Lee's death. Golden Harvest/ Warner Bros.

In the fall of 1972, Warner Bros offered Lee Enter the Dragon, the first of his films to be co-produced by a major American studio. Expectations were high when filming began in Hong Kong in January 1973. But on July 20, 1973, just six days before Enter the Dragon was set to be released, Bruce Lee died, suddenly and mysteriously. Perhaps in part because of that, Enter the Dragon became one of the highest-grossing films of 1973 and fueled a martial arts craze in the U.S. But how could a young man at the peak of physical fitness die so suddenly and inexplicably? That question, almost as much as his kung fu skills, has defined Bruce Lee's stardom.

Almost immediately, the rumor mill began running overtime: Hong Kong triads, a family curse, and even poisoning were all blamed for his death. That the married star had died in the house of his secret girlfriend, Betty Ting, fueled more rumors. More speculation surfaced in 1993, when Lee's actor son Brandon Lee died after being shot by a faulty prop gun on the set of The Crow.

In the 45 years since Bruce Lee's death, scientists, biographers and fans continue to speculate about what caused his cerebral edema, poring over the facts and rumors alike. Here's what we actually know about Bruce Lee's tragic death.

bruce lee death 2
Fans and members of the media gather around a statue of Bruce Lee to mark the 40th anniversary of his death, on the Avenue of the Stars in Hong Kong on July 20, 2013. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

What happened?

Officially, Lee's death was caused by a cerebral edema, a swelling of the brain caused by excess fluid. Although Lee's brain had swelled nearly 13 percent, the coroner found no evidence of external injury. So what caused the edema?

Signs of his poor health first appeared in May 1973, just weeks before Lee's death. Suffering from headaches and seizures, he was rushed to hospital, where he was diagnosed with his first cerebral edema. Lee didn't regain consciousness until the next day, when he flew to UCLA Medical Center for further testing. According to the Matthew Polly biography Bruce Lee: A Life, doctors diagnosed the actor as having suffered a grand mal seizure, but couldn't identify the cause. After the swelling subsided Lee appeared to be back in perfect health and was given the all clear. Shortly thereafter, he left the U.S. for an extended visit to Hong Kong.

July 20 started out like any other, except perhaps for the heat—it was 90 degrees, a humid summer day in Hong Kong. Lee spent the morning at his studio, discussing his upcoming film Game of Death. He ate a small amount of hash with a friend (Lee believed cannabis expanded his consciousness) before heading to Betty Ting's apartment in the early afternoon. According to Polly, the pair spent the next few hours having sex and consumed more hash. Raymond Chow, who was producing Game of Death, arrived at the apartment around 6pm. Already, Lee's ill health was apparent. "Bruce wasn't feeling very well," Chow told Polly. "I think we had some water… In telling the story [of Game of Death], he acted out the whole thing. So, that probably made him a little tired and thirsty. After a few sips he seemed to be a little dizzy."

Lee complained of a headache, so Ting gave him Equagesic, a combination tranquilizer and analgesic that he had purportedly taken before. He went to lie down in her bedroom but about two hours later, when Ting went to wake him, he was nonresponsive.

By the time the paramedics arrived, Bruce Lee was dead.

bruce lee death
Actress Betty Ting Pei poses next to a Bruce Lee portrait during the exhibition opening ceremony of Bruce Lee's 30 anniversary of his death in Hong Kong in 2003. THOMAS CHENG/AFP/Getty Images

The autopsy

A full autopsy took place at Hong Kong's Queen Elizabeth Hospital a few days later. The medical examiner, Dr R. R. Lycette, found no signs of foul play but noted the hash and Equagesic in Lee's system. Lycette identified "congestions and edema of the brain," as the immediate cause of death but couldn't account for what caused the swelling.

In addition to his intense fitness regimen, Lee kept to a strict diet of vegetables, rice, fish and milk, and avoided refined flour and sugars. While he enjoyed marijuana, he didn't smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol or coffee. Still, the fact that he survived his first edema was miraculous; this time, he hadn't been so lucky. Cerebral edemas are extremely dangerous and can be caused by any number of factors, including head injuries, allergies and brain tumors. Questions still remain about how such a healthy young man could so suddenly and inexplicably die.

What caused Bruce Lee's fatal edema?

"I believe the most likely cause of death is cannabis intoxication," Lycette wrote in a letter, "either due to drug idiosyncrasy or massive overdose." But there has been no links between cannabis and cerebral edemas, and most researchers question whether it's even possible to fatally overdose on marijuana.

In September 1973, two months after Lee's death, forensics expert Donald Teare was assigned to the case. Teare, who carried out the autopsy of Jimi Hendrix just three years earlier, asserted Lee had a "hypersensitivity" to the active ingredients in Equagesic that led to his death. However, some people still believed that it was the hash, rather than the Equagesic, that killed the star. The doctors who treated him in May noted Lee had consumed hash that day, too. "We gave Bruce a long talk before he was discharged from hospital, asking him not to eat hashish again," said Dr Peter Wu in the 2000 biography The Tao of Bruce Lee. "We told him that his very low percentage of body fat could make him vulnerable to drugs." Wu also cautioned that his stress levels could dramatically magnify the effects of the hash. "Since he'd already had a very bad time with the drug, we told him that the effects were likely to be worse next time."

It's possible that Lee was hypersensitive to one or more of the drugs found in his system, but he had reportedly consumed them before with no ill effects. So could something else have killed Bruce Lee?

bruce lee death 3
Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in 1972's 'Way of the Dragon.' Norris spoke about Bruce Lee's death, suggesting antibiotics were to blame. Concord Production Inc./ Golden Harvest

New rumors emerge

Over the years, a wide range of theories have emerged: At a comic convention in 1975, Chuck Norris, Lee's Way of the Dragon co-star and a pallbearer at his funeral, speculated Ting had given him antibiotics that reacted with medication Lee was taking for back pain. That theory was contradicted by Lee's autopsy, but it illustrates just how much misinformation was swirling around his death. Some blamed everything from bad feng shui to a magical curse, while others believed Lee's "death" was simply a hoax to promote Game of Death .

Even the kung fu fantasy of Lee's movies bled into the rumors about his demise—one theory held that Japanese martial arts experts hired ninjas poison him. "Besides the traditional Japanese-Chinese rivalry, Lee always saved his special venom for Japanese karate and judo," wrote biographer Alex Ben Block in 1974.

The press hounded Betty Ting mercilessly after Lee's passing, speculating about their relationship and even suggesting she may have killed him with her lovemaking prowess. In 2016, tabloid mogul Patrick Wang Sai-yu told the South China Morning Post that he bribed a morgue worker $200 to photograph Lee's corpse to see if it was true the action star died with an erection.

bruce lee death 1
A woman walks in front of a poster featuring Bruce Lee at a museum in Hong Kong on November 3, 2018. VIVEK PRAKASH/AFP/Getty Images

Scientific speculation

Advances in medicine since Lee's passing have led to even more conjecture about why he died: At a 2006 meeting of the American Academy of Sciences, medical examiner James Filkins postulated that Lee suffered a fatal epileptic seizure. SUDEP, or "sudden unexplained death in epilepsy," refers to the unexpected death of a seemingly healthy person with epilepsy, when no cause of death can been determined. But it wasn't coined until 1995, more than 20 years after Lee died. Seizures can be triggered by stress, which Lee was certainly under, but there's no record of him ever being diagnosed with epilepsy.

Polly offers another explanation: Bruce Lee died from heatstroke. In Bruce Lee: A Life, Polly claimed Lee had the sweat glands in his armpits removed so he would appear less sweaty on camera, and that after playing out all those fight scenes on a sweltering hot day in Hong Kong, his body gave out. Lee's symptoms on the day he died, including dizziness and headaches, are consistent with heatstroke, and cerebral edemas are often found in autopsies of people who have died of heatstroke. What's more, Lee's first edema in May took place in a hot editing room that lacked air conditioning. Like epilepsy, heatstroke was less well-researched in 1973 than it is today, so it could have slipped past the doctors.

If true, this theory is perhaps more tragic than any other for its sheer preventability: In chasing success and physical perfection, Bruce Lee neglected to care for his body in one of the most fundamental ways possible.

How Did Bruce Lee Die? | Culture