Brandon Lee’s rise to stardom was cut short with a horrific consequence.
The 28-year-old son of martial arts icon Bruce Lee was shot in the abdomen, March 31, 1993, while filming the now-cult-action movie, The Crow, in which the actor portrayed Eric Draven — the comic-book-based rock musician who returns from the grave to avenge his own murder. It was to be Lee’s breakthrough film performance.
Instead, it was his last.
Investigators concluded that the tip of a real .44-caliber bullet, placed in a prop gun for a close-up scene, had become lodged in the barrel. No criminal charges were filed in the direst happenstance, which was ruled “accidental” because Lee was shot by a gun that was supposed to shoot blanks. The result, unfortunately, was the death of Lee, who was not your average martial arts star. As an Asian-American performer, he had charisma, accomplishments diversity, the moves, looks, and personality. Far from one-dimensional on-screen or in real life, he had it all together. He retained modesty and discretion, and remained unaffected and level-headed with his position as a movie star and a movie star's son, even as the ghost stories as his father’s turbulent life and career continued to haunt him through his life.
According to Scott Siler, who befriended Brandon on assignment as a driver and assistant during the filming of The Crow for Carolco Studios, in Wilmington, N.C., Lee was “a great guy. My father died when I was young, and that was the bond that Brandon and I shared. He knew what I went through, and I knew what he went through.”
As Siler explained, Lee envisioned The Crow as an innovative achievement. The actor wanted to get away from being known “just as a guy who could do martial arts. He saw The Crow as a stepping stone into a mainstream movie career. He enjoyed working on the film a lot, put in tons of hours, and was always there on the set when he needed to be, with his lines memorized and ready to go. He was a trooper. There were days when it was 32 degrees outside, and he never complained. There he was with no pants, no shoes, no shirt, slushing through the rain (scenes), and laying on the ground. He was really into doing the movie.”
Siler remembered Lee saying, “I hope (James O’Barr, The Crow’s creator) thinks I’m doing a good job with his character because I’m fascinated with this project.” In one of his final interviews, Lee said of the film, “I’m really enjoying it. It’s an opportunity for me…a plum role. It’s got a haunted quality that I really like.”
“And even before the movie was over,” Siler said, “…they were talking sequels” (which was attempted to less than positive results with 1996’s The Crow, Part 2).
On one day off, Brandon invited Siler and co-star Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters, Congo) over for dinner and a game of ping-pong, one of Lee’s favorite pastimes and tension relievers. (Brandon had rented a house adorned with expensive and rare items, so the actual version played was Nerf-ping-pong.)
“We just stood there and played for hours,” Siler recalled. “Brandon was an excellent player. He’d do shots off the dish that was hanging on the wall, and have it come back to my side of the table. There probably wasn’t a thing he couldn’t do with the game.”
When not in the house, playing ping-pong with his chauffeur/pal, or working all day on his The Crow feat, Lee would hear the latest music, in the van, courtesy of Siler, who said, “Brandon really appreciated that. Listening to some new songs was not something he could usually have time to do. He genuinely enjoyed it.”
As Lee did his craft. “You could tell he loved acting,” Siler determined. “It was something that he really wanted to do.”
Dragon His Feet
As when Brandon Lee granted an interview to Entertainment Tonight, which set up shop at a nearby television station, to which Siler shuttled him. During the talk, Lee addressed the 1993 bio-film about his father, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, and why he turned down the lead role (which was played by Jason Scott Lee, no relation).
From what Siler ascertained, there was “no way Brandon would have done this film,” though he did mention to the actor how “cool” it would have been for him to play his dad. “That way,” Siler said, “…he would have at least done it the way he wanted it to be done. And I told him that.”
“Naw,” Brandon told him. “Let someone else do it. I don’t even want to see the movie when it comes out.” With such responses, Brandon would showcase somber moments.
Periodically, after a long day’s shoot, Siler said, “Brandon would get in the car, be so tired, and pull his hat over his head.”
The limo would then arrive at his temporary home. He would hop out of the vehicle and say, “Thanks, guy. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
One “tomorrow” was Lee’s last conscious day when Siler drove him to the set of his final night on The Crow.
Approximately 90 minutes before Brandon was shot, his driver remembers him being “real chipper and excited” about the movie, and his intended nuptials to his then-29-year-old fiancé Eliza Hutton.
Hutton, a one-time story editor for Kiefer Sutherland’s Stillwater Productions-cum-Hollywood casting assistant with whom Lee shared a Beverly Hills home, had been transporting between Los Angeles and Wilmington to spend time with Lee.
The wedding was to take place on April 17 in Mexico, seven days after The Crow wrapped. Lee’s employment would have soon been completed, and the workweek ahead had appeared somewhat effortless.
And Then He Was Shot
Nearly all the scenes left to shoot were flashbacks to happier times for the fictitious “Eric Draven”. There would have been no drench of downpour, no late-evening frigid exterior shots, and not as much filming in the weighty, maudlin make-up Lee would have usually applied. The scene awaiting Lee on that faithful night of March 31, 1993, promised something more difficult — a scene in which his character was to be gunned down by Masse’s “Funboy” character.
Meanwhile, Siler remembered the fiercely passionate performer saying, “Man, I can’t wait to get married.”
And then he was shot.
“There wasn’t one person who was involved with The Crow, including myself,” Siler discloses, “who wasn’t there at the hospital after the accident. We all spent the entire night just waiting.”
The next morning, Siler had a scheduled run to the airport. Later in the afternoon, he arrived home and got word of Brandon’s passing.
“I was devastated at what happened,” he said. “I saw him in the ambulance, and he was white as a sheet. They were pumping his chest, and he had lost a lot of blood.”
And the world a major talent and a kind soul.
If Siler had ever shown up at Lee’s doorway in L.A., he said, “Brandon would never have pushed me away. He would have invited me in, and wondered how I was doing. He was that type of guy.”
Siler still gets upset when he thinks about the way the media treated Brandon’s death. How the tabloids, programs, and talk shows encouraged rumors of everything from a vendetta by the Chinese Mafia to the alleged “death curse” that supposedly plagued Bruce Lee (who died at 32, of a brain edema, when Brandon was eight), and how it then continued with his son. As some recorded history, Brandon’s real-life death scene bore a ghostly affinity to a less-than-respected 1979 kung-fu film, entitled, Game of Death, which spliced together the hindmost, disconnected cinematic reels ever recorded of Bruce Lee.
In Game, Bruce plays an actor who is gunned down after mobsters replace a fake bullet with the real thing on a movie set. In the days that followed Brandon’s passing, a small core of Bruce-fanatics began to interpret the Game as a foreboding of Brandon’s demise and set out to revitalize the “Lee family curse.”
According to Siler, “That’s just a lot of junk,” and Brandon’s premature passing, at the peak of his career, “was just a horrible, horrible mistake.”
Following the sophomoric prattle of apocalyptic myths and legacies, the rationale surfaced that Brandon’s demise was indeed no more enigmatic than a grievous error.
As was once assessed by a Carolco Studios’ freelance firearms consultants James Moyer, the metal tip of one of the dummy bullets was packed into a gun, which Michael Massey was instructed to showcase for a close-up, and had somehow tugged free from its brass encasement. When the dummies were ejected and substituted with blanks, the metal tip became lodged in the back of the gun’s cylinder. When the blank was fired, its combustible impetus catapulted the dummy tip through the gun’s barrel — and into Lee’s brawn-bound form.
It Was Too Late
A short time later, Siler spent several hours on the phone with Eliza Hutton who, upon learning of the accident, immediately flew to Wilmington. When she arrived at the hospital, Lee was in the trauma-neuro intensive care unit, and it was too late.
At 1:04 p.m., he was gone. [According to a source, the cause of death was disseminated intravascular coagulopathy — unstoppable internal hemorrhaging caused by the blood’s failure to clot.]
Before Hutton left The Crow’s location set, she gifted Siler with the ping-pong table upon which he and Lee played endless games. “She thought it was something that Brandon would have wanted me to have,” Siler said. “It was very sweet of her, as she is a very sweet person.”
Lee’s body was then flown to Seattle where, on Saturday, April 3, 1993, he was laid to rest alongside his father in Lakeview Cemetary.
The following morning over 400 of those closest to Brandon convened to eulogize him during a service at the Hollywood Hills residence of actress Polly Bergen.
The assembled included Hutton, Brandon’s mother, Linda (who flew in from Boise, Id., where she abides with husband, businessman Bruce Cadwell), his now 27-year-old sister, Shannon (a singer who lives in New Orleans), and fellow martial arts stars Steven Segal and David Carradine, the latter with whom Brandon starred in the 1986 CBS TV-film, Kung Fu: The Movie, in which he played Carradine’s son (a legitimately ironic development, since Carradine beat out Bruce Lee for the lead in the original 1972–75 ABC-Television network Kung Fu series, on which The Movie was based).
Now, decades after Brandon Lee’s untimely death, a legendary truth resonates with the reality of his snuffed-out integrity, career potential, and much-too-brief life. Or as Scott Siler said, “I was glad to have known the man. He would have been a superstar. But more than that, he was a great human being.”
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