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Can the untimely death of Bruce Lee’s son be blamed on a family curse?

Brandon Lee

Brandon Lee

Bruce Lee and Brandon Lee were a father and son linked by the action-packed world of martial arts films and, some say, by an ancient Chinese curse that killed them both.  Bruce Lee’s film career began in Hong Kong.  With his explosive power and fluid grace, he almost single-handedly created an audience for martial arts films.  In the summer of 1973, Lee was 32-years-old and on the brink of international stardom.  Then on July 20th, he took a prescription drug for a headache and laid down for a nap. Bruce Lee never got up.  His funeral drew more than 25,000 mourners.  Some said that Lee died from a family curse.  But after an unprecedented nine-day inquest, the coroner announced his findings—Bruce Lee had died from a freak allergic reaction to a pain remedy.  Author John Little has written extensively about the life of Bruce Lee:

“Here we have this paragon of fitness, one of the most lethal human beings with his hands or his feet taken out… by a headache tablet.  But it happens.  And it only seems all the more unbelievable when it happens to someone who is larger than life.”

At the time, Bruce’s son, Brandon, was just eight-years-old and already following in his father’s footsteps. This is an excerpt from an interview Brandon recorded just prior to his untimely death:

“I started training with my dad really as soon as I could walk. I mean, my dad was a really diligent trainer, and he always had people over at the house practicing. In fact, I remember when I was a little kid, a lot of my friends didn’t want to come over to the house because there were always these men in the back yard screaming and breaking things.”

Was the Lee family cursed?

Was the Lee family cursed?

Brandon followed Bruce’s path to the big screen as a star of martial arts films. He was 28-years-old when he was fatally shot on the set of his fifth feature, “The Crow”. Was he also a victim of the Lee family curse?  Just like Bruce Lee’s death, the shooting of Brandon Lee renewed speculation about the Lee curse.  But can this tragedy really be attributed to supernatural forces? After nearly 50 eyewitnesses and more than a dozen ballistics tests, detectives Rodney Simmons and Brian Pettus of the Wilmington, North Carolina Police Department, pieced together the strange six-week journey of the bullet destined to kill Brandon Lee. According to Detective Simmons, the bullets were purchased at a pawnshop:

“They were filming a pawnshop scene.  And they needed items from an actual pawnshop. So they went to one of the local pawnshops in Wilmington.”

A stagehand gathered hundreds of props, among them was a box of live .44 magnum bullets. According to Detective Pettus, the first link in the fatal chain of events was now in place:

“They dressed the set up with all the items that they received. They placed the .44 rounds on a counter that was used in the scene. The stunt coordinator said when he found the live ammunition on the set, he was livid. The bottom line rule is that you don’t have live ammunition on a set.”

Is an ancient curse to blame for their deaths?

Is an ancient curse to blame for their deaths?

The stunt coordinator locked the bullets in the trunk of his car, where they would remain for another two weeks.  It was one of these bullets that would eventually kill Brandon Lee.  Understanding the tragic events to come required some knowledge of bullets and blanks.  A live bullet has a lead tip, a load of gunpowder, and an explosive charge known as a primer.  Once the trigger is pulled the hammer hits the primer.  The primer then detonates, igniting the powder.  The explosive force of burning powder shoots the lead tip towards the target.  Blanks are bullets with a harmless disc of cardboard instead of a lead tip and have a smaller gunpowder load.  They may have one-quarter or one half the normal charge.  When fired, blanks create a visible but harmless flash.  A dummy round looks like a bullet but cannot be fired.  It has the cartridge and the lead tip only.  No gunpowder, no primer.  On the set of “The Crow,” the crew needed blanks.  To save time, the fateful decision was made to modify the live rounds that they had.  According to Detective Pettus, the crew removed the lead tip and powder, leaving only the cartridge and primer: 

“So what they did is they fired off some of the blanks that they’d made and took those casings and put the lead tips back in the casings. But what they didn’t do was check the primers to see if they’d all been fired when they made the dummy rounds. So they got some mixed up. So they made at least one dummy round that had a primer still intact.”

That one dummy round had an explosive primer and a lead tip.  The crew used the dummy rounds for close-ups of someone firing a .44 magnum. The detectives said that at least two people heard a popping noise. No one realized it was the sound of a primer firing—exploding with just enough force to dislodge the lead tip from the bullet casing and wedge it into the gun barrel. There it would remain, undetected for another 14 days, awaiting its fateful meeting with Brandon Lee.

North Carolina officials concluded that the film company’s biggest failures were not having a gun expert on the set and taking shortcuts to save time and money. However, the chain of negligence involved so many people that convicting any one of them was unlikely.  No criminal charges were filed. In the end, it seemed that Brandon Lee was truly a victim of circumstance. Or was he, as some claim, the final casualty of the family curse?