These days, his influence is much more surprising. As London's National Film Theatre prepares for a commemorative season of Lee's work, "Bruce Lee Siu-Lung: The Man, The Myth, The Legend", it is his wide-ranging and discriminating followers who perhaps represent the untold story. Here, three of them tell of his considerable and far-reaching impact.
Guru Lee Banda, World Welterweight Stick Fighting Champion from 1996 to 1998, teaches Jeet Kune Do (Lee's own martial art) at the International Combat Centre in Tonbridge. Banda was taught by five of Bruce Lee's closest students, including the great Dan Inasanto. He doesn't like many martial arts films, but owns all of Lee's.
"I would love it if you would write a piece that would make people realise what a good martial artist and teacher he was. Lots of his fans think he was just a film actor and that it was all trick photography. But although there is a difference between the theatrical kung fu on the screen and that of a combat situation, you still get the sense he could have got away with it all."
But what about his acting? There have been other great fighters, but none have captured the imagination like Lee. "Here was a guy who had one leg shorter than the other, one testicle, was 5 ft 7", 140 pounds, and yet so graceful and powerful that I don't think his speed will ever be matched. He just crackled with charisma."
Award-winning New York dancer and choreographer, Doug Elkins, exercises his right to eclecticism, incorporating street-style breakdance and streetwise parody into an electrifying set, seen recently at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. He's also a fan of martial arts, and practises Brazilian capoeira, Japanese aikido, Chinese "monkey-style", and Shaolin kung fu. He acknowledges the influence of Hong Kong cinema, and particularly the films of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and John Woo, on his own work.
"If you look at any kata [the set-piece of movements in martial arts], it's a ritualised choreography," says Elkins. "There's a story being played out. From the kata to the Bruce Lee films, there's movement information in there. Why make distinctions between dance and other movement? It's like the Jeet Kune Do saying: `Use what is useful.'"
Bruce Lee was one-time cha-cha champion of Hong Kong. His films include elaborately choreographed set pieces, shot from a distance, in which whole groups of fighters move as one single organism. When the camera closes in on Lee, the battle is played out in strange, cartoon-like facial gestures. For Elkins, these techniques are part of the fun. "All these gestures, over-emphases ... we in the West may see it as melodrama or over-acting, but it's fascinating. The violence is always done in revenge for something, like "You've disgraced my sister", or whatever it is in Enter The Dragon, when rather than being taken, she takes her own life. Then when he comes and beats the man, there's an almost orgasmic expression of pleasure on his face. It's kind of like the predecessor of A Clockwork Orange, except it's morally justified."
So how does an appreciation of Bruce Lee manifest itself in a choreographer's work? "Martial arts offer me something very distinct; very intimate. Whenever you attack someone, whether it's physically or emotionally, you actually make yourself vulnerable by expressing who you are. And with martial arts, when someone's swinging at you, you don't have to pretend. It's like someone slapping their child down in a tube station. You're drawn to it, the actuality of it. It's very dynamic."
Bey Logan is the author of Hong Kong Action Cinema (Titan) and currently works for Media Asia, the company that owns the rights to the Bruce Lee filmography. Like many of the new generation of Bruce Lee fans, he began watching the films after Lee's death. However, since moving to Hong Kong, he has worked with people who knew Lee during his Hong Kong heyday. What does Logan think it was about the man that still attracts such international fascination?
"His movies celebrate the male aesthetic in a way that men from any background feel comfortable acknowledging. From your choreographer in New York to your truck driver from Bradford, any man can look at a Bruce Lee movie and say: "Boy, that guy can move!" And then, of course, you have someone who was a philosopher and a marvellous speaker. Only in Bruce Lee did you get this nexus, all these things in one person."
What does Logan make of Lee's odd acting style? Within Lee's extraordinary flirtation with the camera, he occasionally appears to enjoy his own private, post-Modern joke with the audience. "I don't believe Lee was sending up the Hong Kong style. Bruce's father was a very famous opera performer, and so he'd soak up all those basics as a youngster and then refer to them.
For Logan and countless others, Lee's importance transcends martial arts. "People are always asking how come we haven't had the new Bruce Lee. I say we have, but we haven't recognised him or her. The new Bruce Lee is the choreographer who, in his own art form, has been inspired to transcend the old rules, has had success and said, `This is my Jeet Kune Do'. If Bruce's legacy has any relevance to the modern world, it must be that. The new Bruce Lee might be a middle-aged woman in Twickenham who started writing poetry after watching Enter The Dragon."
`Tracking the Dragon' is at the NFT, London, Sun to 9 DecReuse content