New Bruce Lee bio debunks myths about the 'kung fu Jesus'

Bruce Lee's fight with Chuck Norris in "The Way of the Dragon" is considered one of the best fight scenes of all time. Lee was considered unbeatable; now, a new bio explores his flaws.

(CNN)Bruce Lee was training a friend one day when he did something unexpected.

The star of the classic film, "Enter the Dragon," was already known for his fanatical fitness regimen. He didn't smoke or drink; he gobbled vitamin supplements and drank raw blended hamburger meat. He'd transformed himself into a lithe fighter who could do two-finger push-ups and send burly men flying with his famed one-inch punch.
But Lee ended the training session at his home on this particular day with a different type of flourish. He lit a joint and started puffing away. It came from a box of marijuana cigarettes he kept in his garage. Lee would later move on to hashish, carrying it around in little bags and nibbling on it like edibles.
"It raises the consciousness level," Lee explained when another martial artist asked him why he got high.
That's not the type of story one typically hears about Lee. Since he died at age 32, his legend has grown to such mythological levels that one martial artist calls him "kung fu Jesus." A new biography, though, debunks some of the most popular myths about the man.
Bruce Lee's role as "Kato" in the TV series, "The Green Hornet," made him a star in Hong Kong.
"Bruce Lee: A Life" by Matthew Polly is the first in-depth account of Lee's journey from a street-brawling teenager to a global icon. The book, which comes on the 45th anniversary of Lee's death, features interviews from everyone from his childhood classmates to friends who saw him smoke up to the woman who last saw him alive. Lee's charisma, ambition and relentless appetite for combat leap off the pages. You can practically hear his catlike shrieks in some of the most vivid sections.
If you think you know Lee, this book may shock you.
Among its surprises:
- Lee was a "kinetic genius" who could quickly master any martial arts fighting style. But he never learned to ride a bike and was declared medically unfit for the draft after failing his physical.
- He has been portrayed as an impoverished immigrant who came to America to make it big, but he actually grew up in an affluent Hong Kong family with its own chauffer and two live-in maids.
- He is seen as a Chinese superhero with a statue in Hong Kong, but he was also part Jewish.
Polly, who interviewed at least 100 of Lee's friends and family members, says people often forget that Lee was virtually unknown in the United States when he died. His breakthrough movie, "Enter the Dragon," was released less than a month after his mysterious death in Hong Kong in July 1973.
Lee is the only major Western icon whose fame is entirely posthumous, says Polly, who, as a skinny, bullied kid, was inspired by Lee's films to later move to China and study kung fu at a Shaolin temple.
Lee wasn't just an entertainer; he was an evangelist. Millions took up martial arts because of him, Polly says.
"No other celebrity changed people's lives in that way," Polly says. "Nobody watched a Steve McQueen movie and took up something. People study martial arts because of Lee, and it changed their lives for the better. Bruce Lee has a place in a lot of fans' hearts as a demigod, or what I call a patron saint of kung fu. He had a missionary effect. "

He never apologized for being Asian

He also changed the way many Westerners regarded Asians, Polly's book shows.
Lee was the "the first Asian American actor to embody the classic Hollywood definition of a star," Polly wrote. "Men wanted to be him and women wanted to be with him."
Lee's pride in his heritage was contagious.
"More than anything else, what I liked most about Bruce was that he never apologized for being Oriental," says one of Lee's college girlfriends, a Japanese-American, in the book. "In a time when so many Asians were trying to convince themselves they were white, Bruce was so proud to be Chinese he was busting with it."
Asian men were not traditionally depicted as sexual beings in Western films. Even Lee had only one brief love scene in the three movies he made. Away from the screen, though, Lee was a ladies' man.
Lee was married with two kids but was caught up in the "Swinging Sixties free love ethos" and had extramarital affairs, Polly writes. There's one passage in the book where a former mistress of Lee's raves about how "knowledgeable" he was about a woman's body.
The book also offers a peek into the Hollywood culture of the late 1960s and early '70s, with intimate accounts of Lee's friendships with stars like McQueen and James Coburn and the writer Stirling Silliphant. There's a wonderful scene where Lee uses a martial arts lesson with Silliphant to unlock the writer's repressed feelings about his father.
It turns out Lee was a bit of a hippie, too. At one time, he wore his hair long, sported love beads and donned dashikis. And he got high, which surprised some of the martial artists who trained with him. One judo expert quoted in the book stopped training with Lee at his home because he was sick of all the pot smoke swirling around.
Lee, with his wife, Linda, was a racial pioneer in many ways. His interracial marriage was rare at the time, and he broke martial arts tradition by teaching students of all races.
Polly says he wasn't trying to be salacious. He wanted to show another side of Lee beyond the "patron saint of kung fu" image. He interviewed Lee's widow and daughter for the book but hasn't heard from them since it published last month. Neither responded to CNN's request for comment.
"I hope one day that they will see it as it is," Polly says. "It was written from a place of love."
Davis Miller, author of "The Tao of Bruce Lee," says "fan-boys" won't love Polly's book.
"Those guys need to believe in kung fu Jesus," says Miller, whom Polly consulted for his bio. "And they're not getting that. They're getting a guy who is human."

Taking out Sammy Davis Jr.'s bodyguard

Lee, indeed, seemed superhuman in his film's fight scenes. But how good was he when the cameras weren't rolling? People still debate that question.
Miller says Lee was probably the "best martial artist at the time of his death" but wasn't unbeatable. Though Lee trained with and taught martial arts champions like Chuck Norris and Joe Lewis, Miller says he's not sure how Lee would have fared in a fight against a top-flight boxer.
"I don't think the guy was ever tested," Miller says. "Bruce Lee didn't have the real-world experience that boxers had."
One man who saw Lee fight has no doubt about what he could do.
Doug Palmer was one of Lee's first students in America. He is one of a small group who trained with and learned directly from Lee. Palmer, who appears in Polly's book, met Lee when the martial artist was 20 and knew him until his untimely death. At one point, Lee even moved in with Palmer's family.
"He had no compunction, no hesitation about testing himself against the biggest, the fastest, and the best in whatever he came across," Palmer, now an attorney in Seattle, told CNN.