Bruce Lee was brought in to appear in 1973’s Fist of Unicorn. Here’s the story behind his secret cameo and the lawsuit that followed.
A secret Bruce Lee cameo filmed without his permission in unicorn fist resulted in a trial of the actor. Released in 1973, unicorn fist was a Hong Kong kung fu film starring Unicorn Chan. Although he did not play an actual role in the film, Lee was heavily featured in the film’s marketing.
Also known as me and bruce lee, unicorn fist came at a time when Lee’s career had really taken off. After struggling for years to establish himself as a star, Lee finally got his big break when he starred in Golden Harvest’s the big boss in 1971. The big boss success in Hong Kong was followed by other successes, such as fist of fury and The Way of the Dragon. In both of these films, Lee gave small roles to Unicorn Chan, one of his closest friends and someone he had known since childhood. But while Lee had become a huge sensation in Hong Kong by this point, Chan had yet to make a name for himself. However, a chance presented itself for him to headline his own film, unicorn fist, when he entered into negotiations with Starsea Motion Pictures.
According to Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly, the studio was only willing to let Chan play the lead role if he could get The Way of the Dragon star involved in the film. In favor of Chan, Lee agreed to handle the martial arts choreography but turned down the opportunity to make an on-screen appearance. Lee later became outraged when he discovered that the camera crew secretly filmed him during the choreography of a scene. This sequence was slipped into the film as a Bruce Lee cameo. In addition to the cameo, Lee was also credited as director and included in the film’s promotional material. In retaliation, the actor sued the filmmakers, believing he had been taken advantage of to market their film.
Most likely as a result of the trial, the shot footage of Bruce Lee is no longer in the film, which could explain why the case never went to trial. However, unicorn fist included a prologue where one of Lee’s doubles can be seen from behind, allowing the film to frame it as a Bruce Lee cameo. Moreover, his name remains linked to the film even today. Posters and DVD covers include images of the actor and his name, though his actual involvement in unicorn fist never went beyond fight choreography.
Polly wrote in her book that it’s unclear if Chan had first-hand knowledge of the trick used to bring the martial arts legend into the film. But anyway, what happened with unicorn fist foreshadowed the rise of Bruceploitation films, which were common throughout the 1970s. Bruceploitation was a phase that began in response to the actor’s death in July 1973. As Hong Kong studios could no longer launch the real Lee, they began casting lookalikes and using the actor’s image to market their films. The direction taken with unicorn fist shows that the Bruceploitation was already beginning even before by Bruce Lee the death.
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