It was the 90’s and Brandon Lee, son of martial arts superstar Bruce Lee was sitting on the stage of the black box theater in my acting class. Milton, our teacher, had a tradition of having us cheer each other on when someone announced a big win. The theater echoed with applause as Brandon told us he had gotten a three-picture movie deal, but with each clap, envy dripped from my fingertips.
I wondered when it would be my turn to sit on that stage and announce a big win. I was unconnected and unrelated, a “nobody” by Hollywood standards, and wondered if it was possible to ever breakthrough.
Brandon never spoke of his famous father and we never asked about him. It seemed tasteless to do so. As if we cared about his celebrity (we did). He was brimming with talent and while we never knew this, was also a martial arts expert. Despite that, it was difficult not to think that Brandon had gotten his film deal because of who his father was.
I wanted a famous father, but instead, I got Irwin. A Jersey guy with an at-home business and the flexibility to take me and my brother to the orthodontist. He designed drugstores so there was the occasional ten percent off of a tube of toothpaste, but that was it in terms of any special treatment.
My dad wanted to be a voiceover actor who took the stage name, Don Lyons. Broke and unconnected he gave it up. I always wondered if I inherited his unfinished desire to be in entertainment. He would end our frequent phone calls with, “show biz is my life!”
It seemed easy for Brandon, who was about to kick off the first of his three movies. Hollywood stories were centered around men while casting calls for women consisted of “size 0 sexy woman” and “size 0 sexy best friend”. I was neither of those, so my gigs were few and far between. While Brandon was probably sipping on an espresso, in his double-wide trailer, I was walking onto the set of a bizarre acting job that would change the trajectory of my career. The gig was for The Playboy Network. There was no script (the audition was an improv) I didn’t have to get naked and all I knew was that my part was “saleswoman”.
I was told we would be filming sexy vignettes and met the “star”. She was a beautiful, blonde bombshell playing the bride to be and an older actor was playing her father. The set was a wedding dress store and my job was to convince the dad that his daughter picked the perfect gown for her special day.
We start the scene with the bride showing her dress to her dad as we convince him to buy it. Just as he is about to pull out his credit card, the actress twirls around to reveal that there is no back to the dress. She’s butt naked except for a tiny string holding the two sides together. “Oh my” says the actor playing the dad and…cut!
This was not a sexy vignette. This was a young woman who gets naked in front of her “father” and all of us in the “store” were supposed to pretend this was “normal”. It felt gross and humiliating and my heart wouldn’t stop pounding. I was deeply uncomfortable and since there was no script, I had to “improv” my way through. It was all made worse by the sound guy announcing loudly, “Hey, I can hear your heart beating!”
After a few more takes, I was unconvincing, so they fired me and replaced me with…the sound guy. He stepped in as if he had been waiting all his life to convince the naked bride to buy that dress. I was devastated. The years of rejection were taking their toll and it seemed like I would never have the chance to prove myself in any kind of role that I could sink my teeth into. Reluctantly, I decided to move behind the scenes and found some success writing and producing at E!
If I wasn’t going to be a celebrity at least I could still be around them. The environment wasn’t much better. We worked fourteen-hour days (low pay and no overtime) and had to regurgitate the words sex, sexy and sexiest at every turn. I followed the careers of my former classmates and even found myself interviewing them during my time at E! In 1993, news broke that Brandon Lee was dead. He had been killed on the set of The Crow when a gun, used in a stunt, shot the tip of a real bullet into his abdomen. Despite hours of surgery, the doctors couldn’t save him.
I was stunned and thought back to the night in class when my jealousy got the best of me. Brandon was dead. Maybe he wouldn’t be if he too had been unconnected.
Despite his famous family, he had to film in extreme conditions. Worst of all, there was no firearms expert on set the day of the shooting. I imagine Brandon didn’t want to complain and have those around him think he was only there because of his legendary last name. Perhaps the legacy of being Bruce Lee’s son simply made him a commodity for Hollywood to exploit.
The truth is fame can be a curse and being ordinary can be an enormous blessing. Ordinary isn’t just mundane or conventional or dreary and predictable. Ordinary is the privilege of building a life with a loving partner, having kids who morph into terrific humans or bringing your mom to a doctor’s appointment because she is older and needs to take your arm while she walks.
Fame is an elusive path that has made so many feel unhappy, unfulfilled and incredibly lonely. Perhaps I was the lucky one.
This year marked twenty-eight years since Brandon died, exactly as many years as he was alive.
It feels like yesterday that we were in class together. It never mattered that he had a famous father and I didn’t, for a brief moment, he was my friend.
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