Among mysterious celebrity deaths, it is up there with JFK and Elvis. But the myth of Bruce Lee's (李小龍) demise in Hong Kong in 1973 may finally have been solved.
"The death of Bruce Lee, coming at such a young age and in the peak of physical fitness, has given rise to much speculation," said James Filkins, at Cook County medical examiner's office in Chicago. "Almost as soon as Lee died rumors began to surface."
The official cause of Lee's death was recorded in the autopsy report as cerebral edema, or brain swelling. This was supposedly due to his hypersensitivity to a painkiller called equigesic that he had taken that day. But further research suggests the kung fu idol may have died from an epileptic condition first recognized more than 20 years after his death.
The theories began on July 20 -- the day he died -- when he had been planning to meet his producer, Raymond Chow (鄒文懷), and the Australian actor George Lazenby, of James Bond fame, to try to persuade Lazenby to appear in his new film, Game of Death. He never made it to dinner.
The official explanation has never satisfied Lee's fans.
"Like James Dean, a death of someone so young gave cult status. He was known as the fittest man alive," said Brian Harrison, head of the Bruce Lee fan club, brucelee.org.uk.
Some speculated that he had been murdered by Hong Kong triads for refusing to pay protection money or by US gangsters for refusing to work in Hollywood. A minor actress, Betty Ting Pei (丁佩), was rumored to be Lee's mistress, something she has always denied. But some suggest he died while making love to her. None of these explanations washes with Filkins. The autopsy report recorded no evidence of physical injury or street drugs in Lee's system apart from marijuana. There were low levels of the painkiller.
Filkins thinks the official explanation is also wrong. Drug reactions tend to involve an anaphylactic reaction in which the victim's neck swells, he told the annual meeting of the American Academy of Sciences in Seattle. Instead, he thinks Lee died of a condition called sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP), which was only recognized in 1995.
The condition involves a seizure which stops the heart or lungs. It kills around 500 people a year in the UK, is most common in men aged 20-40 and can be brought on by lack of sleep and stress.
"Lee was under a great deal of physical and mental distress at the time," Filkins said.
Jane Hanna, director of the support charity Epilepsy Bereaved, said SUDEP was gaining recognition.