More than four decades ago, Hollywood told Bruce Lee it couldn’t be done.
In 2019, the late actor’s vision of an Asian American hero is heading to television in the form of “Warrior,” a new Cinemax series set in 1878 San Francisco boasting a largely Asian cast, telling a uniquely American story and executive produced by “Fast and Furious” helmer Justin Lin.
It’s a project that’s spent nearly 50 years in development, describes Shannon Lee, who now shepherds her father’s legacy at the helm of Bruce Lee Entertainment and serves as executive producer on the series based on Lee’s writings. Watch an exclusive teaser for “Warrior” above.
At a special screening of the pilot episode Monday night in Hollywood, she confirmed the longstanding legend of a lost Bruce Lee project that served as a precursor to the 1970s Warner Bros. television series “Kung Fu,” starring David Carradine as a martial-arts expert roaming the West.
“[Lee] created a treatment which he then pitched to Warner Bros.,” she told a packed house at the ArcLight Hollywood, “and they said, ‘We’re really sorry, but we just don’t think that a Chinese man can be the lead of an American TV series. Audiences won’t go for it.’”
“Cut to  and ‘Kung Fu’ the series comes out starring David Carradine as a Chinese man,” she continued. “This was the role that my father was supposed to do.”
Bruce Lee put the treatment in a box in the family garage, where it sat for years. He went on to become an international action icon — first in Asia, before his own country embraced him as a crossover star. He died in 1973 at the age of 32.
In 2014, Shannon Lee received a phone call from Lin with a burning question: Was it true her father had written a treatment he intended to star in all those years ago?
They teamed up to make the show in the late Lee’s vision. “And by the way, let’s have Asian people playing the Asian characters,” she recalled. “Listen, when I say that this is a dream come true — it’s literally a dream come true.”
The producers tapped “Banshee” co-creator Jonathan Tropper to serve as creator and showrunner. Set during the Tong Wars in San Francisco, the 10-episode season will track the story of mysterious newcomer Ah Sahm (newcomer Andrew Koji) as political conspiracies, rising anti-immigrant violence and secret agendas collide in 1870s Chinatown.
“When we created the show, Trump wasn’t president and the immigration stuff wasn’t hitting the front lines,” said Tropper in a post-screening Q&A. “To me it’s fascinating how over 100 years later, the exact same things are happening.”
The “Warrior” ensemble of international actors includes Olivia Cheng, Dianne Doan, Joanna Vanderham, Jason Tobin, Hoon Lee, Tom Weston-Jones, Kieran Bew, Dean Jagger, Christian McKay, Perry Yung, Joe Taslim, Langley Kirkwood and Rich Ting.
“When I first started out in 2002, you’d go in the room and really have to fight for colorblind casting,” said Lin, “but here we are with a cast that’s going to be organically Asian or Asian American. And the one thing I’ve learned is, the talent is out there. It’s about trying to hopefully create the opportunity, and we didn’t want to take that lightly.”
Lee says they’re already plotting out story beyond next year’s 10-episode first season, which Cinemax has not yet announced a release date for.
“I’m really excited for the arc of the entirety of the show,” she said. “Season 1 is just the beginning. We’ll hopefully get the opportunity to play the long game here and really get into some extremely interesting stuff, which we already have planned. Hopefully we’ll get to do that.”