In that first moment, when Brandon Lee was shot on the set of The Crow and didn't get up, crew members thought he was joking. He was that kind of guy a prankster with a sense of the macabre, a goofy, likable, committed actor who drove around in a hearse, a young man who would call up friends and, without a word of salutation, blurt out a joke, howl at the punch line, and hang up.
He never did anything halfway. ''There was a contained, focused power to Brandon,'' says his manager of eight years, Jan McCormack, speaking for Lee's friends and family. ''If he hugged you, you knew you were hugged. If he smiled at you, you knew you'd been smiled at.''
Lee's 28 years on earth were intense, much of the time spent wrestling with the legacy left to him by his father, formidable martial-arts superstar Bruce Lee. When McCormack first met Brandon, who asked her if being Bruce Lee's son would help or hinder an acting career, he was wearing big black boots, torn jeans, a red bandanna. ''He looked like a rebel with a cause,'' she says. And his cause was both simple and awfully complicated: He wanted to live up to his father.
Brandon began learning martial arts around the time he learned to walk. Dad started by teaching him a simple kick. By age 6, the child could turn a board to kindling. The grunts and cries of his father's circle of students, including Steve McQueen and James Coburn, echoed through Brandon's whole life.
''None of my friends would come over to the house when I was a kid because they were all scared to death,'' he said not long ago. ''There would always be six or seven grown men in the backyard screaming and throwing each other around. I finally got one of my friends to come over, and just as he arrived, Lew Alcindor I mean Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came in and scared the living s--- out of this kid, who ran home screaming.''
When his San Francisco-born father died in 1973 in Hong Kong of an edema (swelling) of the brain, Brandon's mother, Linda, an American, moved her 8-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, Shannon, to the U.S., where they eventually made a new start in affluent Rolling Hills, Calif. But by then, the coroner's verdict of the elder Lee's ''death by misadventure'' had become the stuff of eerie legend. Ever since, the tabloids have linked Lee's death to drugs and voodoo and the Chinese mob, never letting the young Lee forget his grief.
A sad childhood gave way to a rocky adolescence. Brandon dropped his martial-arts studies for a while and ignored the pressure to carry on his father's craft, Jeet Kune Do, a modernized form of kung fu that Bruce Lee created himself. ''I was like, 'Hey! Wait a minute!''' he recalled. ''Where was my vote in this? So I blew it off.'' He was kicked out of two high schools and dropped out of a third in his senior year. His rage and confusion fueled a singular ambition: to sort out his feelings on screen. ''You have questions that you want to answer about yourself,'' he said. ''If you're an actor, you're sick enough to want to answer those questions in a public forum.''
He always said only half kidding that he wanted to play Hamlet, but the only doors open to Bruce Lee's son led to the genre that made his father famous. In 1985 Brandon landed a role in a TV movie, Kung Fu: The Movie, costarring David Carradine. His first feature was Legacy of Rage, a 1986 film shot entirely in Cantonese (which Brandon spoke). McCormack signed him the same night she saw the film.
Brandon didn't want to trade on his last name, yet he couldn't bring himself to change it. When McCormack warned him that he was holding himself back by downplaying his pedigree, Brandon went to his mother for advice. ''He came to me later that night,'' says McCormack, ''and he said, 'I just came from my mom. She said my dad would be proud to have me carry on.' He was finally able to accept the fact that this was what he had left him.''
His first major Hollywood role was in the 1991 Dolph Lundgren flick, Showdown in Little Tokyo. He also got the lead role in last summer's Rapid Fire. But he was never comfortable with action films. ''What worries me are the special-effects scenes,'' he told a reporter last August. ''You're not in control if a roof is supposed to collapse on you and you have to trust that it's rigged properly. The accident on The Twilight Zone is always in the back of your mind.''
Despite his dark humor, and whatever grim-reaper publicity he did for The Crow, death was not on his mind when he made his last movie. Brandon was engaged to marry former film-story editor Eliza Hutton on April 17 in Mexico and had already completed the first in a three-film deal with Twentieth Century Fox. And he was no longer spooked by his father's ghost. When Lee noted recently that ''a large part of my life revolves around my dad,'' it was without a trace of bitterness. ''Sometimes,'' he said, ''I even feel a strong sense of connection, something very tangible when I learn something new in the martial arts. I feel a sense of excitement, like, 'Oh yeah, gee, he must have felt like that.''' With additional reporting by Dimitri Ehrlich and Frank Spotnitz