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BRANDON LEE FOLLOWS IN HIS DAD'S SHOES, BUT HE HOPES TO WIN RESPECT AS AN ACTOR IN HIS OWN RIGHT.

Brandon Lee hopes to forge his own career and earn respect as an actor, but for now he'll put up with the inevitable comparisons to his father, Bruce Lee.

Bruce Lee was, of course, the premiere karate-kicking star of such action films as "Enter the Dragon" and "Fists of Fury," who died at the height of his worldwide popularity in 1973.Twentieth Century Fox is capitalizing on the connection by hyping Brandon Lee in his first starring role as "the action hero of the '90s." Read that adline aloud and you can almost feel his embarrassment over the phone lines during an interview from Dallas. "Aside from being rather presumptuous, I don't feel much connection with that. It's nice advertising, I guess."

The film is called "Rapid Fire" and casts Lee as a student who inadvertently witnesses a killing and finds himself on the run from mobsters and crooked FBI agents. It opens Friday, Aug. 21, and he's on the road promoting it before he begins shooting his next picture.

Lee was 8 when his father died. He remembers living in Hong Kong for less than a year when he was very young, then "jumping back and forth between Hong Kong and California, following Dad's career.

"I've always wanted to be an actor. From the time I was really young, it's just what I've always wanted to do." He says he was bitten by the bug while on the set of one of his father's movies, "but it was never my idea to become a martial arts action actor. It's just that I managed to get this role and had this skill. It's something I've always done personally."

That skill is kung fu, which he's been exercising since he was a child and received training from his father. "It's always been a part of the daily routine. After my father passed away I began working out with the man who was his senior student."

Lee went on to do some American boxing but never competed in martial arts tournaments. "I had a few amateur fights but never really tried to do anything with that."

Instead, he went to film school in Massachusetts, dropped out and then moved on to New York where he became involved in a theater company. "I appeared in several productions on the stage. Then I worked for a producer, reading scripts and rewriting synopses. And when I was 20 I did a TV movie."

That was "Kung Fu: The Movie," starring David Carradine, made in 1984, some 14 years after Carradine's hit TV series, "Kung Fu." Lee says, "I felt it was some kind of justice that it was my first film, since the original idea for the pilot was conceived for my father."

Since then, Lee has been auditioning and working at being an actor. He's made two other movies, a Hong Kong martial arts thriller called "Legacy of Rage" and last year's "Showdown in Little Tokyo," which co-starred Dolph Lundgren.

Though Lee admits to being somewhat typecast at the moment, he's confident he will prove himself in roles that go beyond action pictures. "I wouldn't want to refer to them as stepping stones. That seems to demean them. But I'm hoping they will get me to another place. I don't think of this (`Rapid Fire') as a stepping stone, but neither would I like to think it will be my bread and butter. I'd like to have the kind of career that would leave a wide body of work, like Mel Gibson, who does the `Mad Max' and `Lethal Weapon' films but can also step off and have credibility with `The Year of Living Dangerously' or `Hamlet.' "

In "Rapid Fire," Lee says he was allowed to invest his own sense of humor, but "the majority of it was in the script. I added my own touches to it, but the writer was really very good.

"I always saw that character as not being gung-ho to get himself involved in those situations. I wanted to keep that throughout the film, that sarcastic edge. So he's not just becoming Joe Action Hero."

At one point in the picture, his co-star, Powers Boothe, makes an oblique reference to one of films that starred Lee's father. "I have a little bit of a tender spot about such things. I wouldn't want to see my father's name exploited, but I got a kick out of that. My father's fans will get it and some people won't. I tried not to play it for too much of an obvious double-take."

Lee's next film is "The Crow," which he says is already a bit of a departure. "I play a rock 'n' roll musician, playing in Detroit. My character is murdered and comes back from the dead to find out what happened."

But he hasn't abandoned action films. Lee has multiple-picture deals with both Carolco, the folks who gave us the "Rambo" movies, and 20th Century Fox.