Lee was born in 1949 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He studied at the University of Oklahoma Medical School for two years before deciding on a dramatic change of career and enrolling at the London School of Film. He met the Unification Church in 1974 and entered UTS in 1976. Michael Jenkins, who was a classmate, remembered Lee for his love of God. "When I look back at those times, what really brought us together was the fact that Lee simply loved God very deeply. He was never a person who thought that his problems were due to other people or the system but instead he took responsibility for his own circumstances. He truly believed that together with God he was the master of his own destiny."
After graduating from UTS, Lee devoted himself full-time to his passion for film-maiking. His first full-length film was titled "Free Within These Bounds," a dramatic portrayal of the phenomenon of forcible faith-breaking - the kidnapping and "deprogramming" that was being used at that time by people opposed to new religious movements.
In 1982, Lee began to work with CAUSA International and he became particularly interested in the plight of the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua. On two dangerous, secret trips inside Nicaragua, he documented the efforts of the Indians to retain religious freedom and cultural autonomy in the face of a brutal Sandinista campaign of genocide directed against them. In November 1985, Lee's film "Nicaragua Was Our Home" was seen by President Ronald Reagan in a special White House viewing. In a personal letter to Lee, President Reagan wrote, "I know your work in the film documentary medium is motivated not only by an artist's desire to tell the story and tell it well, but by your hatred of injustice and your compassion for its victims. Being a man of conscience, you touch the conscience of your audience."
"Nicaragua Was Our Home" won a CINE Golden Eagle Award, a 1986 ANGEL award, premiered at the prestigious Teluride Film Festival, was a finalist in the documentary category at the United States Film Festival and was broadcast nationally on the Public Broadcasting System in June 1986. The film received critical acclaim in numerous publications including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Lee next turned his attention to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the heroic struggle of the Afghan freedom-fighters or "mujahideen." He quickly came to be respected by these courageous fighters. Aziz Sadat, a member of the mujahideen who acted as Lee's interpreter later recalled: "Nobody ever made a decent film about Afghanistan. Most journalists only go a few miles deep over the border and stay in the camps. Nobody went as deep inside Afghanistan as Lee did. Nobody filmed where he did. He was never scared of things. He would go right into the war zone and film it." Sadat said of the muhahideen, "They were surprised that a man from America came this far to risk his life to tell their story. He was honored by them; specially treated by them. If they had an extra bite to eat or a cup of tea, they would always offer it to him first." For his courage, Lee earned the Afghan nickname "Shair Khan" which roughly translates as "Tiger Sir."
In May 1987, Lee entered Afghanistan for the last time. He was accompanied by his friend Jim Lindelof, a writer, and together they spent five months traveling with the mujahidden and recording the war. In October, while they and a party of mujahideen were making their way back toward Pakistan, they were ambushed by four Soviet helicopter gunships firing rockets and machine guns. Lee Shapiro and Jim Lindelof were among those who were killed.
In the following months, Lee's wife Linda (UTS 1979) made every effort to recover the bodies of her husband and Jim Lindelof but in spite of her efforts and those of several U.S. congressmen, the recovery was not possible due to the difficult conditions of the continuing war in Afghanistan and the combat deaths of key mujahideen commanders who were in the area when the men were buried. At the same time, U.S. Rep. Jim Courter (R-NJ) decided to draft a congressional resolution calling upon President Reagan to posthumously grant the nation's highest civilian medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to Lee Shapiro, Jim Lindelof and Charles Thornton, the three American journalists who gave their lives for the cause of Afghan freedom. The resolution, co-sponsored by half the members of the U.S. House of Representatives, was passed unanimously on the floor of the House on June 16, 1988. An identical resolution was introduced into the U.S. Senate by Senators Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ) and Pete Wilson (R-CA) and after being co-sponsored by 53 U.S. Senators, the resolution was passed, also unanimously, on the Senate floor.
In a speech remembering her husband, Linda Shapiro said, "When I first heard the news that my husband was dead, I didn't think I could bear it. I couldn't stop crying, day in and day outc.But a quiet inner voice was saying, 'Be strong Linda. And be proud of Lee. He died a brave man. He died a hero. Never forget that.' Lee Shapiro found inspiration in people's courage and willingness to fight for the freedom to be themselves. And I think that you and I can do the same. Let's not let their sacrifice be forgotten."