Who was Bruce Lee’s best Hollywood kung fu student?
After his work in The Green Hornet dried up, Lee became a personal kung fu teacher to Hollywood stars including Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Roman Polanski – but which of them showed the most talent?
In a special series commemorating the 45th death anniversary of Bruce Lee on July 20, we aim to set the facts straight – as well as exploring some little known trivia – about the life of the martial arts legend.
Bruce Lee became well-known in the US for his role as Kato in the US television series The Green Hornet, which ran for 26 episodes in 1966 and 1967. After the show was cancelled, Lee – who played the Hornet’s assistant Kato – was advised by the show’s co-producer Charles Fitzsimons that he could garner an income by advertising himself as a personal kung fu teacher to the Hollywood elite.
Lee had tried to interest celebrity students in personal lessons before he started shooting the show, to no avail. Fitzsimons said that he would be successful this time, as he was now famous as Kato, and encouraged him to charge premium prices to emphasise his exclusivity. Lee decided to charge US$150 an hour or US$500 for 10 lessons.
The tactic worked, and Lee began teaching some Hollywood luminaries – Steve McQueen, James Coburn, director Roman Polanski, singer Vic Damone, and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, who wrote the acclaimed 1967 film In the Heat of the Night.
So which Hollywood celebrity was Lee’s best student?
Lee says it’s either McQueen or Coburn. “It depends. As a fighter, Steve McQueen is good in that department because that son of a gun has the toughness in him,” Lee said in an interview on television.
“He would say, ‘Here I am, baby,’ and he would do it. Now, James Coburn is a peace-loving man, he is really nice, he’s really mellow. He appreciates the philosophical part of it. So his understanding of it is different to Steve’s. It’s different, it depends on what you see in it.”
According to M Uyehara’s book Bruce Lee: The Incomparable Fighter, Coburn met Lee at a party for McQueen’s 12th wedding anniversary. Coburn had starred in the James Bond parody Our Man Flint, in which his character was meant to be a martial arts expert. Coburn asked Lee his opinion of the teacher he’d used for that film, and Bruce said he was “pretty far down the bottom” of all the martial arts teachers in the US.
A guest encouraged Lee to demonstrate his famous one-inch punch on Coburn and the actor gamely agreed. Lee placed a cushion on Coburn’s chest and punched him onto a sofa, which he knocked over. “You should have seen the shock on Coburn’s face,” Lee said. “He was so shook up he looked funny. He made us all laugh.” Coburn stood up quickly and immediately asked Lee to give him lessons. “Let’s go. Let’s get to work,” Coburn said.
“He dedicated everything to martial arts,” Coburn, who said Lee was a great friend, remembered. “He thought, moved and lived it. The perfection that he achieved was awe inspiring. We used to work out at his place, and he had a 700-lb bag stuck in his patio. He would kick that thing and double it over. I would kick it and it would double me over,” Coburn said in a TV interview.
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