The road to Bruce Lee’s screen stardom began in Oakland, California, where his Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute began attracting the attention of the martial arts world. His appearance in the first-ever Long Beach International Karate Championships in 1964 wowed the audience with demonstrations of his “one-inch punch” and astute lectures regarding his fighting philosophy. One of the attendees was celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring who spread the word in Hollywood about this amazing martial artist. William Dozier, producer of the hit show Batman, got hold of some tournament footage and had Lee come in for a screen test.
Bruce Lee screen-tested for the role of Charlie Chan’s son in a series to be titled “Number One Son,” but the series was scuttled. However, the success of Batman gave Dozier the go ahead to launch his new hero/sidekick series, The Green Hornet, which was already a successful comics and media franchise. It featured Britt Reid, owner/publisher of The Daily Sentinel, who fights crime as “The Green Hornet.” His secret remains unknown except to his faithful valet, Kato—a kung-fu expert and driver of “Black Beauty,” the duo’s well-armed car. Bruce Lee would be Kato.
Filming immediately met a hitch. Lee refused to fight in slug matches as seen in typical westerns. The essence of his martial arts philosophy was efficiency not sloppy punching. But Lee’s moves were a blur to the TV cameras. So, he shot his fight scenes in slow motion and grudgingly included flashy flying kicks for visual impact.
It was the first time kung fu was seen in the West outside Chinatown movie theaters. Younger viewers were astonished by what they saw. Bruce Lee’s Kato became the series’ real star and he was soon making personal appearances across the country. Van Williams, who played The Green Hornet, took Lee’s fame in stride. They became good friends and Williams went to bat with the show’s producers to give Lee more screen time and lines. In turn, Lee taught Williams some basic techniques that he is sometimes used in the series.
In 1967, a two-parter was shot in which The Green Hornet and Kato teamed up with Batman and Robin. Batman was the more popular of the two shows and the fight took place on that show. The original script had Batman and Robin winning the fight. Bruce Lee wouldn’t have it. He walked off the show. As a compromise, the scene was rewritten to have the fight end in a draw. On set, leading up to the fight scene, Lee played a joke on Burt Ward as Robin. Lee didn’t say a word, he just stared at Ward and acted angry all day. When they started filming Lee acted like he was going to fight for real, which panicked Ward until Lee laughingly revealed it was all a joke.
Despite considerable interest in Bruce Lee, The Green Hornet aired only one season from 1966-1967. It never found a larger-than-niche audience.
Post by Leslie Waggener, Archivist, American Heritage Center.