Friday, May 13, 2022

Bruce Lee's Television Career

Today Bruce Lee is best known as a movie star, who had appeared in such films as The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), and Enter the Dragon (1973). While Bruce Lee had begun his career as a child star in Hong Kong films, he began his career in the United States in television. Indeed, Kato on the 1966 TV series The Green Hornet remains one of his best known roles.

Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco on November 27 1940 while his father, famous Cantonese opera star Lee Hoi-chen, was there for an international opera tour. Bruce Lee was only four months old when his family returned to Hong Kong. Born to a family who worked in entertainment, Bruce Lee made his film debut when he was only a baby. He appeared in Golden Gate Girl (1941). From the late Forties to the late Fifties, Bruce Lee was a highly successful child star in Hong Kong. He had appeared in twenty films by the time he was 18.

Bruce Lee was first exposed to the martial arts St. Francis Xavier's College in Hong Kong, where Brother Edward, coach of the boxing team, acted as a mentor to him. It was after young Bruce was involved in various street brawls that his family decided that he required training in the martial arts. By 1958 he was skilled enough in the martial arts to win the Hong Kong schools boxing tournament. It was in 1959 that his family decided to send Bruce Lee to the United States. It was in Seattle that he would open his first martial arts school. He also began competing in various martial arts tournaments.

It was at a martial arts exhibition in Long Beach in 1964 that he was discovered by television producer William Dozier. Mr. Dozier was developing a show to be called Number One Son. Described as "a Chinese James Bond," the show would follow the adventures of Charlie Chan's eldest son, Lee Chan, hence the title. Bruce Lee even made a screen test for the show, which is available on YouTube. Unfortunately, ABC ultimately passed on the show.

William Dozier would go onto produce the smash hit TV show Batman. When it came time for him to cast his next television series, The Green Hornet, he had Bruce Lee in mind. The Green Hornet was based on the radio show of the same name that ran from 1936 to 1952. It centred on the vigilante of that name, whose alter ego was the publisher of the Daily Sentinel newspaper, Britt Reid. The Green Hornet was assisted in his fight against crime by his valet Kato.

The television series The Green Hornet differed from the radio show in some respects, but it still retained the idea of crusading newspaper publisher Britt Reid fighting crime as The Green Hornet and Kato assisting him in his fight against crime. Van Williams, who had appeared on the TV shows Bourbon Street Beat and Surfside 6, played Britt Reid/The Green Hornet. Bruce Lee played Kato. Bruce Lee would have an impact on both on the character of Kato and the television show. First, Bruce Lee insisted that Kato would not be a stereotype. He would not speak in broken English and he would not run around in a pigtail. Second, while it was originally planned for The Green Hornet to feature fisticuffs of the sort featured in any other American television show (including Batman), Bruce Lee insisted on the using the Chinese martial arts with which he was most familiar. As it turned out, Bruce Lee moved so swiftly in the show's fight sequences that the camera did not capture his movements. He then actually had to slow down for the show.

Regardless, Kato became the first character on an American show to regularly use Asian martial arts. Bruce Lee's appearance in the series ultimately led to increased interest in Asian martial arts across the Unites States. Van Williams and Bruce Lee as The Green Hornet and Kato would appear on producer William Dozier's other show, Batman, three times. The first time was a Batclimb cameo in "The Spell of Tut." For those unfamiliar with the TV series Batman, a Batclimb cameo occurred when Batman and Robin were climbing a building and some celebrity or popular character opened a window. The second and third times The Green Hornet and Kato appeared on Batman were in the episodes "A Piece of the Action" and "Batman's Satisfaction." It was the episode "Batman's Satisfaction" that featured a fight between Kato and Robin. The script actually called for Robin to win, perhaps because Batman was the more popular of the two shows and, after all, this was an episode of Batman. Bruce Lee absolutely refused to have Kato win the fight, and even walked off the set to make his point. The scene was ultimately rewritten so that the fight ended in a draw, particularly given no one believed Kato would lose in a fight with Robin.

Sadly, The Green Hornet was scheduled on Friday night against the popular Western/James Bond spoof The Wild Wild West on CBS and Tarzan on NBC. Its ratings were then disappointing. Even The Green Hornet and Kato's appearances on Batman did not help the show in the Nielsens. It was ultimately cancelled at the end of the 1966-1967 season.

This was hardly the end of Bruce Lee's career in American television. He guest starred on Ironside in the episode "Tagged for Murder" on October 26 1967 on NBC. In the episode Bruce Lee played a karate instructor, Leon Soo, in San Francisco's Chinatown. It was well over a year later that Bruce Lee guest starred on the Blondie episode "Pick on Someone Your Own Size" on January 9 1969 on CBS. Both Dagwood (Will Hutchins) and Alexander (Peter Robbins) are the victim of bullies, so Dagwood decides to enroll in martial arts classes. Bruce Lee played a karate instructor in the episode.

The Here Come the Brides episode "Marriage, Chinese Style" is unusual among Bruce Lee's television appearances in that it did not centre on his skill in martial arts. This episode centred on a Chinese woman named Toy Quin (Linda Dangcil) who has arrived in town for an arranged marriage. Her fiancé was played by Bruce Lee, Lin Sung. As it turns out, Lin Sung does not want to marry a woman he has never met. While martial arts was not the central focus of Bruce Lee's character in the episode, he does get to engage in some martial arts fight scenes. The episode aired on April 19 1969 on ABC.

Bruce Lee's final appearance in scripted American television would be a recurring role on the show Longsteet. Longstreet starred James Franciscus as insurance instructor Mike Longsteet, who had been blinded when a bomb exploded. Bruce Lee played Li Tsung, an antiques dealer and expert in martial arts who trains Longstreet in martial arts. Longstreet featured Jeet Kune Do, the martial arts philosophy developed by Bruce Lee, well before Enter the Dragon. Unfortunately, Longstreet was not a hit in the ratings and was cancelled at the end of the 1971-1972 season.

In 1971 Bruce Lee appeared in the Hong Kong martial arts movie The Big Boss, which propelled him to stardom across Asia. His 1972 movie, Fist of Fury, made Bruce Lee a star in the United States. Longstreet would then be his last appearance on American television. It was on July 20 1973 that Bruce Lee died at the age of 32. While Bruce Lee would become best known for his movies, his appearances on television arguably paved the way for his film superstardom. Indeed, it was in part the success of The Green Hornet in Hong Kong that would lead to his contract to appear in two films produced by Golden Harvest. It seems possible, then, that without Kato, there would never have been The Big Boss.

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