Out of all the celebrities Bruce Lee trained, James Coburn appears to have been the best – but with Steve McQueen not too far behind. When Coburn trained under Bruce Lee in the 1960s and 1970s, Coburn was already an established A-list actor and one of Hollywood’s top Western stars. Among his best-known films in his long career are The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Our Man Flint.
James Coburn was a close friend of Lee’s and one of several big names in Hollywood to learn Jeet Kune Do from the martial arts icon. Before his kung fu movie career kicked off in Hong Kong, Lee looked for work in Hollywood while simultaneously running martial arts schools. Partially due to word of mouth, Lee became quite popular with many celebrities. In addition to Coburn, Steve McQueen, Roman Polanski, James Garner, Lee Marvin, Sharon Tate and Stirling Silliphant were all trained by Lee. NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was also counted amongst Lee’s most notable students.
One celebrity student in particular – James Coburn – was arguably Bruce Lee’s best pupil. Evidence for this stems from the words of the kung fu legend himself. When asked about which of his Hollywood students was the best in an interview, Lee struggled to choose between Coburn and McQueen, but seemingly put them above Garner, Marvin, and others. He commended Steve McQueen’s toughness and determination but was quick to say that Coburn had the best grasp on the “philosophical part” of kung fu, which is of course a fundamental aspect and an important building block toward becoming a capable martial artist. Though Lee hesitated to definitively pick one over the other, it does seem Coburn had the edge on McQueen and the others in key areas.
Lee biographer Matthew Polly declared in his book, Bruce Lee: A Life, that James Coburn was Lee’s “most dedicated Hollywood student”. He took over 106 private lessons over the course of three years and even turned one of his rooms into a gym that resembled Lee’s, just to further his training and improve his overall strength and endurance. Ever since Coburn experienced Lee’s one-inch punch firsthand at a party, Coburn had been determined to learn Lee’s skills.
As for McQueen, he was said to possess tremendous amount energy that impressed even Lee. This indicates that of the two, he may have had the most potential. The problem though is that he was held back by his schedule. According to Bruce Lee himself, McQueen would have been “damned good” if he had just spent more time training. McQueen was a hard worker when he had time to train, but he didn’t devote nearly as much of it to Jeet Kune Do as Coburn, who remained in Lee’s inner circle longer than McQueen. McQueen may have been a close second, but given his years of dedication and the understanding he had cultivated, James Coburn became Bruce Lee’s best Hollywood student.