While in the United States, Bruce Lee taught kung fu to a large number of people, including a few movie stars in Hollywood. Considered the most influential figure in martial arts, Bruce Lee’s five kung fu movies made him a martial arts legend. Lee’s fighting style and philosophy appealed to people of various backgrounds and kickstarted the kung fu craze of the 1970s and 1980s.
Bruce Lee, who trained in Wing Chun and formed his own school of kung fu called Jeet Kune Do, didn’t keep his skills to himself. After training with Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man and leaving Hong Kong for America, Lee taught kung fu to many students over the next several years. Lee received a lot of criticism for teaching kung fu to non-Chinese, but Lee ignored the pushback from Chinese kung fu masters, and his kung fu schools that were available to anyone who wanted to learn. Before becoming a martial arts movie star, Lee’s ambition was to open kung fu schools all over the country.
Lee passed on his skills and ideas to a wide range of people, who used them to become accomplished martial artists in their own right. Many of his former students taught Lee’s Jeet Kune Do in their own schools, ensuring that Lee’s kung fu knowledge lived on. Among his most notable students are kung fu experts Dan Inosanto, Taky Kimura, James Yimm Lee, and Ted Wong. Lee also had a few celebrity students, including several Hollywood actors who trained under Bruce Lee.
Roman Polanski & Sharon Tate
In Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is briefly shown training with Lee. This wasn’t just for the movie; Lee did train Sharon Tate in real life. He also trained director Roman Polanski, who was her husband at the time. They met when Lee worked as the fight choreographer for the 1969 movie, The Wrecking Crew, in which Tate starred. Lee taught both Tate and her co-star Nancy Kwan some of his kung fu skills and later referred to Tate as a “good student.” Tate introduced Lee to Polanski, who was so impressed with Lee that he immediately hired him to be his kung fu teacher. Lee made regular visits to their house to teach them kung fu.
Popular actor, member of the Rat Pack, and one of the most famous singers of his time, Dean Martin trained with Bruce Lee for a short time in the late 1960s in preparation for The Wrecking Crew. Lee had high praise for Tate, but not so much for Dean Martin, who he said was too “lazy” and “clumsy” to properly learn the kicking techniques Lee had hoped to teach him.
Well-known movie and TV actor James Garner met Lee on the set of Marlowe, a Hollywood movie which saw Bruce Lee play a bit role, while Garner played the main character. After the movie was made, Garner attended private lessons where he learned Jeet Kune Do from Lee.
Though best known for his career as a star basketball player in the NBA, the 7’2” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was also featured in several movies and TV shows, including Airplane! His biggest role was in Game of Death, a film he made with Bruce Lee that was never actually completed. Together, Lee and Abdul-Jabbar filmed a now-famous fight scene. Abdul-Jabbar has since spoken publicly about his relationship with Lee, whom he has described as both his teacher and his friend. They met when Abdul-Jabbar was still at UCLA, and Abdul-Jabbar says that Lee taught him “the discipline and spirituality of martial arts.” According to Abdul-Jabbar, Lee’s teachings helped him avoid injuries and play competitively in the NBA.
James Coburn was an A-list actor who starred in movies like The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and Midway. Coburn, who appeared in several westerns, was regarded as one of the “tough guys” of Hollywood and was often mentioned in the same sentence as actors such as Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and more. He was introduced to Bruce Lee at a party shortly after the release of his movie, Our Man Flint, a film made in response to the James Bond craze. After talking to Lee about his opinion on the choreography, Coburn convinced Lee to demonstrate his famous one-inch punch on him. As the story goes, Coburn was amazed by Lee’s speed and power after being knocked backwards. The two became fast friends and were often seen in public together. Coburn became a student of Lee’s and developed a deep appreciation for kung fu. Lee has said that he viewed Coburn as one of his two best celebrity students and that Coburn really understood the “philosophical part” of kung fu. The strength of their relationship is reflected by the fact that Coburn was one of pallbearers at Bruce Lee’s funeral in 1973.
Another celebrity pallbearer at Bruce Lee’s funeral was Steve McQueen, who was a huge star in Hollywood during the 1960s and 1970s, known for such films as Bullitt, The Great Escape, The Getaway, and The Sand Pebbles. His onscreen persona and real-life personality earned him the title of “King of Cool,” and similar to Coburn, McQueen shared a long and storied friendship with Bruce Lee. In 1967, when McQueen was already a big name in Hollywood and Lee was out of work, as The Green Hornet TV series had just ended, McQueen began training under Lee.
Their relationship was a mutual one, with McQueen learning about kung fu from Lee and Lee getting advice about acting from McQueen. Lee has spoken a few times about how impressed he was with McQueen. He felt that there was a great “toughness” in McQueen, who he said “doesn’t know the meaning of quitting.” The only problem was that McQueen had other commitments – such as his acting jobs – and that got in the way of his martial arts training. That being said, Bruce Lee still ranked McQueen up there with Coburn as his best celebrity students. While Coburn was superior when it came to the philosophical elements of kung fu, Steve McQueen was said to be the best in terms of fighting ability.