In the 1960s, Bruce Lee was set to play the lead in a TV series titled Number One Son, but the plan for the show didn’t work out. If it had happened, it would have been his first major role in an American production. Lee played parts in several TV shows over the years, but the only one that he played a major role in was The Green Hornet.
When Lee began to look for work in movies and TV in the United States, he already had some acting experience under his belt. During his youth, he was a child actor who starred in a number of Hong Kong movies. While looking to make a name for himself in Hollywood, Lee was faced with numerous challenges that stood in the way of him getting the recognition he wanted. He auditioned for various roles and also wrote his own scripts, but often to no avail. He famously played Kato in ABC’s The Green Hornet, but when it ended, Lee’s struggles with finding acting work resumed until he temporarily left the United States to join Hong Kong’s kung fu movie industry.
Though Green Hornet was undoubtedly Lee’s most important TV project, he almost landed an even bigger role before being cast as Kato. In 1964, Lee was discovered by television producer William Dozier, who felt that Lee was the perfect choice for a show he was developing. After talking to Lee and arranging a screen test, Dozier decided to make Lee the star of Number One Son, a show about the son of Charlie Chan. Chan was the Chinese-American protagonist of multiple mystery novels and movies that were popular in the 1930s and 1940s. In the books and films, Chan would solve crimes for the Honolulu Police Department.
According to Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Perry, Dozier’s vision for the unmade Bruce Lee TV show was for it to be a “Chinese James Bond” show, meaning that it would have been an action thriller. The first episode would have killed off Chan, and put the focus on his oldest son. This character was to go on a mission to solve his murder and avenge his father’s death. Dozier’s intention was for Lee to play this role. During this time, it would have been normal for a white actor to play a Chinese hero, but Dozier was interested in the unprecedented move of casting an Asian actor as the show’s lead.
Dozier was thoroughly impressed with Lee, but it wasn’t enough to convince ABC to greenlight the series. ABC passed on ordering a pilot for Number One Son, and the show was subsequently scrapped for good. Lee’s adventure as Charlie Chan’s vengeful son could have been huge for his Hollywood movie career, considering that it likely would have featured some thrilling action sequences, not to mention the fact that it would’ve allowed Lee to shine as the star, and not the sidekick (like he was in Green Hornet). But despite its failure being a missed opportunity, the decision did have a silver lining. Dozer didn’t get what he wanted from his Number One Son concept, but he remained committed to using Bruce Lee in a show and managed to get him cast in The Green Hornet, the role that paved the way for him to become a martial arts superstar.