Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee's Friendship
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
When Bruce Lee decided to move his family to Los Angeles from Seattle, Washington in 1966, he took a role in "The Green Hornet" and shortly before the show ended, opened up a martial arts school in the city. He taught private lessons to a host of celebrities, including Steve McQueen.
Through their teacher-student relationship, Lee and McQueen bonded as friends. McQueen’s best friend, Jay Sebring, was a client of Lee’s and that’s how they were first introduced.
They really connected because they were the same kind of guy, rough and tumble coming from similar backgrounds. McQueen taught Lee some of the basics about acting, and Lee aspired to become as famous and successful as McQueen. Here's a clip of Bruce Lee being interviewed when asked about his relationship with Steve McQueen:
What Lee wanted more than anything was a new sports car. He neglected his old Chevy Nova, hardly ever cleaning it. The only thing he liked was the sticker on the back window with the inscription: "This Car Is Protected by the Green Hornet." (Lee made his U.S. debut playing Kato in the 1960s ABC series.)
Hollywood hairstylist Jay Sebring would let Lee race his Shelby Cobra along Mulholland Drive. Lee admired the Cobra, but what he really desired was a Porsche 911S Targa, because McQueen had one. On Aug. 26, 1968, he visited Bob Smith's Volkswagen-Porsche dealership in Hollywood for a test drive. As soon as he got home, he called up McQueen in Palm Springs. "Steve, I'm going to get a Porsche like yours," Lee declared.
"Look, Bruce, let me take you for a ride in mine when I get back," McQueen cautioned. "It's a hot car, but if you don't know what you are doing you can get into trouble with this thing."
McQueen could have made his living as a Grand Prix driver, while Lee was by all accounts a menace behind the wheel. ("He was just way too fast," says Dan Inosanto, Lee's training partner. "It would scare me.") Lee was expecting a joy ride, but McQueen hoped to frighten Lee out of buying a Porsche. Here is a clip of Bruce Lee's friend recalling the story;
McQueen picked up Lee and drove up the San Fernando Valley to Mulholland Drive. "OK, Bruce, you ready?" McQueen said. "Yes, I'm all set. Let's go!" McQueen peeled away, grinding through the gears as he twisted and turned along the winding, dangerous path high in the Santa Monica mountains. "What do you think of this power, Bruce?" McQueen shouted over the engine roar. Lee said nothing. "Watch this!" McQueen yelled as he slalomed to the edge of the precipice. "Isn't that great, Bruce? See how it handles. Now watch how I slide it!" McQueen put the Porsche into a tail slide as he went right to the edge. "Isn't that great, Bruce?" No reply.
"Watch this, Bruce. Sucker will do a mean 180," McQueen announced as he geared it up, spun it around, and stopped the car. He looked over: "What do you think, Bruce?" But Lee wasn't in the seat. McQueen looked down and saw Lee huddled in the footwell with his hands over his head. "McQueen, you sonovabitch!" Lee shouted as he pulled himself back into the seat. "McQueen, I'll bloody kill you! I'll kill you, McQueen! I'm gonna kill you!"
McQueen saw the look of rage on Lee's face and it terrified him. He knew how deadly Lee could be when he was angry. So McQueen raced back up Mulholland Drive as fast as he could. "Bruce, calm down!" McQueen shouted.
"Steve, slow down," Lee cried out. "You won't hit me, will you, Bruce?" McQueen pleaded. "No, no," said Lee. "You won't hurt me will you?" McQueen asked again. "No, no!" yelled Lee. "Just stop the car. Stop the car!" McQueen finally pulled over to the side, and Lee said, "I will never drive with you again, McQueen. Never!"
They spent time training, pranked one another, and had a bit of a rivalry, but their friendship withstood the bumps in the road. When Bruce Lee died, Steve McQueen was a pallbearer at his funeral. Here is some rare footage from the funeral:
Author Matthew Polly who wrote "Bruce Lee: A Life", was told by Lee’s widow Linda that the two men shared a lot in common. “They really connected because they were the same kind of guy, rough and tumble coming from similar backgrounds.” McQueen taught Lee some of the basics about acting, and Lee aspired to become as famous and successful as McQueen.
They spent time training, pranked one another, and had a bit of a rivalry, but their friendship withstood the bumps in the road. That’s why Lee’s death hit a nerve.
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