The barons of the silver screen were not slow to recognise the genius of Bruce’s flashing fists; but at first Bruce was naturally cynical about the way Hollywood treated Oriental actors.
When offered the part of Charlie Chan’s Number One Son, Bruce said:
‘That’s what Chinese actors do for a living in Hollywood, isn’t it? Charlie himself is always played by a round-eye wearing six pounds of make-up!’
And when asked how he landed an early role as strong-arm side-kick to an American TV detective hero, Bruce replied with typical wit:
‘I’ll tell you how I got that job. The hero’s name was Brit Reed, and I was the only Chinese guy in all of California who could pronounce Brit Reed, that’s why.’
One TV job at least, however, captured the young Lee’s imagination:
‘I played a Chinese boxing instructor who was grooming this blind dude for a really important street fight, and I had this really wonderful piece of Stirling Silliphant script to work from. That man is the greatest screenwriter of all time and he wrote me a beautiful monologue. You want to hear it? –
“. Listen man, you can’t see but you can hear. Listen to the wind. The wind. Listen to the birds. Can you hear them? You have to become the wind. Empty your mind, man. You know how water fills a cup. You have to be ready, man. You have to think about nothing. You have to become fluid. You have to become nothing”‘
Proof, if proof were needed, of the sensitive eastern soul behind the fighting mettle of the Little Dragon. But when it came to show-biz politics, Bruce displayed plenty of western common sense:
‘Film producers in Hollywood thought they could make use of my martial art and hoped that I would act in their films. The Green Hornet is one of the examples that I was being made use of. I discovered at that time acting in that kind of film was meaningless because the roles didn’t fit me. That didn’t mean that I could not play such roles, the situation was only because of my yellow face.’
‘I guess I’m the only guy who ventured away from there (the Hong-Kong film industry) and became an actor. To most people, including the actors and actresses, Hollywood is like a magic kingdom. It’s beyond everyone’s reach and when I made it they thought I’d accomplished an incredible feat.’
Before launching off on the whirlwind film career that was to make him the biggest star in the world, Bruce taught the martial arts to several Hollywood admirers, about whom he had a thing or two to say..
‘James Coburn, definitely, is not a fighter. lover, yes! I mean he’s really a super nice guy, a very peaceful man who learns the martial arts because he finds it is like a mirror to reflect himself. I personally believe that all types of knowledge, I don’t care what it is, ultimately means self-knowledge, and that is what he is after.
Now Steve McQueen can be a very good martial artist, but I hope that it will cool him down a little bit, maybe make him a little bit more mellow and more peaceful like Jim.
Right now he is still on the level of enjoying it as an excitement, like his motor-cycle and his sports car, some form of release for his anger, or whatever, you name it.’