The Truth About Bruce Lee's Relationship With Steve McQueen

In the 1960s, Steve McQueen was hot. Young, handsome, and a total badass, but also a terror behind the wheel of a car, unless he was actually competing on an actual track, where he drove to win.

And he was driven to win. He was fiercely competitive, personally and professionally. He decided early on he was going to be a star, and he focused on that with laser-beam precision. After small parts in live and filmed television, sometimes not even credited, he hit with a starring role in The Blob, about an alien — well, blob. His own TV series, a western titled Wanted: Dead or Alive, was followed by a series of films like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape.

Enter Bruce Lee, martial artist extraordinaire. He was also a philosopher, teacher, and actor. He tried to break into Hollywood with the role of Kato on the TV series The Green Hornet (which included a crossover episode with Adam West on Batman) but the show ended after only one season. Lee turned to teaching, hoping to pick up some celebrity clients. James Coburn was one; he met Lee at an anniversary party at McQueen's house. James Garner was another, who trained with Lee during their work together on the movie Marlowe, in which Lee very impressively leaps and kicks out a ceiling light in Garner's office (and turns the rest of the place into a shambles). Steve McQueen was another of Lee's students in those days.

Some actors wanted to learn self-defense. McQueen was different.

McQueen's friendship with the King of Kung-Fu

Lee admired McQueen's toughness and potential, but between film projects, business interests, and racing hobbies, the actor was constantly on the move. "Steve would be damned good if he could work out more, but the sonovagun never stays home," Lee said.

And there was that competition thing, too, with McQueen giving his picture to Lee with the inscription, "To Bruce Lee, one of my favorite fans."

Eventually, teacher and student became friends. There was the time Lee had decided to buy a high-end Porsche. McQueen owned one and worried that the car would be too much for Lee to handle, so he took the martial artist for a ride to dissuade him. McQueen's driving terrified Lee, who ended up on the floor of the car, his hands over his head, and screaming, "I'm going to kill you!" Which probably terrified McQueen. And well it should.

Though the two drifted apart over time, they kept in touch and cherished their friendship. McQueen was a man who tried to avoid funerals, but when Lee died in 1973, McQueen was one of his pallbearers.