The Truth About Bruce Lee's Green Hornet Role

This wasn't Inspector Clouseau's Cato, which was spelled with a C, with Burt Kwouk leaping from ambush. This is Kato, with a K, with legendary fighter Bruce Lee behind the mask. It was also American network television in the late 1960s, part of an attempt to ride the pop culture tidal wave that was Adam West as Batman. The program was The Green Hornet, based on a character that actually predated Batman by a few years — the original was a radio program that debuted in 1936, created by the man who had given us The Lone Ranger. (Fun fact: Britt Reid, the character who fought crime as The Green Hornet, was written as The Lone Ranger's grand-nephew.) While Batman was campy fun, with most of the entertainment world lining up to play either villains or cameos, Hornet made the mistake of trying to play it straight, with Grant Williams sternly fighting crime, assisted by none other than Bruce Lee as his valet/sidekick and one-size-fits-all backup plan, Kato (with a K).

Williams had a few credits to his name, but probably was cast more for his chin than anything else. Lee, too, was far from a household name, at least in America — he'd been a child actor in Hong Kong, with about 20 films to his credit, per Biography — and Hornet let him demonstrate his remarkable ability and ability as a martial artist and actor.

Grant Williams was a fan, too

Lee owed that break to a "hairdresser to the stars" named Jay Sebring, who'd seen Lee speak and demonstrate at the first Long Beach International Karate Championships in August 1964. Sebring — no surprise — was astounded by Lee's performance, according to Newsweek, and talked up Lee to Hollywood. Among those hearing about the martial artist was William Dozier, producer of Batman, who saw footage from the championship and gave Lee a screen test, and then the role of Kato in The Green Hornet for the 1966-67 TV season.

And Lee was nothing short of superb. His charisma, athleticism, skill, and discipline, combined with simple screen presence, made Kato the breakout personality of the series. Grant Williams, the ostensible star, generously encouraged writers to give Lee more to do. When the show was syndicated in Hong Kong it was retitled The Kato Show. In a crossover episode with Batman, Kato was supposed to face off against Burt Ward as Robin — and lose. The scene was re-written so that they ended up in a draw. Was even that plausible? "Lucky it is a TV show," Lee said.