Ah, maybe everyone really is kung fu fighting.
The two actors were very different in a lot of ways but also had one very important commonality — both were two of the biggest stars in the film industry at the time. Bruce Lee was famous for his role in martial arts movies, including the classic “Enter the Dragon.”
Steve McQueen was known for roles like “The Magnificent Seven, “The Great Escape,” “Bullitt,” and “The Thomas Crown Affair.”
Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee Kung Fu Lessons
The two existed on opposite ends of the Hollywood world. Somehow, however, they would still get acquainted.
It was between his time on “The Green Hornet” in 1967 and then his eventual breakout role on “The Big Boss” in 1971 that he met McQueen. At the time, McQueen was already incredibly famous. He was also 10 years older than Bruce Lee.
In the hopes of finding a common interest, McQueen hired Lee to teach him kung fu.
From there, an incredibly unsteady friendship was born. According to Screenrant, Marshall Terrill, the McQueen biographer, has stated what it was like for people to grow close to Steve McQueen. He was allegedly “too paranoid” to make friends. The time the two spent together was mostly kung fu training. The two men would soon discover they actually had a lot in common too.
Bruce Lee taught a variety of celebrities after he moved from Los Angeles to Seattle in 1966 and opened a martial arts school in the city.
From there, a rivalry based on friendship was born. Both actors learned a lot about being the best of the best in any circumstances. According to Closer Weekly, it all intensified while Lee was working on developing “The Silent Flute” with James Coburn. He wanted McQueen in the movie, but McQueen was quick to deny the role because he didn’t want to help “make other people stars.”
Not very friendly of McQueen, after all.
A Rivalry Friendship Til Death
It seemed that was just the vibe of the friendship, though. A close bond mixed with a massive rivalry. After all, Steve McQueen did serve as the pallbearer at Bruce Lee’s funeral.
Bruce Lee passed away in July of 1973 at the age of 32. He had one funeral in China and another in the U.S. The first funeral had more than 10,000 people in attendance in China. Eventually, his body was shipped to the U.S. to be buried in Washington state.
According to the Matthew Polly book “Bruce Lee: A Life,” McQueen rarely attended funerals. He had known Sharon Tate for years, for example, and did not attend her funeral after she was murdered.
McQueen flew to the funeral and apparently said, “I cared about Bruce. I felt like saying goodbye to a friend.”