A number of Hollywood celebrities benefited much from learning kung fu from Bruce Lee – but Dean Martin was not among them. Martin, a legendary singer and comedian, was one of the most popular stars of the 1950s and 1960s. During those years, he encountered a tremendous amount of success in the comedy, music, TV, and movie industries.
Dean Martin was one of several A-list actors to come in contact with Bruce Lee during the 1960s. At this time, Lee had yet to find a foothold in movies. While struggling to establish himself as a star in Hollywood, Lee cultivated friendships with several famous actors in the area due to his expertise in martial arts. Several of them had turned to Lee to learn the style of kung fu that he created in 1964, Jeet Kune Do. Due in large part to word of mouth, Lee’s celebrity clientele grew to include quite a few big names, such as Roman Polanski, James Coburn, James Garner, and Steve McQueen.
One of the actors Lee trained with was Dean Martin, but under different circumstances than usual. In 1968, Lee was hired as a “karate advisor” for a spy comedy called The Wrecking Crew, starring Martin. Since the movie was to feature several fights, a person of Lee’s talents was needed to coordinate the martial arts sequences. To that end, Lee was responsible for properly preparing The Wrecking Crew’s stars for their scenes by teaching them to perform the necessary moves. Bruce Lee biographer Matthew Polly wrote in his book, Bruce Lee: A Life, that Lee had no trouble working with Nancy Kwan, Sharon Tate, or Elke Sommer. He considered Tate and Kwan to be fast learners, but the same couldn’t be said for the movie’s lead.
Apparently, Lee tried to teach Martin some kicking techniques, but the actor unfortunately proved to be a difficult student. According to Polly’s book, Lee claimed that Martin was “too lazy” and “too clumsy” to learn his kung fu moves. Lee also blamed the unpleasant experience partially on Martin’s on-set drinking. After a while, Lee came to realize that his training with Martin wasn’t going to work out and decided to seek an alternative path. As a result, Lee convinced fellow martial artist Mike Stone to serve as Martin’s double during action scenes.
While Lee did maintain contact with Sharon Tate and Nancy Kwan after filming for The Wrecking Crew completed, it’s presumed that he didn’t work with Dean Martin again. While celebrities like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, McQueen, and Coburn welcomed Bruce Lee’s teachings and devoted much of their time to their development as martial artists, it would seem that not all of his students shared the same level of interest. The brief time the iconic singer spent with Bruce Lee was likely his last experience with kung fu.