Bruce Lee’s first Hollywood job was a Dean Martin movie, but his involvement interestingly didn’t include acting. The martial arts legend spent a great deal of time working in movies and TV, but didn’t star in an American film until he played the lead character in Enter the Dragon. His roles in Hollywood movies were rather limited.
For a significant portion of the 1960s, Lee struggled to get noticed by studio executives, directors, and producers. Playing Kato in ABC’s The Green Hornet show in 1967 boosted his profile tremendously, but the role didn’t immediately launch him into stardom. When The Green Hornet was canceled, Lee made unsuccessful efforts to create his own movie and TV projects, while also appearing in various TV shows, including Ironside, Blondie, Here Comes The Brides, and Longstreet. Brief guest appearances and recurring roles were unfortunately the most he was able to get from the TV industry during this time. It wasn’t until after he left for Hong Kong to make kung fu movies that his acting career really took off.
Before becoming a major star, Lee used his skills to assist in the production of 1968’s The Wrecking Crew, a spy comedy starring Dean Martin. Thanks in large part to a recommendation from screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (one of Bruce Lee’s many celebrity students), Lee landed a job as the “karate advisor” for The Wrecking Crew. Basically, Lee’s position as karate advisor made him responsible for handling the fight choreography and training the actors. Since its action-heavy story involved secret agents and spies engaging in hand-to-hand combat, having its characters look like well-trained fighters was a priority for the film.
Lee’s job on The Wrecking Crew allowed him to work closely with several movie stars, including Elke Sommer, Sharon Tate, Nancy Kwan, and of course, Dean Martin himself. Lee had training sessions with each of the actors and taught them a number of kung fu moves for them to utilize in their fight scenes. According to Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly, Lee had a positive experience working with Sommer, Kwan, and Tate, but struggled to teach kung fu to Martin, who Lee humorously referred to as “clumsy” and “lazy”. Lee’s difficulties with Martin resulted in him arranging for a friend to serve as the actor’s stunt double.
The movie didn’t lead to any starring roles for Lee, but it’s worth noting that Lee’s connection to The Wrecking Crew was the very beginning of a different martial artist’s movie career. Years ahead of Lee’s decision to cast karate champion Chuck Norris in The Way of the Dragon, Lee got Norris a bit part and one speaking line in The Wrecking Crew. As for Bruce Lee, his work on The Wrecking Crew was followed by similar jobs on A Walk In The Spring Rain and Marlowe, with the latter movie actually giving him a real role in the story and some fight scenes of his own.