Elvis Presley’s bodyguard inadvertently helped launch Bruce Lee’s legendary movie career. Ed Parker, one of the most well-known American martial artists of all time, shares important connections to not only the kung fu legend, but also with the King of Rock n’ Roll. Parker, who died in 1990, enjoyed friendships with both Lee and Presley during his lifetime.
Parker has a distinguished reputation as the founder of American Kenpo, a popular, westernized version of karate designed for street-fighting. Over the years, he opened numerous schools in the United States and made Kenpo a major form of martial arts. Similar to Bruce Lee, Parker had a number of celebrity students, including Robert Wagner, Audie Murphy, Warren Beatty, and more. But his most high-profile student was without question Elvis Presley, who had a well-documented interest in karate. In fact, a significant portion of what he learned actually came from Parker. In addition to being Presley’s personal martial arts instructor, Parker worked as his bodyguard in the 1970s. As a result, Parker was often by his side when Presley was doing concert tours.
Before getting a job as one of Presley’s bodyguards, Parker played a substantial role in the event that put a different icon — Bruce Lee — on the path to stardom. Parker, who was already a well-respected name in martial arts circles in the 1960s, invited experts from all around to participate in an event he founded, which was called the First International Karate Tournament. Held in Long Beach, California in 1964, the tournament hosted dozens of talented martial artists. One of the fighters he reached out to was Lee, who he had heard about from a friend. Lee accepted Parker’s invitation but wasn’t asked to compete. After seeing what Lee could do, Parker requested for Lee to do a martial arts demonstration to the crowd. It was this that ultimately got Lee the attention he needed to get into American movies and TV.
The demonstration that Lee put on at the karate tournament consisted of multiple Wing Chun moves, the one-inch punch, and more. Celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, who was in attendance, took notice of Lee’s talents and acquired from Parker a tape of the demonstration. When TV producer William Dozier saw it, he was so impressed that he made efforts to make Lee the star of a TV show titled Charlie Chan’s Number One Son. Plans for the series didn’t work out, but Dozier kept trying and got Lee the role of Kato in The Green Hornet. One thing led to another and within a few years, Lee was an international martial arts superstar.
Co-starring in The Green Hornet is widely credited as the project that restarted Lee’s career in the movie industry — and justifiably so — but what made all of it possible was Parker’s Long Beach karate tournament. If Parker hadn’t recognized Lee’s potential and taken a chance on him, there’s no telling what would have happened with his career. Parker deciding to put Bruce Lee on such a grand stage is what set it all in motion.