At the time of his death, Bruce Lee made his mark in Chinese cinema and posthumously went on to become a star in the American film world. But he started making a huge impression in Tinseltown in the ‘60s and ‘70s and built lasting friendships with some of the era’s most famous actors.
James Coburn, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sharon Tate, and Steve McQueen—aka “The King of Cool”—were among them. McQueen, who died seven years after Lee, was one of the industry’s most popular leading men, especially in action films. Lee and McQueen had much in common and were thick as thieves.
How did Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen become friends?
One of the stories you may have heard is that Lee and McQueen were both good acquaintances of Jay Sebring, the celebrity hairstylist who was tragically murdered along with Tate by Charles Manson’s followers.
When Lee first relocated to California, Sebring was one of his private kung fu clients and connected him with McQueen. McQueen soon became one of Lee’s students. Slowly, they became friends.
Known for toughness on and off screen, McQueen dealt with an abusive stepfather and as a teen, was part of a street gang. He learned how to fight at a young age and found himself in physical altercations when he was in the military too.
According to Matthew Polly’s Bruce Lee: A Life, Lee was somewhat of a “gang leader” in school. Polly wrote Lee “offered protection to those willing to follow him.” But the ones who did admired him and Lee had a reputation for challenging other tough kids to fights.
With that in mind, Lee and McQueen had similar natures and a lot in common. Per Polly, Lee said about McQueen: “It took quite a while before I got to know him. But once he accepted me as a friend, we became real close.”
They trained hard together
As McQueen’s martial arts instructor, Lee admired his friend’s tenacity and dedication to the practice. They linked up for their first session in 1967 and continued—when McQueen’s acting schedule permitted—for years. Lee said McQueen would train for hours on end without any breaks, and would even push through injuries.
Polly wrote there was one time when McQueen cut his toe while training with Lee outdoors at home. It was so bad, blood was gushing and skin was hanging off. Lee advised him to stop, but McQueen wanted to keep going.
Lee looked to McQueen for acting guidance, and would study him or talk to him about how to fuse his fighting skills into a character. McQueen shared some of his wisdom about the art and show business.
Lee and McQueen played around like brothers
After becoming so close, the two had a bond that was like brothers, and while they respected each other for their crafts, Lee often looked up to McQueen.
There was a point in his career when he wanted to buy a Porsche just like his friend’s, but McQueen tried to talk him out of it. Only, he did it by taking Lee for a scary ride.
A famous story about McQueen and Lee has to do with their cruise on Mulholland Drive. Polly recounted the tale and wrote that McQueen picked Lee up and took him for a hair-raising spin up the road, hitting the curves at high speeds and braking fast.
He spun the car and did slides with it, scaring the crap out of Lee. “McQueen you sonovab*tch! McQueen, I bloody kill you!” Polly wrote. After seeing how angry Lee was, McQueen sped back to their starting point and tried to calm Lee down. “I will never drive with you again, McQueen. Never!”
But their moment of “sibling rivalry” didn’t dissuade Lee from wanting a Porsche. He bought a red one at the tail end of 1968 and though his driving skills worried his wife, Lee was quite happy about it.