Warner Bros; Columbia Pictures
Like most things, pop culture icons usually have a shelf life, but in Hollywood, there are exceptions. The legend surrounding some actors have gone far beyond their lives and careers, capturing the imagination of generations of movie fans that, in some ways, defies logical explanation. Yet here they are, constantly being discovered by a new audience who ensure that their names will live on. Two of them are Steve McQueen, known as the King of Cool, and Bruce Lee, undisputed master of the martial arts.
McQueen's credits include films like The Great Escape, Bullitt, The Getaway, and Papillon, while Lee made his name in kung fu films from his native Hong Kong such as The Chinese Connection and The Big Boss, before exploding in America in his first and (sadly) only studio release, Enter the Dragon. Both men had to overcome seemingly impossible odds — McQueen a seriously abusive childhood, Lee struggling to make it as a star in a country at a time when it just didn't seem likely it would ever happen for him. Two people that, on the surface, couldn't seem more different, yet were united spiritually by a determination to achieve their goals, and as people by the fact that Lee actually became a martial arts instructor to McQueen, which bonded them. At the same time, there was a serious level of competition that existed between them, much of it stemming from the fact that McQueen was extremely territorial over the status and success he had achieved in Hollywood, while Lee made no secret of the fact that he absolutely wanted what McQueen had and would do what he had to, to achieve it.
Weighing in on that rivalry are authors Marshall Terrill and Matthew Polly, who have written the respective exhaustive biographies, Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon and Bruce Lee: A Life.
"Lee’s wife insists there was no competition, but I assure you there was," Marshall exclusively explains. "There always is when you get into that stratosphere. It wasn’t an outright rivalry, I would say, but there was definitely an undercurrent there of it. At the same time, I have to say that these two guys really liked each other. They respected each other, and that’s foremost. Where the competition started was when Bruce Lee pretty much announced to Steve that he wanted to become a major movie star, and I feel like McQueen probably said, 'Well, now you’re encroaching on my territory.' But McQueen was not unique in that way. I've read biographies of Warren Beatty and Robert Redford, and I saw the same sort of characteristics in those guys."
Liking Marshall's description of the relationship between the actors as being a form of "professional sibling rivalry," Matthew believes that McQueen used fellow actor Paul Newman as his personal benchmark for what he wanted to achieve. "Newman had slightly better parts, even though McQueen was the bigger box office draw," he suggests, "but as soon as I read that description of them, I was, like, 'Oh, that’s what Bruce was to Steve.' He was his kung fu coach, and so he had something Steve wanted, which was to be better at fighting. And Steve admired how tough Bruce was and what a great fighter he was, and he wanted to be that good a fighter himself. I think Lee did the same with McQueen, which is to say he was the younger brother in the sibling rivalry. There was mutual love and respect and affection between McQueen and Lee. After all, McQueen went to Lee’s funeral and he hated to attend funerals — famously skipping [friend] Sharon Tate’s after the Manson murders."
"What’s so interesting is that even though he served as one of Lee's pallbearers, McQueen never gave a quote about Bruce Lee," Marshall observes. "James Coburn did tell me it was a very emotional funeral, but McQueen was the only guy that didn’t cry or show his emotions. But that’s who McQueen was. And even though he didn’t show much emotion at the funeral, I think it must have deeply impacted him, because there were a lot of friendships in his life where people did die. There’s actually a huge body count. He had a drug dealer friend who died the same year of a heart attack, and he had Jay Sebring and Sharon Tate, who died in the Manson murders. He was very close to them and was supposed to go over there that night, but at the last minute didn’t. So McQueen saw a lot of darkness in his life, and this was just one of those episodes.
"And as far as him not ever talking about Bruce Lee," he adds, "McQueen didn’t want anybody to know that he knew karate. If you had to get into a fight, he didn’t want anybody to know and he didn’t want that to be used against him in a court of law. That's what his last karate instructor, Pat Johnson, told me; that he wanted the element of surprise and that he didn’t want to be sued."
Points out Matthew, "Bruce wanted everything that Steve McQueen had. He didn’t just want one aspect, he wanted to a bigger star than Steve McQueen."
Getting to the top, Marshall emphasizes, "is such a struggle that you don’t want anybody to knock you off your perch, right? And Bruce Lee was saying to him, 'I plan to be the world’s biggest superstar.’ The ironic thing is that McQueen was very jealous of other people. For example, I remember an actor turned writer named John Gilmore talked about how he would see Steve in auditions, and McQueen would just stare daggers at him, because he looked at him as someone trying to take away a job from him. I really think that’s where the undercurrent takes place. Also, even though McQueen respected Lee, you have to remember that Bruce was teaching him and, therefore, McQueen was paying him. So I think that McQueen himself, especially on the set of The Reivers, where he brought Lee, thought of Bruce as an underling. But then, suddenly, you’ve got this new dynamic that pops up."
The Silent Flute becomes divisive.
Which became apparent when Bruce had developed a project called The Silent Flute, which he attempted to talk Steve McQueen into playing the hero while he himself would portray a number of different roles that McQueen's character would interact with. "But Steve turned it down," says Matthew. "Still, Bruce kept pushing him and Steve finally said, 'Look, I'm not going to carry you on my shoulders. You want to do this movie so you can be a star and use me to do that, and I'm not in the business of making other people stars.'"
"McQueen was an ambitious guy," Marshall elaborates, "but I'm thinking that Bruce Lee was probably even more ambitious, because Bruce had so much more to overcome than McQueen. You know, stranger in a strange land, and the fact that there were no Oriental superstars that had been established yet. So he had to be the first and he had to find his own way. if you think about it, if McQueen hadn't rejected him, Bruce Lee probably would not have gone on to become the person that he was, because it forced him to find his own way."
According to Matthew, when McQueen turned him down, "Bruce was furious. He shook his hand and said, 'One day I’m going to be a bigger star than Steve McQueen.' [Screenwriter] Stirling Silliphant, who was with him at the time, said, 'Bruce, it’s a white man’s world. You’re Asian. You’re never going to be a bigger star than Steve McQueen.' Of course, afterward Silliphant commented, 'And dammit if he didn’t prove us wrong.'"
For his part, Marshall believes had Bruce Lee not died when he did, he would have become a superstar in his specific genre, but would then have had to have worked his way into more mainstream films. "So he would have had to establish himself as an actual superstar, but obviously he could not have maintained that, even though Jackie Chan has," he muses. "But at the same time, Jackie Chan has tried to deviate into other films where he isn’t an actual superstar, but acting in legitimate dramas that he did quite well in."
There was a romantic rivalry as well.
Beyond the two of them becoming so territorial in terms of acting roles and their positions on the Hollywood food chain, there was also something of a rivalry between them over an actress named Sharon Farrell, who co-starred with both Lee and McQueen in 1969’s Marlowe and The Reivers, respectively. Both men were married at the time, though that didn’t seem to matter to either of them.
"Bruce did a movie with Sharon, but before that McQueen had had an affair with her," Matthew says of a subject that's discussed in his biography of Lee. "Of course, Bruce was a married guy as well, but nonetheless there was some jealousy on Bruce’s part in regard to that. McQueen didn’t know anything about it and it wasn’t as if McQueen went out to steal this lady from Bruce Lee. I would nonetheless say that Bruce Lee was probably very upset about that.
"She ended up picking Steve over Bruce, so there’s a romantic element to this rivalry with Steve, which kind of blew my mind when I found that one out," he continues. "That it wasn’t just professional, it was also personal. To me, it was a little high school, you know? It was like Steve was the captain of the team, and Bruce was the new kid in school, and they ended up dating the same girl. They’re friends and they both really liked each other, but they’re also jockeying for status. But that's the way it is with a lot of actors: they live messy lives.”
The lighter side of the rivalry.
Both actors have been gone for many years now, Bruce Lee having died in 1973 and Steve McQueen in 1980. Yet there's no question that these men respected each other, and both have reached a level of enduring fame that neither could have imagined while they jockeyed for "power" in their lifetimes. But one reassuring element to come out of all of this is that not everything in this superstar rivalry was so serious. There are a few moments that are actually quite funny (even if unintentionally so on the part of one or the other of them).
Says Matthew, "Lee once wrote a letter to McQueen to the effect of, 'I am now a movie star that has a larger reach than you.' McQueen sent him an 8x10 photo that read, 'To Bruce, my biggest fan.' It was intended to take him down a notch, which I’m sure it did."
"The two did share one last bonding experience when Lee purchased his first Porsche after the money came rolling in," relates Marshall. "McQueen insisted Lee let him drive it to see how the car handled, and he took Lee on a hair-raising tour through Mulholland Drive, one of the most winding thoroughfares in Los Angeles, and he gunned the sports car up to nearly 100 mph. Lee, who was a control freak, was a white-knuckled passenger. 'Now watch how I can slide it through these tight curves,' McQueen said while Lee cringed, keeping one eye on the road and the other shut tight. ‘Now watch how this baby can do 180 in the middle of the road,’ McQueen said as he downshifted and slammed on the brakes, spinning the car halfway around and heading back the opposite direction at full speed. Lee, who was naturally wound tight, exploded, 'McQueen! You crazy mudda------! I kill you!' McQueen laughed, but his smile vanished when he saw Lee was livid with anger. He began to accelerate the car again, attempting to gain control of the situation. 'Bruce, I’m going to drive the car as fast as I can until you calm down,' McQueen said. Lee put his hand up and conceded, 'Okay, okay, I’m calm, Steve.'"
Personally, we don't think he was.