Why you should care
Because real-life tough guys need to be heeded.
The real story of Bruce Lee’s confrontation with a grizzled Hollywood stuntman is far more complex than what’s depicted in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.
The scene pisses me off, but there’s a grain of truth to it.
Brad Pitt as broken-down stuntman Cliff Booth kicks Bruce Lee’s (Mike Moh’s) ass on the set of The Green Hornet in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Tarantino’s epic revisionist history of Tinseltown. Pitt gets to look cool, while Bruce Lee — a breakthrough Asian film star — is turned into kooky Asian comic relief akin to Mickey Rooney sporting yellowface as the Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And with all of Pitt’s punchlines and Moh’s pratfalls, the older White dudes in theater 11 at the Century 16 Bayfair in San Leandro cackled like crazy.
LeBell lifted [Bruce] Lee onto his back in what’s called a fireman’s carry and ran around the set with him. “Put me down or I’ll kill you!” Lee screamed.
Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, called the portrayal of Lee in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood a “mockery.” While she’s not wrong, there actually was a stuntman who locked horns with Lee on the set of The Green Hornet in 1966.
He’s now 87 years old and enjoying semiretirement in Sherman Oaks, California, after a career crashing cars, being set on fire and wrestling bears. “Judo” Gene LeBell was known in the business as the toughest man alive, and I should know since I co-authored his autobiography, The Godfather of Grappling.
According to LeBell, Lee was a working stiff on the set of The Green Hornet but was kicking the shit out of the stuntmen. They couldn’t convince him that he could go easy and it would still look great on film. The show’s stunt coordinator, Bennie Dobbins, needed a ringer to deal with Lee, so he called in Judo Gene.
LeBell says when he got to the set, Dobbins told him to put Lee “in a headlock or something.”
So LeBell went up and grabbed Lee. “He started making all those noises that he became famous for,” LeBell said, “but he didn’t try to counter me, so I think he was more surprised than anything else.”
Then LeBell lifted Lee onto his back in what’s called a fireman’s carry and ran around the set with him.
“Put me down or I’ll kill you!” Lee screamed.
“I can’t put you down or you’ll kill me,” LeBell said, holding Lee there as long as he dared before putting him down, saying, “Hey, Bruce, don’t kill me. Just kidding, champ.”
Back on his feet again, Lee didn’t kill LeBell. Instead, Lee recognized that the lack of grappling was a deficiency in the Jeet Kune Do style of martial arts he was developing. So Lee trained with LeBell for a little over a year with LeBell showing Lee armbars, leg locks and takedowns, and Lee schooling LeBell in kung fu kicks.
After training with LeBell, Lee incorporated grappling moves into his film fighting. He finishes off Chuck Norris with a chokehold in Way of the Dragon (1972) and beats a young Sammo Hung with an armbar in Enter the Dragon (1973).
“I didn’t go to Hong Kong with him for Enter the Dragon, but when he came back, he told me, ‘I did this armbar to show you,’” LeBell recalled. Lee died before Enter the Dragon — his ultimate career accomplishment and posthumous breakthrough as a global movie and martial arts star — but he did return to Hollywood after completing the film in a frantic bid to line up his next projects.
While they trained together, LeBell became Lee’s favorite kicking dummy in episodes of The Green Hornet and Longstreet. “He really liked the way I took falls for him,” LeBell says.
When I talked to LeBell last night, he was blissfully unaware that Brad Pitt was playing a cowboy fantasy version of him in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.
“It’s a lot of bullshit,” LeBell said. “But you can’t eat glory.”
But actually knowing LeBell makes Tarantino’s fiction all the more galling. In his cute little scene, Tarantino sells both Lee and LeBell short.
When LeBell scooped Lee up on the set of The Green Hornet, he was already a world-class martial artist when there weren’t that many in the United States. LeBell was a two-time national judo champion. He had also trained and wrestled at the Kōdōkan in Tokyo, the mecca of judo. He had fought and won what many consider to be the first mixed martial arts fight when he took on ranked light heavyweight boxer Milo Savage in 1963.
LeBell’s mother, Aileen Eaton, was the top boxing and wrestling promoter in Los Angeles, so LeBell was learning chokeholds from guys like Ed “Strangler” Lewis when he was just 7 years old. LeBell parlayed his pain-inducing skills into careers in martial arts, professional wrestling and Hollywood stunt work, making him the ultimate ass-kicking Renaissance man, as well as a true son of the City of Angels.
And this is what it took to just pick up Bruce Lee and clown him during a TV shoot. Somebody like Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth would have just been one of the guys begging the show’s stunt coordinator to call in Judo Gene. So when LeBell asks me to track down Tarantino to set the record straight, the only thing I can do is say yes.
“You’ve gotta put Bruce Lee over,” LeBell said during our phone conversation. “He means so much to martial arts. You’ve gotta put him over, Bob.”