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Bruce Lee’s Protégé Recalls His Humility Amid ‘Once Upon a Time’ Criticism

When it comes to martial arts and cinema, Bruce Lee is an icon. But his depiction in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” as an arrogant blowhard who brags about being able to “cripple” boxer Muhammad Ali could not be further from the truth, according to those closest to the real Lee. 

For one, Lee revered Ali and other boxers, often telling his martial students to mimic the ease and flow of Ali’s movements and footwork, according to Dan Inosanto, Lee’s protégé and training partner, speaking to Variety exclusively.

Bruce Lee would have never said anything derogatory about Muhammad Ali because he worshiped the ground Muhammad Ali walked on. In fact, he was into boxing more so than martial arts,” says Inosanto, one of only three martial artists who were trained by Lee to teach Jeet Kune Do at Lee’s martial arts institutes. Jeet Kune Do is a philosophy of martial arts drawing from different disciplines invented by Lee that is often credited with paving the way for modern mixed martial arts (MMA). 

Inosanto continues to practice and teach it today. The now 83-year-old was featured alongside Lee in his final film, “Game of Death,” and was a frequent companion of Lee’s on TV shows and movie sets throughout the 1960s and up until Lee’s death in 1973 — sets including that of “The Green Hornet,” on which Lee played the sidekick character Kato. 

Incidentally, in Tarantino’s film, it’s outside of that set where Lee (played by Mike Moh) is shown bragging about his fighting prowess, only to be bested by ageing white stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

Dan Inosanto and Bruce Lee at Lee’s martial arts academy in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.
(Courtesy of Diana Lee Inosanto)

Inosanto has not yet seen the film but says that from his memories of Lee on a working set, he never saw the San Francisco-born, Hong Kong-raised actor being braggadocious or engaging in scraps for the sake of showing off. He did, however, push back on portraying Asians practicing martial arts in a stereotypical way, what Inosanto calls the “chop-chop Hollywood stuff.”

“He was never, in my opinion, cocky. Maybe he was cocky in as far as martial arts because he was very sure of himself. He was worlds ahead of everyone else. But on a set, he’s not gonna show off,” recalls Inosanto, adding that it’s highly dubious that a stuntman could have gotten the best of the “Enter the Dragon” star. 

Lee’s daughter, Shannon, calls the depiction of her late father disheartening and adds that, despite Tarantino drawing on aspects of her father’s films for use in his own (Uma Thurman’s yellow jumpsuit in “Kill Bill” is a nod to Lee’s outfit in “Game of Death”; the yakuza army, the Crazy 88, also don Kato-like masks), she doubts he is an actual fan of Lee’s.

“I have always suspected that [Tarantino] is a fan of the kung-fu genre and a fan of things that kick ass in cool and stylish ways, which my father certainly did,” says Shannon Lee, who was 4 years old when her father died. “But whether he really knows anything about Bruce Lee as a human being, whether he’s interested in who Bruce Lee was as a human being, whether he admires who Bruce Lee was as a human being, I’m not really sure that I have any evidence to support that that would be true.”

Dan Inosanto and Bruce Lee on the set of “Game of Death.”
(Courtesy of Diana Lee Inosanto)

Tarantino did not consult the Lee family prior to or during the making of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Tarantino’s rep has not yet responded to Variety‘s request for comment.

For both Inosanto and Lee, preserving Bruce Lee’s legacy — through martial arts or by developing the projects Lee himself was unable to pursue — is something they continue today. Inosanto teaches at his Inosanto Academy of Martial Arts while Shannon Lee works as a caretaker of her family’s estate and charity foundation and develops projects inspired by her father’s writings, like Cinemax’s “Warrior,” based on a treatment her father wrote and pitched (unsuccessfully) to Warner Bros. Lee is an executive producer of the show, which was renewed for a second season in April. 

She sees Tarantino’s film as another way Hollywood has, historically, tried to diminish her father’s accomplishments as one of its first prominent Asian Americans. 

“He was continuously marginalized and treated like kind of a nuisance of a human being by white Hollywood, which is how he’s treated in the film by Quentin Tarantino,” says Lee. “I hope people will take the opportunity to find out more about Bruce Lee because there’s a lot more to find out and a lot more to get excited about. This portrayal in this film is definitely not that.” 

Adds Inosanto, who says he received an outpouring of letters from fans all over the world following Lee’s death, “Bruce Lee broke ground for Asian Americans. Breaking in as an Asian was very, very difficult at that time. He paved the way for all the action stars.”

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