Bruce Lee made a name for himself in Hollywood by teaching kung fu to the stars. Here’s who his very first celebrity student was and how they met.
Bruce Lee taught kung fu to a long list of celebrities, but which one was the first to train under him? Long before his legendary rise to stardom, Lee made a name for himself in Hollywood by teaching kung fu to well-known movie actors, directors, screenwriters, and musicians. Quite a few of his students were considered household names.
Lee’s role as a kung fu instructor is what provided the majority of his income for a significant portion of the 1960s. Since Lee was struggling to find acting work, he was able to devote a great deal of his time toward training others in both the philosophical and physical aspects of martial arts. During these years, Lee ran kung fu schools and taught his own unique style of martial arts, which is known today as Jeet Kune Do. As time passed, he attracted the attention of numerous Hollywood stars looking to learn from him. As a result, Lee formed lasting, storied friendships and connections with celebrities such as Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Roman Polanski, James Garner, Lee Marvin, Stirling Silliphant, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
According to Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly, Lee’s reputation for training celebrities began with Vic Damone. Damone, a big band singer and a crooner, was at the height of his popularity in the 1950s with big hits like “You’re Breaking My Heart”, “My Heart Cries For You”, and dozens more. He also performed the title song for An Affair to Remember, hosted variety shows, and made occasional appearances in movies.
Up until meeting Damone, Lee hadn’t been able to recruit any celebrities. Acting on the advice of others, Lee decided to raise his rates. Polly wrote in his book that only by charging high fees was Lee able to gain the attention of Hollywood actors. The tactic paid off when celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring – a mutual acquaintance of both men – arranged a meeting between Lee and Damone after one of the latter’s performances in Las Vegas. Damone, who was knowledgeable in boxing but not kung fu, developed an appreciation for Lee’s personal style of martial arts and took lessons from him for a year. Polly wrote in his book that by Damone’s own admission, his singing career actually benefited from the time he spent with Lee. Damone said that the relaxation techniques he acquired from Lee helped him become a better singer.
Training with Damone, traveling in Hollywood circles, and further developing his reputation as a skilled martial artist raised Lee’s profile significantly. Even Hollywood A-listers like McQueen and Coburn wanted to learn Jeet Kune Do and started paying for kung fu lessons. Within a matter of a few months, Vic Damone went from Bruce Lee’s only celebrity student to one of many.
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About The Author
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Nicholas Raymond is a staff movies & TV features writer for Screen Rant. He has a degree in journalism from the University of Montevallo, and is the author of the psychological thriller and time travel novel, “A Man Against the World.” Nicholas’ love for telling stories is inspired by his love for film noir, westerns, superhero movies, classic films, and ancient history. His favorite actors are Tyrone Power and Eleanor Parker. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @cnraymond91.
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