Bruce Lee considered an A-list actor in Hollywood his greatest rival in the film industry. Here’s who it was and why Lee wanted to surpass him.


Bruce Lee considered a Hollywood actor his greatest rival. Today, Lee is recognized as a movie legend, but throughout most of his career, there were so many other actors whose fame eclipsed his own. It wasn’t until the last few years of Lee’s life that he was finally considered a superstar, and even then his stardom was primarily confined to Hong Kong.


In the 1960s, Lee was a struggling television actor determined to break into the movie business. He managed to turn heads with his performance as Kato in ABC’s The Green Hornet show, but was nowhere near the level of countless actors in the entertainment industry. During this time, several Hollywood stars thrived, with actors such as Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Charlton Heston, Sean Connery and Richard Burton at the height of their respective careers. But while there was no shortage of actors more popular than him, Lee identified only one Hollywood actor as a true rival.

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Bruce Lee wanted to surpass Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen in The Man and Le Mans

Interviews with both actors and people who knew them reveal that Steve McQueen is who Lee considered his rival. McQueen, who was on the rise in the mid-1960s and easily one of the biggest stars of the decade, was one of several celebrities who took kung fu lessons from Lee during this time. But while they enjoyed a close friendship, there was also a deeply competitive element to their relationship, which Lee was quite open about. According to Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly Lee told some of his friends, such as screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, of his intentions to become a bigger star than McQueen. Given the latter’s reputation as the King of Cool and massive popularity, it certainly seemed like a tall claim at the time.

Much of what fueled Lee’s determination to surpass McQueen’s fame was a disagreement over a film role. Unable to land any major parts in any upcoming films, Lee set out to make his own martial arts film in Hollywood, The silent whistle. Lee’s plan was to get McQueen to star in the film with him, but McQueen refused. Oddly enough, it was the manner in which McQueen rejected him that infuriated Lee. According to Polly’s book, McQueen told Lee he didn’t want to join The silent whistle just to make Lee a star.

Steve McQueen didn’t think Bruce Lee was his rival

While Lee certainly thought of McQueen as his rival, it’s worth noting that the feeling was anything but mutual. Since Lee was an aspiring actor throughout most of their friendship, there was no good reason for McQueen to see Lee the same way. Actor McQueen reportedly considered his rival to be none other than Paul Newman, an actor whose stardom was at least comparable to his own. [via The Digital Fix.]

As for where he stood on Lee, McQueen’s confidence in the martial arts actor’s chances of one day surpassing him was made clear by an exchange in 1970. After Lee’s Way of the Dragon the film became a box office hit, Lee allegedly called McQueen and boasted about how he had achieved his goal. In response, McQueen sent him an autographed photo of himself, complete with a note that rings Bruce Lee his”biggest fan.

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