(Spoiler warning: The following contains a very minor plot details about “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” and several facts about real people portrayed in the film, including Sharon Tate, Bruce Lee, and Roman Polanski.)
During a sweet moment in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate watches her own movie in Los Angeles’ Bruin Theater — and briefly flashes back to Bruce Lee training her for the fight scene she sees on-screen.
It’s a lovely moment that shows us how hard Tate works at her craft, and the pride she takes in it. It’s also a sympathetic nod to Lee (Mike Moh), because by this point in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” we’ve previously seen him mixing it up with stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) after an argument over Muhammad Ali. So did Lee really train Tate?
Yes, he absolutely did. And that was only the beginning of his connection with the beloved actress and her husband, Roman Polanski.
Lee first entered their circle through celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring (portrayed in the film by Emile Hirsch.) According to Matthew Polly’s biography “Bruce Lee: A Life,” Sebring was a karate student who had attended the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championships. Lee had appeared at the event, and as the Long Beach Press-Telegram wrote in 2014: “Lee dazzled the thousands in attendance with unimaginable feats of speed and power.”
Sebring was among the dazzled. As Polly recounts, one day in 1965, TV producer William Dozier sat down in Sebring’s chair for a haircut and mentioned that he was trying to find an Asian leading man for a spinoff of the “Charlie Chan” films, which had featured a Swedish actor playing fictional Hawaiian detective Charlie Chan. Dozier told Sebring he needed “an Oriental who speaks English and can handle action.”
“I have your guy,” Sebring responded.
And so Lee gained entry into Hollywood.
During a screen test with Dozier, Lee delivered an early version of his oft-quoted “Be water, my friend” monologue. The “Charlie Chan” project didn’t happen, but did lead eventually to Lee’s big U.S. break, his casting as Kato on “The Green Hornet.” (The fight between Lee and Cliff Booth in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” tales place on the “Green Hornet” set. Dozier was the show’s narrator.)
When Lee and Sebring first became friends, Sebring was dating Tate. (Very minor spoiler alert: The Steve McQueen sequence in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” explains the dynamic between Sebring, Tate and Polanski, while subtly foreshadowing Roman Polanski’s future statutory rape scandal.)
Through his new Hollywood connections, Lee became a “sifu to the stars” who trained celebrities like McQueen (Damian Lewis in the film) and Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) in martial arts.
As Polly writes, Lee’s teaching led to his first Hollywood movie job as a “karate adviser” for “The Wrecking Crew,” which starred Dean Martin and featured a trio of deadly women, played by Elke Sommer, Tate and Nancy Kwan. The fight scene we watch Tate watching in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” features Tate and Kwan, and was indeed coordinated by Lee, who taught Tate and Kwan how to fight.
“Sharon and Nancy were pretty good students,” Polly quotes Lee as saying. “They were doing side kicks with just a minimum of teaching.”
Lee said Martin wasn’t as good — “he was too lazy and too clumsy.”
Polly says Tate got along so well with Lee that she invited him to have dinner at her and Polanski’s home, telling Polanski, “The two of you will get along like a house on fire.”
They did. Polanski even brought Lee on a ski trip to Gstaad, Switzerland, and bought him the yellow jumpsuit that Lee later wore in “Game of Death.” (Tarantino paid homage to Lee by having Uma Thurman wear a very similar outfit in “Kill Bill, Vol. 1.)
The friendship between Lee and Polanski hit a snag after Tate’s murder by the Manson family: At one point, Polanski blamed Lee for Tate’s murder. But that is another story.
Finally, while we don’t own the rights to any photos of Lee training Tate, we have seen some wonderful shots online.