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5 forgotten television appearances by the legendary Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee credited corn for his American screen career. Not the vegetable, but rather a cornball style of humor.

"I was at a karate tournament in Long Beach, Calif. in 1964," he told The Atlanta Constitution in a 1969 profile. "This was being filmed. Most of the other guys went through a routine, stylized performance, but I looked different. I cracked jokes." The "shenanigans" were brought to the attention of producer William Dozier, creator of Batman, who cast Lee as Kato in his superhero series The Green Hornet.

Of course, Lee would go on to be the martial arts icon of the 20th century, thanks to the action masterpiece Enter the Dragon, which was released one month following his tragic death in 1973. 

Between Hornet and Dragon, Lee honed his acting chops (and showed off some Jeet Kune Do chops) in a handful of guest roles on television, some in unlikely places. Most will remember his spot on Batman, battling Robin as Kato in an awesome crossover. These bits are far more obscure. One of them is seemingly lost. Let's take a look.

1

Ironside

Bruce meets Burr! Months after The Green Hornet ended, Lee appeared on the Raymond Burr mystery series about a wheelchair-bound crime-solver. The role was hardly a stretch; it was a stereotype. He played a karate instructor in Chinatown. He does get a good throw in for action's sake. Eve (Barbara Anderson) learns a thing or two from Lee — she eventually disarms the episode's killer with a nimble chop to the wrist.

Image: NBCUniversal Television Distribution

2

Blondie

That is obviously not Bruce Lee pictured with the towering sandwich. No, that is Will Hutchins, erstwhile cowboy star of Sugarfoot, bringing Dagwood Bumstead to life in the 1968 sitcom adaptation of the Blondie newspaper comic strip. The sitcom was a flop, despite having the beloved Jim Backus as Mr. Dithers. The final episode to air, "Pick on a Bully Your Own Size," saw Dagwood taking karate lessons to teach the neighbor punk a lesson. Naturally, Bruce Lee was his teacher. In a 2018 Facebook post, former child star Pamelyn Ferdin, who played Cookie, recalled working with Lee. "I get asked about this episode a lot. I can confirm that I remember Mr. Lee, enjoyed working with him, found him very, very charming," she wrote, before admitting, "I also have no idea what happened to that episode or any of the others. As best I can tell from reliable sources, it seems unlikely they exist anymore." Bummer, Bumstead!

Image: The Everett Collection

3

Here Come the Brides

Here Come the Brides holds a distinguished and overlooked place in history. The lighthearted Western featured Bruce Lee's only English-speaking dramatic acting role without martial arts. The series cast him as an actor, not a fighter. In "Marriage, Chinese Style," a bride is promised to Lee's character, Lin. There's one problem — Jeremy (Bobby Sherman) rescues her from being sold into prostitution. He plays a sympathetic character — and even, in a rare moment, comes up on the short end of a physical confrontation.

Image: The Everett Collection

4

Longstreet

Outside of The Green Hornet, Longstreet offered Lee his only other recurring American television role. A mystery series about a blinded insurance investigator (James Franciscus), Longstreet cast Lee as his martial arts instructor, Li Tsung. The role allowed Lee to serve up some of his most famous lines of personal wisdom. "Empty your mind. Be formless," Li tells Longstreet in training. "Shapeless, like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend." Yes, that oft-quoted "be like water" pearl originally aired in a 1971 crime show! Lee appeared in four episodes of the short-lived series.

Image: The Everett Collection

5

Marlowe

Okay, Marlowe was originally released in theaters in 1969, but the detective flick eventually aired as part of the CBS Thursday Night Movie series in 1972. (October 12, to be exact.) That's likely how most folks saw it — it was a bit of a flop at the box office. Plus, the film, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe character, had many big-time television names attached. Stirling Silliphant, creator of Route 66, wrote the script. James Garner, between starring gigs on Maverick and The Rockford Files, played Marlowe. Carroll O'Connor (All in the Family) and Jackie Coogan (The Addams Family) filled out the cast. Lee played a kung fu expert sent to threaten Marlowe.

Image: The Everett Collection

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