Tarantino pulls no punches, and claims the same was true of Bruce Lee. The auteur was on The Joe Rogan Experience to promote his latest project, a 400 page novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and talk quickly turned to Tarantino’s controversial take on the martial artist.
“Where I am coming from is I can understand his daughter having a problem with it. It’s her f—ing father. I get that,” Tarantino said, per IndieWire. “But anybody else, go suck a dick.”
Shannon Lee released a statement in the wake of of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s premiere, stating her displeasure with the characterization of her father. When Tarantino doubled down on the accuracy of his portrayal, Lee told Variety, “He could shut up about it. That would be really nice. Or he could apologize or he could say, ‘I don’t really know what Bruce Lee was like. I just wrote it for my movie. But that shouldn’t be taken as how he really was.’”
While Tarantino might sympathize with Shannon Lee’s reaction, he has no interest in taking her advice about shutting up about it, telling Joe Rogan, “Bruce had no respect for American stuntmen, he was always hitting them with his feet. It’s called tagging when you hit a stuntman for real. He was always tagging them with his feet and his fist and it got to the point where they would refuse to work with Bruce. He had nothing but disrespect for American stuntmen. It was probably just like, ‘Oh they’re just not good enough. They are pussies. I want to make it look real!’ But stuntmen don’t like that. That’s unprofessional.”
Tarantino then cited legendary stuntman Gene LeBell as the inspiration for character Cliff Booth, and the famous story about LaBell being asked to teach Lee a lesson on the set of The Green Hornet.
However, Tarantino mischaracterizes two important aspects of this story. By frequently repeating the word “always” and stating Lee had “nothing but disrespect for American stuntmen” the director makes it sound as if this was Lee’s lifelong stance and permanent way of being.
In fact, the role of Kato was Lee’s first big break in the US after previously performing in Hong Kong. Lee was green, eager to prove himself, and while he was “tagging” the other performers, it was not long before LaBell was brought on to fix the situation.
After LaBell humbled Lee—by simply picking him up and carrying him around—Lee quickly got over himself and wanted to understand how he had been so easily defeated. Lee became a student of LaBell’s, and in short order became an exceptional stuntman himself.
Lee’s desire to learn, change, adapt, and succeed made him a true trailblazer in American cinema, much as Tarantino has been. Perhaps if Lee had lived long enough he also would have eventually settled into stagnation.