How Steve McQueen Scared the Crap Out of Bruce Lee Driving on Mulholland

Courtesy of Fumio Demura
From left: McQueen with Lee, photographed in 1969 with karate master Fumio Demura, from documentary 'The Real Miyagi.'

Race car driver McQueen tried to save his martial-arts buddy from making a dangerous purchase, writes biographer Matthew  Polly, in an excerpt from 'Bruce Lee: A Life,' out June  5.

When Steve McQueen was just starting out in the 1950s, he hung with Frank Sinatra and saw the private jets, limousines, red carpet events, screaming fans, opened doors and fawning admiration. "I want some of that," McQueen whispered to his wife. In the 1960s, it was Bruce Lee's turn to feel the same way.

What Lee wanted more than anything was a new sports car. He neglected his old Chevy Nova, hardly ever cleaning it. The only thing he liked was the sticker on the back window with the inscription: "This Car Is Protected by the Green Hornet." (Lee made his U.S. debut playing Kato in the 1960s ABC series.)

Hollywood hairstylist Jay Sebring would let Lee race his Shelby Cobra along Mulholland Drive. Lee admired the Cobra, but what he really desired was a Porsche 911S Targa, because McQueen had one. On Aug. 26, 1968, he visited Bob Smith's Volkswagen-Porsche dealership in Hollywood for a test drive. As soon as he got home, he called up McQueen in Palm Springs. "Steve, I'm going to get a Porsche like yours," Lee declared.

"Look, Bruce, let me take you for a ride in mine when I get back," McQueen cautioned. "It's a hot car, but if you don't know what you are doing you can get into trouble with this thing."

McQueen could have made his living as a Grand Prix driver, while Lee was by all accounts a menace behind the wheel. ("He was just way too fast," says Dan Inosanto, Lee's training partner. "It would scare me.") Lee was expecting a joy ride, but McQueen hoped to frighten Lee out of buying a Porsche.

McQueen picked up Lee and drove up the San Fernando Valley to Mulholland Drive. "OK, Bruce, you ready?" McQueen said. "Yes, I'm all set. Let's go!" McQueen peeled away, grinding through the gears as he twisted and turned along the winding, dangerous path high in the Santa Monica mountains. "What do you think of this power, Bruce?" McQueen shouted over the engine roar. Lee said nothing. "Watch this!" McQueen yelled as he slalomed to the edge of the precipice. "Isn't that great, Bruce? See how it handles. Now watch how I slide it!" McQueen put the Porsche into a tail slide as he went right to the edge. "Isn't that great, Bruce?" No reply.

"Watch this, Bruce. Sucker will do a mean 180," McQueen announced as he geared it up, spun it around, and stopped the car. He looked over: "What do you think, Bruce?" But Lee wasn't in the seat. McQueen looked down and saw Lee huddled in the footwell with his hands over his head. "McQueen, you sonovabitch!" Lee shouted as he pulled himself back into the seat. "McQueen, I'll bloody kill you! I'll kill you, McQueen! I'm gonna kill you!"

McQueen saw the look of rage on Lee's face and it terrified him. He knew how deadly Lee could be when he was angry. So McQueen raced back up Mulholland Drive as fast as he could. "Bruce, calm down!" McQueen shouted.

"Steve, slow down," Lee cried out. "You won't hit me, will you, Bruce?" McQueen pleaded. "No, no," said Lee. "You won't hurt me will you?" McQueen asked again. "No, no!" yelled Lee. "Just stop the car. Stop the car!" McQueen finally pulled over to the side, and Lee said, "I will never drive with you again, McQueen. Never!"

Excerpted from Bruce Lee: A Life © 2018 by Matthew Polly. Published by Simon & Schuster.

This story first appeared in the June 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.