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Why Bruce Lee Avoided Western Roles (But Wanted His Own Western Show)

In the 1960s, Bruce Lee shied away from roles in Western TV shows, but the actor did have plans to make his own Western series. Here’s why. Despite having plans to make his own Western TV series, Bruce Lee avoided roles in Western shows. Not unlike the current popularity enjoyed by superhero movies, the Western genre was at its peak during the 1950s and 1960s. But while Lee was active during a portion of this period, he only made a single appearance in a Western show throughout his entire career.

During this time, Westerns were all over TV. The biggest were of course CBS’ Gunsmoke and NBC’s Bonanza, which were so successful that they ran for 20 and 14 seasons respectively. Other hit shows that were on the air were The Wild Wild West, Have Gun – Will Travel, Lawman, and Rawhide with Clint Eastwood. At this time, Lee was often looking for work in the TV industry, yet only one of his roles was set in TV’s most popular genre. Two years after The Green Hornet’s cancellation, the Kato actor appeared as a guest star in a 1969 episode of Here Come The Brides, a comedy-Western about young New England women being sent to a town in the American Wild West in order to keep its male workers content. Lee’s single episode saw him play a Chinese immigrant looking to escape an arranged marriage.

Lee wanted to make his own contribution to the Western genre through a kung fu series set in the American Wild West, which would have been titled The Warrior, but it was never greenlit. That’s partly why Here Come The Brides was the extent of his work in Westerns. According to Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly, the actor purposely avoided roles in Western shows because he had issues with how they treated Chinese characters. The Bruce Lee biographer wrote in his book that Lee found the pigtail hairstyles (also known as queues) that male Chinese actors had to wear “degrading”. This standardized approach, which was meant to be historically accurate, was not welcomed at all by Lee, who likely would have handled the Chinese characters in his kung fu Western show quite differently.

Polly said that Lee’s problem with the pigtails stems from the reason why they were worn in the first place. When the Manchus were in control of China, it was mandated that men wear their hair in this style. Adopting this hairstyle was regarded as a form of submission to their Manchu conquerors. It was never a fashion choice. Because of this history, Lee refused to wear them and was passed over for a number of undisclosed Western roles. That explains his guest appearance in Here Come The Brides, where Lee was able to keep his usual look.

The plans that Lee had for his future reveal that though he largely avoided working in Westerns, he did see plenty of potential in that type of setting and what it could bring to a story. If the show had worked out and Lee was given some level of creative control, it’s possible that Bruce Lee would have delivered a Western story that didn’t continue this long-standing issue.

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