For his role in The Green Hornet, Bruce Lee received a rather small sum in comparison to the lead actor and his co-stars. Though the ABC series didn’t make him a household name, the show is credited with starting his movie career. It played an important part in getting Lee the exposure he needed to become a martial arts superstar.
After leaving Hong Kong where he had worked as a child actor in his youth, Lee struggled to find acting roles in the United States. He seemingly hit his big break in the mid-1960s when he was cast in ABC’s The Green Hornet show. In the series, Bruce Lee famous portrayed Kato, the crime-fighting partner of the main character, Britt Reid aka Green Hornet (Van Williams). Created as an attempt to capitalize on the unprecedented success of Batman, The Green Hornet delivered a superhero duo of its own, but also offered something new through Bruce Lee, who used the series to show off some of his martial arts moves.
Though Lee was widely considered to be one of the show’s biggest appeals, he was actually paid less than the other main cast members. Lee biographer Matthew Polly revealed in his book, Bruce Lee: A Life, that the actor was originally paid $400 a week to make The Green Hornet, whereas Williams received a $2000 deal. Later, the studio agreed to increase Lee’s pay to $550, but this was the most he ever received for his work on the series. It’s likely that Lee could have negotiated for a bit more for The Green Hornet season 2, but the show’s cancellation prevented this opportunity from ever coming to pass.
Of course, it’s not surprising that Lee was paid less than the lead actor, but what Lee received was only a fifth of what Williams made for playing Britt Reid. What’s more, the other three series regulars were paid $750, $850, and $1000 respectively (even though it was Lee who had second billing in the series). Considering how important Lee’s unique approach to The Green Hornet’s fighting and his character in general was to the show, the actor was most certainly underpaid for his work on the show.
When Lee moved on from The Green Hornet, he struggled to land roles for years. His luck changed for the best when Hong Kong audiences discovered the canceled series in the early 1970s. The increased attention made him the star of Golden Harvest’s The Big Boss, which completely flipped the situation with Lee’s pay. Instead of being the actor who was paid less than anyone else, his $7,5000 paycheck easily trumped that of all the actors involved with the project and was even well above the salaries of the other martial arts actors working in the Hong Kong industry at the time. This, as well as the lucrative movie deals that followed, were a reflection of just how much Lee’s acting career had shifted since his days playing Kato.
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