Friday, July 15, 2016

Bruce Lee as Kato on THE GREEN HORNET

In early March of 1966, The Herald Tribune in New York reported news of The Green Hornet coming to television in the fall. Al Hodge, former radio actor and star of the radio series, having noticed a few discrepancies in the article, wrote to producer William Dozier in the hopes of correcting a few false statements. Dozier was aware the editor of the paper misspelled Kato with a “C.” Dozier told Hodge casting for the series would not begin for two to three weeks, and that the only person signed up definitely was the role of Kato. “We have a superb American-born Chinese actor named Bruce Lee to play Kato. He is a black belt karate and will be able to do all his own stunts in that area.” Dozier also assured Hodge that The Green Hornet would not be an imitation of Batman, which had been labeled by critics as “camp treatment.”

On YouTube you can find what everyone keeps labeling as Bruce Lee's screen test for The Green Hornet. The truth is, Lee's screen test was made for a proposed television program based on the fictional Charlie Chan character.

“Mike Axford and Lenore Case (Casey) will present no particular casting problem,” William Dozier said in a letter to George W. Trendle on November 16, 1965. “I have a superb Oriental in the bullpen for Kato and will be able to show you a piece of test film on him when you come out. He is actually an American-born Chinese, but can play any sort of Oriental or Filipino. I don’t think we should ever say what sort of nationality Kato is: just let him be what he looks like — an Oriental. The actor I have in mind for the role is a Black Belt Karate, incidentally, and can perform every trick in the Karate book.”
William Dozier in a promotional sales film.

Bruce Lee, born in San Francisco in 1940, was the “Oriental in the bullpen.” As a child, Lee had moved with his family back to Hong Kong and appeared in motion pictures there from the age of 6. He returned in 1959 to attend the University of Washington, where he met his wife. In early 1965, Lee went to Oakland, California, to appear in a screen test — though not for The Green Hornet — at the expense of Greenway Productions. What Dozier had in mind was Number One Son, in which Lee would portray the eldest son of Charlie Chan, the fictional Honolulu detective. Television’s Number One Son, in continuing the legacy of the famous — and now, departed — detective would be something of a cross with the James Bond formula proving so popular in movies at the time.

Lee gave a kung fu demonstration at the first International Karate Championships, which was organized by Ed Parker, a martial arts instructor whose most famous student was Elvis Presley. In the audience for the tournament was Ed Sebring, a Hollywood hairdresser, who passed along Lee’s name when Dozier mentioned he needed a Chinese actor. For the screen test, Lee sat before a camera to answer questions and also demonstrated powerful, yet controlled, leaping, kicking and punching.

In February, Lee’s father died, so the actor went to Hong Kong to handle family business. He returned to the States in mid-March. A couple of weeks later, Dozier assured Lee that plans for the Chan television series were underway, but it might take another three months until there was noticeable progress. In late April, the producer suggested Lee hire an agent: “I am taking the liberty of suggesting a reputable and honest agent to you, one William Belasco, President of Progressive Management Agency here in Hollywood.” After signing with Belasco, the agent also said that any action on Number One Son wouldn’t occur until July, so Lee took the opportunity to travel back to Hong Kong with his wife.

Van Williams, George W. Trendle, Bruce Lee
In the meantime, Lee offered Dozier several ideas of his own for Chan, writing that “I can establish an exciting characterization by supplementing cool and concise ‘small action’ to make every ‘ordinary’ action into something unusual.” Lee also watched many television programs to improve his speech. It must have worked. At least, Lee was able to joke with a Canadian journalist in 1971 that he got the role of Kato simply because he was the only Chinese actor who could pronounce the name Britt Reid. 

Finally, at the end of February 1966, Dozier had a first draft of a Number One Son script ready. A month later, the show itself was rejected by the network, but by this time Dozier had the TV rights to The Green Hornet. There was never any doubt about who would play the part of Kato. Lee was hired at a salary of $400 per episode ($800 per two-part episode), which rose to $550 per episode effective November 30, 1966. By the first week of April, Lee was learning from actor Jeff Corey about camera shots, lighting, placement, matching and other factors involved in television production. Corey sent his bill to Greenway Productions and Dozier charged it off specifically to The Green Hornet show. Corey also played the heavy in one of two test films that were made.

After only a few episodes Lee was unhappy with the depth of his role. “[It’s] true that Kato is a house boy of Britt, but as the crime fighter, Kato is an ‘active partner’ of the Green Hornet and not a mute follower,” he wrote to Dozier. “Jeff Corey agrees and I myself feel that at least an occasional dialogue would certainly make me feel more at home with the fellow players.”

He didn’t need to convince Dozier, who replied it was Trendle who insisted Kato remain in the background as an ally, not a companion. But Dozier said he would also ask the writers to incorporate more material involving Kato, hoping this would offer Lee some satisfaction.

Despite limited screen time, Kato proved a more popular character with children than did The Green Hornet, judging by the amount of fan mail sent to the actors. Many requested a copy of the mask worn by Lee, and Dozier complied, telling recipients that enclosed was “a genuine authentic Kato mask, and one which was actually worn by him in Green Hornet.” That was a stretch — Dozier had masks in his office that went straight from a box to an envelope for mailing, never having seen the light of a soundstage. Even so, maybe one of them was good enough to earn viewer Ricky McNeece of Clinton, Iowa, an “A” from his teacher — he said he wanted a Kato mask for a school project, hoping it would win him a high grade.

Van Williams (The Green Hornet) - $2,000 per half-hour episode
Bruce Lee (Kato) - $400 per half-hour episode
Lloyd Gough (Mike Axford) - $1,000 per half-hour episode
Wende Wagner (Miss Case) - $850 per half-hour episode
Walter Brooke (District Attorney) - $750 per half-hour episode

The procedure for writing a Green Hornet script was the same as for most television programs. The script writer would draft a plot synopsis of two to 30 pages. (The average was six pages.) If the producer liked the idea, he would then commission the writer to compose the first draft or pay an inexperienced author for the plot and then commission a seasoned script writer for the larger work. A number of plot summaries were proposed, but not all of them were feasible as television scripts. Among the reasons for rejection, besides a producer declaring the story unacceptable, would be cancellation of the series. The following is a plot summary following my review of Bruce Lee's 13-page plot proposal for an episode. To my knowledge, this was the only plot proposal submitted by Lee that never made it to production.

“The Cobra From the East” by Bruce Lee
Dated: October 28, 1966

There is an old saying in the rackets: “In the East there is The Cobra. In the West, The Green Hornet.” Dope racketeer deMarco survives a vicious attack by The Cobra and his men, and begs The Green Hornet for protection against the master criminal. The Hornet agrees, only to learn the whereabouts of The Cobra — who uses poisonous snakes for his murders-for-hire. A confrontation between the men results in Britt Reid bitten on the forearm. The Cobra makes a getaway as Kato rushes to The Hornet’s aid. Kato takes his friend back to Reid’s living room. A doctor explains to Casey and Scanlon that Reid’s system seems to be a strange mixture of various poisons. Angry, Kato starts a rampage across town to locate The Cobra, kicking doors down and beating up bodyguards. Stealing The Cobra’s luggage, he finds the antidote and rushes back in time to administer the serum. During a second confrontation, The Hornet uses his Hornet Sting to disarm The Cobra and, while Kato battles The Cobra’s henchmen, The Hornet forces The Cobra to fall on his own stick. A snake exits the cane and bites the criminal, taking his life. Bruce Lee’s plot proposal featured a number of details to display the artistic use of the fighting poses.

This blog consists of copyrighted excerpts from The Green Hornet: A History of Radio, Motion Pictures, Comics and Television. Reprinted with permission.