Actor, stuntman, professional wrestler, and mixed martial artist Gene LeBell died in his sleep earlier this week at the age of 89. While not really a household name, LeBell lived a fascinating life. He was the referee for the famous boxer versus wrestler match between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki. He got into a notorious altercation with actor Steven Seagal which, according to legend, ended with Seagal unconscious or worse. And he was once tried (although not convicted) on a murder charge. (A related conviction as an accessory to this same murder was later overturned on appeal.)
LeBell also worked for decades as an actor and stuntman in Hollywood. In fact, he was one of the key inspirations for Brad Pitt’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Like Pitt’s Cliff Booth (who was also suspected in a murder case), LeBell worked with Bruce Lee on The Green Hornet. In the film, Booth gets so annoyed with Lee that he challenges him to a fight.
According to Bob Calhoun, who co-wrote LeBell’s autobiography, The Godfather of Grappling, Lee was being too rough with the stuntmen on the set of The Green Hornet. They couldn’t convince him that he could go easy and it would still look great on film. The show’s stunt coordinator, Bennie Dobbins, needed a ringer to deal with Lee.” Enter “Judo” Gene LeBell.
As LeBell told the story, when he got on set he grabbed Lee, who “started making all those noises that he became famous for … but he didn’t try to counter me, so I think he was more surprised than anything else.”
Eventually LeBell released Lee and told him “Hey, Bruce, don’t kill me. Just kidding, champ.” Again, in LeBell’s telling, Lee was impressed enough by LeBell’s holds that the two became friends and trained together, with each sharing some of their knowledge of martial arts with the other.
Tarantino has credited LeBell with influencing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, although he’s also said the character is not only fictional, he was also influenced by several other famous Hollywood stuntman. Still, there’s no doubt where the inspiration for that scene with Bruce Lee came from. Rest in peace to Gene LeBell.
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