A lesser-known (but incredibly important) role in Bruce Lee’s acting career was the character he played in Longstreet. Longstreet was a detective show that aired on ABC in 1971 and lasted for one season. The series starred Beneath the Planet of the Apes actor James Franciscus as Mike Longstreet, a blind insurance investigator.
Longstreet was one of several projects Lee was involved in before becoming a martial arts icon. Years after his career as a child actor in Hong Kong ended, Lee moved to the United States and tried to break into the TV and film industry. His breakout role was in ABC’s The Green Hornet as the main character’s talented sidekick, Kato. Unfortunately for Lee, the series didn’t survive past one season. When The Green Hornet ended, Lee turned his attention to writing scripts of his own and landing parts in other TV shows.
In 1971, Lee landed the role of Li Tsung, a martial arts expert who trains Mike in martial arts and helps him to cope with his blindness. Lee appeared in Longstreet as the character across four episodes. What’s interesting about Li Tsung is that he feels very much like the real Bruce Lee. The style he teaches to Mike is Jeet Kune Do, which is the form of kung fu that Lee founded in 1964. The style is even referenced by name in the first episode, thus solidifying the show’s real-life connection to Lee. The concepts that he teaches to Mike are identical to the ones that Lee actually held. There’s no mistaking the similarities, as much of the dialogue spoken by Li Tsung in Longstreet matches remarks Lee made in later interviews. For example, the show incorporated Bruce Lee’s “be water” line, which has since become one of his most famous quotes.
The reason that the series shaped Li Tsung around Bruce Lee’s personal beliefs and approach to kung fu can be attributed to the show’s executive producer, Stirling Silliphant [via Newspapers]. Silliphant, who later worked with Lee on The Silent Flute, decided to have the pilot episode focus on Jeet Kune Do after meeting Lee and learning about it. The pilot was even named for the meaning behind Jeet Kune Do, “The Way of the Intercepting Fist.” Silliphant was so impressed with Lee and his martial arts ability that he had the actor come back for three more episodes.
Longstreet wasn’t the last time that a show or movie featured Lee’s ideas. There were instances of this in movies like Enter the Dragon and Way of the Dragon as well. However, none went as far as Longstreet did, as this was a show that went into great deal of detail in attempting to capture Bruce Lee’s martial arts philosophy. For Bruce Lee fans, Longstreet represents a key moment in Lee’s career, because this was a show that basically allowed Lee to play himself.