Bruce Lee was responsible for Chuck Norris’ movie debut, which actually wasn’t in The Way of the Dragon. The action icon’s first movie role was really The Wrecking Crew. Released in 1968, The Wrecking Crew was a spy-comedy starring Dean Martin, Elke Sommer, and Sharon Tate.
A few years after his brief appearance in the film, Norris received a noteworthy role in Golden Harvest’s The Way of the Dragon movie. As the director, the writer, and the star, Lee had full creative control over the movie, allowing him to cast who he wanted for the main villain. It was Lee’s decision to bring in Norris to play Colt, the karate expert he had to fight in the Colosseum. Known for its intense and surreal choreography, the ten-minute showdown that played out between Lee and Norris is still remembered as one of the most iconic movie fight scenes of all time. Though Norris barely said a word, the role launched his Hollywood career.
In addition to getting Norris onboard for The Way of the Dragon, Lee is also credited for Norris’ first acting role in The Wrecking Crew. As the movie’s “karate advisor”, Lee’s job was to train the actors and coordinate the fighting. Lee biographer Matthew Polly wrote in his book Bruce Lee: A Life that he deemed it necessary to bring in trained martial artists to fight the stars and serve as their stunt doubles. To this end, Lee reached out to some of his friends and hired them to work on The Wrecking Crew. Among them were Mike Stone, Ed Parker, Joe Lewis, and Chuck Norris.
All of them, including Norris, were karate practitioners Lee had befriended at martial arts tournaments. He gave each of them a job in Dean Martin’s The Wrecking Crew, with Norris being his choice to play the bodyguard of Sommer’s character. This bit part involved one speaking line and a very brief fight with Martin. Polly says in the book that Norris was so nervous that his only line came out like a “whisper”. Allegedly, Norris was concerned at the time that it would end any chance he had of appearing in any more movies.
His screen debut in The Wrecking Crew ultimately didn’t hurt Norris, but it wasn’t enough to make him into a star either. Norris’ career didn’t take off until he received a second offer from Bruce Lee. For Norris, The Way of the Dragon was a huge step-up from The Wrecking Crew. Following the movie’s release, Norris landed major roles in Slaughter in San Francisco, Breaker! Breaker!, and more. By the early 1980s, the actor had evolved into a martial arts star in his own right by headlining action vehicles like The Octagon, A Force of One, and Lone Wolf McQuade.