Steve McQueen could have played a major role in a Bruce Lee movie. With roles in box office hits like The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and the critically-acclaimed The Sand Pebbles, McQueen was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars during the 1960s and 1970s. With his acting resume, he certainly would have been a major addition to any of Lee’s kung fu films.
Lee and McQueen had a storied friendship and rivalry that dates back to the mid-1960s when only the latter was considered a big star. During this time, Lee wasn’t a famous actor yet but he was developing a name for himself as a kung fu instructor. Several big names in Hollywood like James Coburn, Roman Polanski, and James Garner were paying Lee for kung fu lessons. Among the many celebrities personally trained in martial arts by Lee was Steve McQueen. McQueen learned kung fu from Lee for a period of a few years. After Lee died in 1973, McQueen was one of a handful actors to serve as pallbearers at his funeral.
Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen’s film careers never intersected, but a chance for them to work together did come in the late 1960s in the form of The Silent Flute. The unmade movie, which was a passion project of Lee’s, was going to be a philosophical kung fu story centered around Cord, a martial artist on a quest to find a highly sought-after book that would help him unlock true enlightenment. Lee’s plan was for Cord to be played by Steve McQueen, while Lee himself would play multiple characters who would serve as Cord’s kung fu mentors.
While the plan for The Silent Flute would have provided Lee with significant screen-time, McQueen would have been the star of the movie. That being said, McQueen had no interest in playing the character. According to Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly, Lee repeatedly asked for McQueen to take the part, but the actor ultimately refused. McQueen claimed that he wasn’t in “the business of making other people stars.” It was his opinion that Lee was trying to use his stardom to make The Silent Flute a success. How frustrated Lee was by McQueen’s comments reportedly fueled the famous Bruce Lee-Steve McQueen rivalry. The martial arts actor vowed in the past that he would one day become a bigger star than McQueen.
As for what became of the Cord role in The Silent Flute, Lee didn’t give up on getting a big star to play the character. Polly wrote in his book that Lee intended to get McQueen’s chief Hollywood rival, Paul Newman, to play Cord but it never worked out for unknown reasons. After that, Lee convinced James Coburn to star in The Silent Flute. However, that scenario didn’t come to pass either. Due to a number of issues Lee had in getting The Silent Flute off the ground, the project was scrapped. Five years after Lee’s death, his plan was finally put to the big screen as 1978’s Circle of Iron, with Jeff Cooper playing the role envisioned for Steve McQueen and David Carradine replacing Bruce Lee.