Steve McQueen could star in a Bruce Lee movie. With roles in such box office hits as The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and the critically acclaimed Sand Pebbles, McQueen was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 1960s and 1970s. With his acting resume, he would certainly be an important addition to any of Lee’s kung fu films.
Lee and McQueen had a legendary friendship and rivalry that dates back to the mid-1960s, when only the latter was considered a big star. Lee wasn’t a famous actor at the time, but he was making a name for himself as a kung fu instructor. Several celebrities in Hollywood, such as James Coburn, Roman Polanski and James Garner, paid for kung fu lessons. Among the many celebrities who personally studied martial arts with Lee was Steve McQueen. McQueen studied kung fu with Lee for several years. After Lee’s death in 1973, McQueen was one of the few actors who carried the coffin at his funeral.
The film careers of Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen never crossed paths, but the chance to work together appeared in the late 1960s in the form of The Silent Flute. The unreleased film, which was Lee’s passion project, was supposed to be a philosophical kung fu story centered around Cord, a martial artist who is looking for a very popular book that will help him discover true enlightenment. Lee’s plan was for Korda to be played by Steve McQueen, and Lee himself was to play several characters who would be Korda’s kung fu mentors.
While the Silent Flute plan would have provided Lee with significant screen time, McQueen would have been the star of the film. At the same time, McQueen was not interested in playing this character. According to Bruce Lee: The Life of Matthew Polley, Lee repeatedly asked McQueen to play the role, but the actor eventually declined. McQueen claimed that he was not engaged in “the business of turning other people into stars.” In his opinion, Lee was trying to use his fame to achieve the success of the Silent Flute. How disappointed Lee was with McQueen’s comments reportedly fueled the famous Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen rivalry. In the past, the martial arts actor vowed that one day he would become a bigger star than McQueen.
As for what happened to the role of Cord in The Silent Flute, Lee did not give up the idea of getting a big star for the role of this character. Polley wrote in his book that Lee intended to persuade McQueen’s main rival in Hollywood, Paul Newman, to play Cord, but for unknown reasons nothing came of it. After that, Lee convinced James Coburn to star in The Silent Flute. However, this scenario was not destined to come true. Due to a number of problems that Lee encountered when launching the Silent Flute, the project was curtailed. Five years after Lee’s death, his plan was finally presented on the big screen in the 1978 film The Iron Circle, where Jeff Cooper played the role intended for Steve McQueen, and David Carradine replaced Bruce Lee.