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The Real-Life Event That Spawned The Bruce Lee Scene In Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" – the 9th film by director Quentin Tarantino – hit the big screen in July of 2019 to great fanfare. It boasted an all-star cast that included the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie alongside Emile Hirsch, Al Pacino, Margaret Qualley, and others in supporting roles. Those names, coupled with the history-rewriting story and witty dialogue Tarantino cooked up, made the production a smash hit and a fine addition to his filmography. By the time it left theaters, it grossed nearly $375 million and took the 92nd Academy Awards by storm — scoring two wins out of its 10 nominations.

However, that's not to say that everything about the movie was sunshine and rainbows. "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" saw its fair share of controversies, from the near-silent portrayal of the late big-screen icon Sharon Tate (Robbie) to the exclusion of the Manson Family's racist roots. Arguably the most widely discussed of the bunch was Mike Moh's interpretation of Bruce Lee, which drew the ire of Shannon Lee, the martial arts legend's daughter, as well as his "Game of Death" costar and former basketball sensation, Kareem Abdul-Jabar.

Despite these complaints, Tarantino released his feature anyway — perceived historical inaccuracies and all. Although, there is one particular scene that's actually heavily inspired by a real-life incident centering on Lee and fellow combat sports revolutionary, Gene LeBell.

Cliff Booth's humbling of Bruce Lee wasn't exactly made-up

Bruce Lee's standout scene from "Once Upon A Time in Hollywood" focuses on his off-camera behavior on the set of "The Green Hornet." He's depicted as brash, arrogant, and overconfident in his abilities as a stuntman and martial artist. This leads to a confrontation between him and fellow stunt performer Cliff Booth (Pitt) that concludes with the former being thrown into the side of a car and the latter being fired for his violence. Considering that Booth isn't a real person, one would be led to believe that the entire sequence is a farce, but that's simply not the case.

As recalled by The Things, when Lee was playing Kato on "The Green Hornet," many of his costars complained about his legitimately painful stunt punches and kicks. This caused stunt coordinator Bennie Dobbins to call in Gene LeBell, a renowned martial artist and then-stuntman, to take Lee down a peg. "Judo Gene" was tasked with just applying a headlock to him, but he took it a step further by hoisting Lee upon his shoulders and running him around the set. Suffice to say, Lee wasn't happy, angrily telling LeBell at one point that he'd kill him if he didn't put him down.

Lee took his real-life lesson from LeBell in stride

It's well-documented that Bruce Lee didn't respond well to his punishment, but he came to realize that there was a learning opportunity within it. This prompted him to revise his largely strike-based martial arts style, Jeet Kune Do, by adding grapple maneuvers that Gene LeBell was more than happy to teach him. Their partnership soon turned to a friendship that lasted until Lee's untimely death in 1973. As a result of their collaboration, Lee is remembered to this day as one of MMA's biggest influences of all time (via Bleacher Report).

LeBell once referred to Bruce Lee as "A wonderful, wonderful man and a great martial artist," a sentiment that Quentin Tarantino would apparently agree with. Even though his take on the "Enter the Dragon" star drew heavy criticism from multiple parties, according to Mike Moh in an interview with Birth. Movies. Death., "Tarantino loves Bruce Lee; he reveres him." Whether or not Cliff Booth would share in this adoration for Lee can be left up to debate, but if the historical event their scuffle is based on is of any indication, they surely found some common ground down the line.