This Black Beauty Brought Together Bruce Lee and Dean Jeffries
Photography by Forest Casey
Editor’s Note: As this month is dedicated to Hollywood car culture, Petrolicious is pleased to present the second of a four-part collaboration with The Petersen Automotive Museum. Today’s installment is about a broadcast-ready car, the man who built it, and the man who made it famous.
The year was 1967 and Bruce Lee was out of a job. The Green Hornet, the television show that was supposed to catapult him to American stardom, was finished after its first season. Greenway Productions had hit paydirt and created a cultural icon when it introduced Batman in 1966 but the company was unable to build on this success, and this despite attempting a “crossover” episode between its two superhero shows. So it was that the word came down from ABC’s head offices: 26 episodes were all the network would ever order.
Then, as now, Los Angeles was hit by waves of theatre program immigrants after graduation every year, all of them desperate for any network TV experience, even just a year’s worth. At this point in his American career, Bruce Lee was but one more face in this crowd of aspiring stars. Sure, he had been drawing $500 per week for his work on The Green Hornet–income that had now disappeared–but he still had to teach martial arts on the side simply to provide for his wife and young son.
Back in Hong Kong, however, Lee was a household name, having filmed his first starring role, 1950’s The Kid, nearly two decades earlier. Yet, as many newly-arrived actors quickly learn, hometown achievements count for nothing–everyone has to prove themselves anew in Hollywood.
Unfortunately for Bruce, his first exposure to American households in The Green Hornet was not as a martial arts master, but as Kato, chauffeur to the show’s titular character. Lee was convincing enough in the role, but his true talents in the martial arts–from which his status as a cultural legend would ultimately stem– were largely wasted. The show’s writers even scripted Kato to lose a fight to Robin in the crossover episode. Lee reportedly threatened to walk off the set in protest and the producers eventually agreed that the two sidekicks would fight to a draw.
Lee spent the bulk of his television screen time in a 1966 Chrysler Imperial sedan known as Black Beauty. This, of course, was no ordinary Chrysler: Greenway Productions had quickly realized the marketing benefits of a recognizable show car when it debuted the Batmobile and, as a result, Black Beauty was itself a showpiece. Bristling with armaments, spy toys, and secret compartments, Black Beauty was a mobile headquarters for the Hornet and his alter ego, newspaper publisher Van Williams, to pursue and destroy the crime syndicates of 1960s Los Angeles.
Like Lee’s martial arts talents, Black Beauty’s extensive features were similarly neglected. The Green Hornet was cancelled so prematurely that many of the car’s trick features never even saw screen time. The twin brooms that deploy behind the rear wheels to sweep away tire tracks were never featured; the hidden compartment in the car’s “C-pillar,” which housed the “Hornet’s Sting” and other weaponry was never revealed. This is a shame, because the best part of this fantastical car is that most of its trick features actually function—or at least appear as if they could.
In the world of production cars, one is seldom enough, and Black Beauty was no exception. There were actually two Black Beauties and both were built in Hollywood by Dean Jeffries on an impossible deadline in 1966. Barely four weeks passed from the time Jeffries received the call from The Green Hornet’s producers to build the cars in mid-April to the time he delivered the first car to ABC studios on May 11. Jeffries received the considerable sum of $50,000 as commission, but the build’s tight deadline makes this number rather less impressive. To put this project in perspective, consider that Karl Kirchner, who currently owns Black Beauty #2, needed an entire year simply to complete the wiring as part of his restoration process. But, hey, what’s the point of building a superhero’s car if the gadgets don’t actually function?
This question of functionality was especially important to the people behind The Green Hornet. While producers, actors, gaffers, directors, and set designers are undeniably craftsmen, they aren’t car-builders. So when a superhero’s car was needed for the show, the producers turned their gaze southward, toward a burgeoning car culture that was growing in the pre-riot communities of Compton, Lynwood, and Watts. The list of car customizers who established themselves in South Los Angeles is impressive enough to populate a Mt. Rushmore-style monument, with George and Sam Barris, Von Dutch, Frank Kurtis, and Ed Roth all equally deserving of spots on the mountainside, as it were. The youngest member of this group of founding fathers—the one they used to call “The Kid”—started out painting pinstripes as Von Dutch’s protégé. Dean Jeffries wasn’t called “kid” for very long.
After an appearance on The Steve Allen Show to discuss his groundbreaking asymmetrical hot rod, “Mantaray,” Dean Jeffries was approached by a production company that wanted to use the car for a Frankie Avalon project called Bikini Beach. Jeffries ended up driving the car on camera once the teen heartthrob admitted he couldn’t operate a stick shift. The flick was aimed at teenagers and is mostly forgotten today, but Jeffries’s on-screen appearance marked the start of a relationship with Hollywood that would last the rest of his life.
Hollywood set designers and car customizers do share a few similarities—some builders aim to reconstruct reality while others merely slap together facades. Dean Jeffries insisted on reality. This is why Hollywood’s producers trusted Jeffries to deliver Black Beauty on short notice; why James Dean trusted Jeffries to tattoo the tail end of his Porsche 550 Spyder with permanent black paint, forever proclaiming the car “Little Bastard;” and why–in a twist of irony, given Jeffries’s insistence on reality–Carroll Shelby felt he could rely on Jeffries to paint and re-paint the first Shelby Cobra enough times to convince Ford that he could build on deadline. Jeffries not only built Black Beauty #1, he also rebuilt it, too, overseeing the car’s restoration in 1993.
Two years after The Green Hornet was cancelled, Bruce Lee had guest-starred on a few TV shows but still hadn’t found steady acting work. He was still living in Los Angeles, teaching martial arts on the side. Two of Lee’s students convinced him to write a screenplay, The Silent Flute, based on the philosophy of enlightenment. The trio even traveled to India to scout locations, but the script didn’t sell.
Distraught and uncertain about his future, Lee flew to Hong Kong in 1971 on the advice of a producer friend. Maybe if he could film a feature there, he could show the Hollywood executives his real abilities, though he hadn’t returned home in over a decade, and had no idea how he would be remembered.
To his surprise, Lee returned to Hong Kong a hero: unbeknownst to him, the The Green Hornet’s brief run had played to great acclaim in his homeland. In Hong Kong, however, the credits were reversed—The Green Hornet was referred to as “The Kato Show” and Lee was now recognized on the street constantly.
Bruce made three feature films in Hong Kong, culminating in Way of the Dragon, which he also wrote, choreographed, and directed. Enter the Dragon and Hollywood recognition followed a year later. His status cemented, Bruce Lee would never again have to chauffeur anyone around town.
For more on Dean Jeffries and his numerous contributions to American automotive and entertainment culture, head on over to CarStories.com.