The truth about Bruce Lee and Sharon Tate's relationship

Martial arts expert Bruce Lee and blonde bombshell Sharon Tate were rising stars in the late 1960s, but their early deaths transformed their friendship into the stuff of Hollywood legend. Decades later, their personal and professional lives continue to transfix audiences. Quentin Taratino's critically-acclaimed 2019 film, Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood explored their bond, and in June 2020, the ESPN documentary, Be Water, studied Lee's encounters with racism as an Asian American actor. But what was the relationship between Tate and Lee really like?

Lee and Tate met in the mid-1960s at an interesting point in both of their careers. According to Lee's biography, he'd decided to leave behind his earlier life as an actor and a dancer to focus on physical training and teaching gung fu. Meanwhile, Tate's Hollywood career was just beginning to take off. After bit television parts, she was preparing to make her film debut in the 1966 horror flick Eye of the Devil.

Though their short-lived friendship came to a tragic end, the ripple effects of Lee and Tate's relationship continue to impact Hollywood today.

Bruce Lee and Sharon Tate were linked by a hair stylist

In 1964, Lee was invited to give a martial arts exhibition at the Long Beach International Karate Championships, according to the South China Morning Post. Hollywood hair stylist Jay Sebring attended the event and was one of many who was in awe of the feats Lee accomplished there. Sebring's star clients included Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra, and Warren Beatty, as described by Vanity Fair. Sebring also had an interest in martial arts, and he and Lee became friends.

It was Sebring who helped Lee catch Hollywood's attention, telling producer William Dozier about the talented martial arts instructor and pitching Lee for a screen test for a TV pilot. While that project did not work out, Lee did land the role of Kato, the sidekick to the title hero in the short-lived action series The Green Hornet in 1966. After the show was canceled, Sebring connected Lee with other Hollywood stars to train them in martial arts.

Lee's connections within celebrity circles continued to expand. He was hired as a technical director for the 1968 spy comedy The Wrecking Crew, starring Sharon Tate and Dean Martin. Tate was Sebring's ex-girlfriend, but the two remained close friends. The fledgling starlet underwent intensive martial arts training under Lee, which was depicted in a brief scene in Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood. Tate and Lee became friends, and she introduced him to her husband, director Roman Polanski. According to Esquire, Lee would become Polanski's personal kung fu instructor.

Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson Family

Sharon Tate's life came to a tragic end at age 26. On the evening of Aug. 8, 1969, Tate was hosting friends at her home on Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills, Calif. Guests included ex-boyfriend Jay Sebring, actor/writer Voytek Frykowski, and heiress Abigail Folger. Tate's husband, director Roman Polanski, was in London working on a film. Tate was 8½ months pregnant. 

After midnight, four strangers stormed into Tate's rental home. Charles "Tex" Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten were members of a cult headed by Charles Manson. According to Oprah magazine, Manson had a bone to pick with music producer Terry Melcher, who used to rent the house where Tate and Polanski were living. Manson reportedly told his followers to pay a visit to "that house where Melcher used to live" and to "totally destroy everyone in [it], as gruesome as you can," per Oprah.

They did. A housekeeper found the bodies later that morning.

The Manson Family, as the cult was known, was not suspected of the killings until months later. However, according to Lee biographer Matthew Polly, Polanski briefly believed Bruce Lee may have had something to do with the heinous crime.

Sharon Tate's husband suspected Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee continued to work as Roman Polanski's martial arts instructor after Sharon Tate's death, and it was a conversation during one of those training sessions that reportedly raised suspicions in the director's mind.

According to Lee biographer Matthew Polly, Lee told Polanski that he'd lost his eyeglasses, and Polanski recalled that a pair of glasses had been found at the crime scene near his wife's body. "Bruce was the only person [Polanski] knew personally who had the physical skills to hurt a bunch of people at once. Bruce was the toughest guy he knew, and Bruce knew weapons," Polly told Esquire. Also, Lee also lived not far from the couple's home.

However, after Polanski took Lee to an optician to get new glasses, he discovered that Lee's prescription did not match the glasses found at the crime scene. According to Polly, Polanski never told Lee of his suspicion and didn't disclose it publicly until 1985 in his memoir, Roman by Polanski.

Lee's life would be cut short as well. On July 20, 1973, he died at age 32 after a hypersensitive reaction to a painkiller left him in a coma. Lee's death occurred shortly before the debut of his landmark film Enter the Dragon.