While Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek celebrates its 50th anniversary, a little-known but no less important TV series is also celebrating its half-century birthday: The Green Hornet. This one-season superhero series would have likely been forgotten if not for the legend of its lead actor, Bruce Lee.
A philosopher, actor, and martial arts innovator — Lee created Jeet Kune Do, a forerunner to modern MMA — Lee simultaneously fought bad guys on TV and prejudice behind the scenes. An Asian-American man who made his TV debut just two years after segregation was ruled illegal, Lee had a lot to prove, and he did so with his awe-inspiring roundhouse kicks as Kato in The Green Hornet.
Produced by William Dozier, who also brought Batman to TV, The Green Hornet premiered on September 9, 1966. An adaptation of the 1930’s pulp radio character and comic book hero, The Green Hornet was a tough-as-nails superhero show far before Arrow and Marvel’s Daredevil hit the small screen. In the series, millionaire newspaper mogul Britt Reid (Van Williams) led a double life posing as the criminal kingpin Green Hornet in order to get close to, and then frame, bad guys. Accompanied by his valet Kato (Lee), the Hornet made criminals quiver while Batman was too busy getting groovy.
Although Hornet called the shots, it was Kato who stole the show: Quiet and dignified, Lee’s Kato was a breakthrough representation of Asians on American television, equally significant to George Takei’s Sulu from Star Trek. Lee technically beat Takei to the punch, though. Sulu came aboard the Enterprise in the show’s third episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” which aired on September 22.
However significant Lee’s Kato was, Lee wasn’t happy playing a servant to a white hero (although he reportedly had a solid friendship with his co-stars). To Lee’s relief, The Green Hornet ended after just 26 episodes in March of 1967. But in Hong Kong, The Green Hornet was a hit and aired as The Kato Show, proving not only the power of representation, but also Lee’s unmatched screen presence.
Although the Green Hornet and Kato aren’t staples like Batman or Captain Kirk, they’re more than just a simple footnote in TV history. 50 years later, The Green Hornet holds up with Williams’ straight-laced delivery and Kato’s ass-kicking. Check out these episodes to get a sense of what The Green Hornet was all about.
Episode 01: “The Silent Gun”
Beginning the series with a somber funeral is one hell of a way to tell viewers, This ain’t Batman. Although a tad slow and muted for a superhero series, the show’s first episode “The Silent Gun” is a typical murder mystery that sets up the overall structure that every subsequent Green Hornet episode will follow.
Be prepared to watch the same footage of Green Hornet and Kato getting ready in the Black Beauty, too. They’ll use those same shots throughout the show’s remaining 25 episodes.
Episode 03: “Programmed for Death”
Unintentionally funny because it begins with a reporter mauled to death by a leopard, “Programmed for Death” may have actually been the show’s pilot. Hornet and Kato don cheaper-looking angular masks as opposed to the molded ones in other episodes. There’s also a big chase scene with the Black Beauty where Kato and Hornet use an array of the car’s gadgets, which may have been done to sell networks on Hornet being a different sort of Batman.
Episode 04: “Crime Wave”
The Green Hornet takes a turn into speculative science-fiction in “Crime Wave” as a villain creates a computer that can predict crimes. But really, this episode is cool simply because Green Hornet and Kato crash a costume party that’s somewhere between “neighborhood Halloween party” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” Kato also knocks out a guy with just three strikes. So awesome.
Episode 10: “The Praying Mantis”
Although seeped in 20th century “orientalism,” the 10th episode “The Praying Mantis” is the definitive Kato episode. Dragged into an investigation in the Chinatown district, Kato goes one-on-one against Low Sing (Mako, nominated for an Oscar the same year), a kung-fu master who leads a dangerous street gang.
Episode 11: “The Hunters and the Hunted”
Eccentric big game hunters are fun villains for superheroes: Just ask Spider-Man, whose comic book arc “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is a fan favorite. In “The Hunters and the Hunted,” Green Hornet and Kato also become quarry for the elite Explorer’s Club, a secret society that hunts and kills people and criminals for sport. Besides the fun plot, this episode is one of the most notable times Kato uses nunchucks, a signature of Bruce Lee.
Episode 20: “Ace in the Hole”
One of Kato’s best moments in the series happens in “Ace in the Hole,” a light parody/homage to the 1951 movie of the same name. (Britt breaks a ton of journalistic practices as the Green Hornet, though it was never a big thing.) When a group of men can’t get a vault door open, Kato, that cocky bastard, tells them to step aside. He kicks it open after three good kicks. It was peak Bruce Lee, and for awhile, The Green Hornet was better for it.