How the martial-arts revolution kickstarted on television

The Detectives (1959 to 1962) was the first series to feature martial arts on television. And then came many other.

Bruce Lee in the mid-1960s television series The Green Hornet. Archive Photos / Getty Images
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Who threw the first punch: TV’s love affair with martial arts?

While today's TV action heroes are routinely expected to karate-chop, judo-kick, kung-fu-punch and somersault to twice their height – this wasn't always the case. In fact, the first time martial arts were featured on US television, was in an early episode of The Detectives (1959 to 1962), as well as guest appearances, so to speak, in westerns such as The Wild Wild West (1965 to 1969), spy capers such as The Avengers (1961 to 1969) and science fiction such as the original Star Trek (1966 to 1969).

In 1966, however, The Green Hornet spurred a martial arts mini-craze when ABC hired Bruce Lee to play Kato, valet and sidekick to the series star Van Williams. Viewers responded immediately to Lee's martial-arts manoeuvres as he stole scenes and dispatched miscreants with élan and athleticism, as the series kick-started his rise to fame. Lee also appeared in Longstreet (1971 to 1972) as Li Tsung, a fighting instructor to the titular blind investigator, portrayed by James Franciscus.

The martial arts leapt to centre stage with Kung Fu (1972 to 1975) – widely acclaimed by critics and one of the most popular shows of its day – which starred David Carradine as the biracial, serene Shaolin monk, Kwai Chang Caine, who wanders the American Old West armed only with his fighting skills and spiritual training in his search for his half-brother.

Debate continues today as to whether Bruce Lee – who also auditioned for the role and whom many believe was unfairly rejected by the ABC network brass – could have made the series even more authentic and spectacular. By this time, a new programming tradition had taken root. Martial arts programming is now a popular theme across the American and global TV landscape.