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The Man Behind Bruce Lee’s Tao of Jeet Kune Do: Gilbert Johnson

The Man Behind Bruce Lee’s Tao of Jeet Kune Do: Gilbert Johnson

On the eve of Tao of Jeet Kune Do’s release, public awareness will be awakened again to the legendary man who wrote this book: Bruce Lee.  As a child, I used to call him “Uncle Bruce.”  But there was another special human being who I regard just as warmly.  And when looking closely at the Tao, this other person was behind the scenes, as well—a devotee who used his time and energy to build the most prolific and modern book in martial arts history. This unsung hero deserves to be remembered within the chronicles of the jeet kune do world.  His name is Gilbert Johnson.

Who is Gilbert Johnson? Why is he of major significance? Let’s begin with the fact that Gilbert was specifically chosen by Linda Lee Cadwell to carefully and delicately tend to the sea of papers reflecting her late husband’s thoughts, words and insights.  The monumental task of organizing and preserving these writings by my honorary uncle would become a sacred endeavor for Gilbert, and he became co-editor of Tao of Jeet Kune Do (and The Filipino Martial Arts, a book by my father, Dan Inosanto). As an accomplished martial artist on his own terms, Gilbert was an inquisitive human being and connected very much with the teachings and principles of jeet kune do.

Before his mission with Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Gilbert was a gifted writer and independent journalist who frequently wrote for Black Belt and other publications during the 1960s and 1970s.  According to one of his family members, Gilbert experienced several life-threatening events in his lifetime, but he managed to survive.  As a freelance journalist, Gilbert also threw himself smack into the middle of the 1979 protests in Isfahan, Iran, and survived to write of his account of the Iranian Revolution. Perhaps because he served in the military, Gilbert was prepared to boldly and resiliently come face to face with the world.

Despite these experiences, Gilbert managed to have a big heart.  He wanted to help people. Gilbert tried to share his enthusiasm and friendship with others no matter how old or young.  I adored this man as a child growing up. He inspired me through the pure essence of his kindness.

By the time the 1980s rolled around, the AIDS epidemic started to spread across the United States, where the illness was labeled a “gay disease.” Sadly, Gilbert was one of the first people I knew to contract the disease via a blood transfusion, which he needed after being involved in a car accident. And because of this, he quickly understood the discrimination and prejudice he’d face. As a result, he became an activist to help spread awareness that AIDS can affect anyone, that compassion is needed, not hate.

In my film The Sensei, I tried to show how this historical attitude affected the martial arts world by featuring a gay martial arts students who had to deal with discrimination.  As a writer, director and producer, Gilbert would challenge me—mind, body and spirit—to address the prejudice that has touched the martial arts community.

As a close family friend to my father and the rest of the original jeet kune do family, Gilbert was a brilliant choice to meet the challenges of putting together the most soul-searching and significant writings of my godfather.  He tirelessly worked and employed the techniques of a researcher and detective. He studied and trained with my father and the other jeet kune do students at our family academy, which was humbly tucked away in our home’s backyard in Carson, California.

Gilbert wanted to understand and explore what Lee was saying through these precious and profound documents that were left behind.  I like to compare his work on Tao of Jeet Kune Do to a doctor helping to deliver a child into the world.

It has been 35 years since Tao of Jeet Kune Do was born into the public eye. I am glad that such writings will be exposed to a new generation and that Gilbert has a place in martial arts history for giving the world such a groundbreaking and spiritual book.


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Posted in Bruce Lee, Chinese Martial Arts, Chinese Martial Arts History, General Martial Arts History, Jeet Kune Do, Modern Martial Arts, Traditional Martial Artists, Western Martial Arts History.

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  1. chris says

    As a friend and training partner of Gil Johnson, I was extremely moved by Diana’s posting. I remember when Diana’s father, Dan Inosanto, told us (the members of the JKD class) that Gil was going to be training with us because he was putting together the Tao of JKD for Linda. and Dan wanted him to have firsthand experience in the art. As Diana stated, Gil was both an accomplished writer and a talented martial artist. But most of all he was a nice human being. I will always remember him with great fondness. Thank you for posting Diana’s letter about Gil.
    In the Spirit of JKD,
    Chris Kent

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  2. John says

    This is a moving reminder. Gil was my friend and teacher, a fellow martial artist, writer and falconer. He showed me Escrima, beginning my journey away from linear hard-style martial arts.
    Diana’s accounting of Gil going into Iran was accurate. But that wasn’t his only jaunt. He worked with Peter Whitehead in Saudi, flew birds there while working as an administrative assistant for ARAMCO in Saudi, and came back with some of the first reports of barbary falcons, and a saluki that actually obeyed him!
    I’ve so many fond memories of Gil… and it’s good to see him being remembered for his contributions, his generous and peaceful spirit. Not all of the accountings of him are entirely accurate, but the intention is good, and I suppose this telling is the way Gil would rather have had it be.

    I came across this article because an acquaintance mentioned Bruce and I was trying to find him some online info about Gil and TJKD, and discovered that Wikipedia has no reference to him at all. This bothers me quite a bit, as Gil wrote a number of books and articles (including some of Danny’s earliest books). I’ll be starting up a Wikipedia page on him, and welcome those of you who knew him to contribute.



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  3. John says

    Diana, Dan, Linda, and the rest of you, please go to and pitch in on giving Gil a proper article? Thanks!

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Continuing the Discussion

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    [...] Written by Diana Inosanto (Guro Dan Inosanto’s daughter), a profile on the man behind Bruce Lee’s “Tao of Jeet Kune Do”, Gilbert Johnson. [Black Belt] [...]

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  3. The Man Behind Bruce Lee’s – Tao of Jeet Kune Do | JKD London | Bruce Lee | Jeet Kune Do linked to this post on July 3, 2015

    [...] Diana Lee Inosanto – Black Belt Magazine, September 23, 2011 Gilbert [...]

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  4. 10 Things Bruce Lee Wanted to Share to with You Before His Mysterious Death : Waking Times linked to this post on September 15, 2015

    [...] it was completed and published in 1975 by his wife Linda Lee (now Linda Lee Cadwell) and Gilbert Johnson, writer and close family friend of Bruce Lee. Carefully organizing and presenting Bruce’s [...]

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