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For as fearsome and fit an action hero as Jean-Claude Van Damme would become in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the “Muscles from Brussels” literally begged for his breakthrough role.
Van Damme was a European karate champ desperate to crack into the movie business, but his only “major” credit was as a background dancer in the 1984 hip-hop favorite Breakin’ (a clip that has become internet famous in more recent years). So in addition to attempting to sneak onto Sylvester Stallone’s property to meet his idol, the wannabe star would also occasionally approach (stalk?) movie producers at restaurants and show off his high kicks.
One, Cannon Films executive Menaham Golan, invited JCVD to his office. “He said, ‘My friend, Michael Dudikoff, he is a star. Chuck Norris, he’s a star. You’ll never be a star,'” Van Damme, now 58, told Yahoo Entertainment in our latest episode of Role Recall (watch in full above). “This intuition voice I’ve had for years and years said, ‘Go around the desk and beg, bro. This is your last shot, right?’
“I was living on the street, sleeping in cars and garages, sometimes I stole food. I didn’t have good money. … I was so starving for movies. When you want something, you want something, right? So I go around the desk [and] say, ‘Anything? Do you have a small part?’ And he [saw] me so sad, and the situation of a guy asking — almost begging — and he said, ‘Sit down.’ He was sad to see me like that. He looked at me strange, he waited for two or three minutes, and he said [to an associate], ‘Karen, bring me Bloodsport.'”
Released in 1988, Bloodsport starred Van Damme as Frank Dux, a U.S. Army soldier who leaves the military to enter a fight-to-the-death martial arts tournament in Hong Kong. It grossed a surprising $65 million, and turned the Belgian-born JCVD into the action genre’s hot new thing. “I became a sensation overnight because of Bloodsport,” he said.
With Double Impact, in which Van Damme played identical twins separated at birth who reconnect as adults, the actor found out his own agent was attempting to convince the producers to hire another performer, Dolph Lundgren, for a role. And the drama didn’t stop there. “The producer came on set I think after five weeks [of shooting] to take some money from our movie because he was losing money on a movie called Stone Cold [a crossover project for then-NFL star Brian Bosworth].” So Van Damme picked up a papaya and hurled it at the man’s head. “Thank God he ducked. [It splattered] all over the wall. And he just ran away to the airport. I was crazy at the time. You just don’t touch my movie.”
When Van Damme and Lundgren appeared at the Cannes Film Festival to sell Universal Soldier, which was still in the works, the pair staged a fight on the red carpet that many news outlets believed to be legit. “I said, ‘Dolph, we have nothing to show. We have no movie to show’ — when you come to Cannes you have to show something, if not you feel inferior— ‘so on the carpet, let’s bump each other on the shoulder. …’ We did it, it looked good. … It was just for publicity. And it worked.”
Though Van Damme made a highly publicized appearance on the hit sitcom Friends in 1996 (“I didn’t know about this TV show, duh,” he said), his career began to suffer in the latter part of the decade as he struggled with a cocaine addiction, infidelity and failing marriages.
He made a comeback by playing himself in the 2008 crime drama JCVD, and four years later finally costarred with his idol, Stallone, in The Expendables 2, the second installment in the all-star action hero ensemble series.
Van Damme played the central villain “Vilain,” and will even take credit for fixing the climactic showdown between him and Sly’s Barney Ross, which he originally found too quick and lacking of any real fisticuffs between them. “The final fight was s**t,” Van Damme said. “So I said, ‘Sly, this is f**ked up.’ People want to see us [clash].’ So he said, ‘Sit down, tell me how you want that fight to be.'” So Van Damme designed what would ultimately be their mano-a-mano throwdown in a mine. “It became that fight, and it was a two-day [shoot],” he said.
Jean-Claude Van Damme can currently be seen in the new action-drama We Die Young, now in select theaters and on demand. Watch the trailer:
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