Monday, October 14, 2013
Van Damme Week: Humble Beginnings
After collecting business cards from producers and distributors at the Milan Film Festival, Jean-Claude headed to Hong Kong where he briefly met Jackie Chan but struck out in the movie industry. His next cache of cards was from Americans so Jean-Claude landed in the pancake of lights known as Los Angeles, saw a limousine with two wheels on the back and knew he was in the right place. Working with childhood friend Michel Qissi, Jean-Claude lived hand to mouth for years on the streets performing odd jobs like teaching karate, bouncing bars, laying carpet (where he married the bosses daughter), driving limo's and as a masseur. He would train at Gold's Gym in Venice at 4:00AM when nobody checked membership and then take a free shower. When he wasn't working, Jean-Claude would spend hours chasing producers and going to auditions.
Responding to an open audition for martial artists, Jean-Claude would knock out a loud mouth bullying other hopefuls and landed the role of Ivan the Russian in Seasonal Films' No Retreat, No Surrender. Playing the villain to a high school transplant trained by the ghost of Bruce Lee, NRNS is far from classic cinema but is entertaining with some of VD's greatest fight scenes. Made for well under $1 million, NRNS earned $5 million in the US alone and garnered Van Damme some attention. Around this time Van Damme met superstar female bodybuilder Gladys Portugese on a photo shoot in Mexico. Apparently, she fell in love with his affinity for wearing suspenders. The two married and had their first child in 1987.
The next day, Van Damme would visit the penthouse of Cannon Films, the most successful independent studio of all time. Golan and his partner Yorum Globus were kings of cheap, exploitative fare, reusing sets and foreign pre-sale funding while also taking risks on edgier, artistic fare from known talent. Sylvester Stallone had just signed a $10 million deal to star in Over The Top, the arm wrestling/father-son/road trip opus.
Bloodsport would launch Jean-Claude Van Damme's career but it almost never saw the light of day. Stay tuned as we look at the movies that changed Van Damme from a karate kicking Arnold wannabe action star to a critically praised, self destructive actor and household brand.