Monday, October 14, 2013

Van Damme Week: Humble Beginnings

The story of Jean-Claude Camille Francois Van Varenberg is the stuff of Hollywood legend.  Or TV movie of the week for sure.  Born in Sint-Agatha-Berchem, Belgim, Jean-Claude spent his youth as a hyper kid who hated school and history, was an awkward, bespectacled blonde runt with a lisp.  Skinny and not physically gifted, Jean-Claude's father, Eugene, sent him to train in shotokan karate with Claude Goetz at age 11 to "make him into a man" after seeing the David Carradine television show, Kung-Fu.

There, Goetz's inhuman training (running 10s of miles, wearing a padded suit to wrestle dogs, torturous flexibility exercises) began to shape the young lad.  But to Goetz, endurance wasn't enough, to create powerful striking, Jean-Claude needed resistance training for strength.  Adding in ballet for grace and stretching (as well as lots of beautiful girls), Jean-Claude transformed himself into a 200 pound beast who could jump spin kick over your head and do a full split before dropping out of high school and opening his own fitness mecca, California Gym.  Not content with the gym business and winning karate tournaments, having seen big sweeping epic movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Ben-Hur and motivated by his ability to be picked out a crowd for modeling and bit parts; Jean-Claude left his family, business and first wife to pursue his dream:  To become a movie star.

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.

Believing he needed a more American moniker, Jean-Claude Van Varenburg became Frank Cujo.  Unfortunately an adaptation of the Stephen King novel, Cujo was released in 1983 so Van Varenburg became Van Damme, the name of a friend from Hong Kong.  A chance meeting with Chuck Norris saw young Jean-Claude Van Damme auditioning at Norris' home to become his trainer.  Impressed with JCVD's kicking skills, Chuck took him on where Van Damme trained Norris for months, for free.  Norris eventually got VD a job at his wife's restaurant, Woody's Wharf, in Newport Beach and took JC on two movie shoots.  Van Damme would land his first on screen credits in 1984 as the Gay Karate Man in Monaco Forever and a scene stealing dance extra with Qissi in Breakin'.

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.

His personal life going well, it was time to ramp up his professional output.  Jean-Claude ran into 80's super producer Menahem Golan at a restaurant on La Cienega.  Golan was one half of Cannon Films, the go-go mini-studio of the 80's.  Where some studios had 10 movies in development, Cannon had 100.  According to Van Damme, he saw Golan leaving the restaurant with some Asian buyers fresh from the American Film Market happening in Santa Monica.  Jean-Claude threw a kick over Golan's head, pointed to himself and introduced himself as "Jean-Claude Van Damme, karate guy".  The crowd impressed, Golan gave JC a card and set a meeting for the next day.  According to Golan, VD was a waiter at the restaurant and while holding a bowl of turtle soup, kicked over Golan's head without spilling the soup.

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.

After 7 hours, Jean-Claude finally had his meeting with Golan and was nearly in tears.  After struggling for five years, Van Damme sold himself as a young Chuck Norris, maybe a Stallone.  He was very cheap, Golan could buy him for a piece of bread and make money with him.  To accentuate his boasts, Van Damme took off his shirt to reveal his muscles then placed two chairs beside him and did the splits between them.  Impressed, Golan laid down the script for Bloodsport, telling Van Damme, "you want to be a star, I'll make you a star".

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.

Promoting Bloodsport:

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