As a kid, I was mesmerized by action stars Arnold Schwarzenegger & Jean-Claude Van Damme. Seeing Terminator,Predator, Commando, Universal soldier,Hard Target, Double Impact, Bloodsport left a mark on me. I used to do barbell curls while watching their movies. I wanted to be like them and look like them. They kicked ass, saved the day. They inspired me. They were my heroes.
Both of their success stories are unbelievable and larger than life. Both came from Europe not knowing the English language and they somehow became big action stars in a competitive Hollywood business.
Different kind of action star
As much as I love Arnold, I always had a soft spot for Van Damme. He really went against all odds. His story is astonishing. A true testament of desire and will.
He was a different action star, he displayed vulnerability and sensitivity in his roles. His roundhouse kick and splits were beautiful to watch on screen. He is one of a kind.
Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg was born 18 October in Brussels,Belgium. He was weak, shy, sensitive kid who wore big glasses. His father saw legendary tv show “Kung Fu” on tv and decided to enroll his son to Karate school at age 11 to make him stronger.
During teenage years, he took up on weight lifting and once was “Mr. Belgium” in a bodybuilding competition. At age 16 he also took ballet for 5 years. Jean-Claude was successful in competing for full contact sports from age 15 to 22 and was part of Belgian karate team.
Van Damme opened a gym in Brussels,that made a lot of money for him. Still he was always dreaming of becoming a movie star in America since childhood.Seeing movies like “Lawrence of Arabia” & “Ben Hur” as a kid made a huge impact on young Jean Claude. Later Bruce Lee made a huge impression on him, Jean-Claude could also use his martial art skills to get in the movies.
Dreaming of stardom & America
In his early twenties he had a gym that made him good money, he was married, he had a nice life but he wanted to be a movie star. Finally, Van Damme sold his gym and left his life at Belgium. People thought he was crazy, for going to America to become a movie star, but he was determined.
First, he tried his luck in Hong Kong trying to make connections then he went to Los Angeles in 1981.
In America, he struggled for 5 years to get himself in the business. Jean-Claude had to steal food, slept at other people’s houses, slept in a car. He worked out at golds gym at night because he didn’t have money to buy a gym membership. There he got his free shower. Eventually, he worked at several different jobs like a masseuse, taxi driver, limo driver, at carpet factory & bouncer at a club
He followed producers, actors, directors, knocked on doors and kept going to casting auditions.Getting acting jobs was almost impossible because of his poor English skills. Many times he felt lonely and wanted to quit but he always found a reason to stay for little a while. Something always kept him going and going, another casting gig another extra gig.
He briefly went as Frank Cujo but quickly changed his name to Van Damme which was taken from his childhood mentor.
His first acting gig in the USA was uncredited extra in Breakin 1984
Van Damme on his Breakin 1984 role:
“I was only an extra. But to me at the time, a movie was a movie. I didn’t know the difference between medium, high, and low budget. So I was trying to win the scene: I was behind the lead actor in the group, and I was jumping as high as I could, and doing a flip in the air. But of course, they cut that, because I was eating the screen with that fantastic jump.”
JCVD befriended Chuck Norris and they became sparring partners. Norris gave him a small uncredited extra role in his film Missing in Action.
His debut film role was in the short film “Monaco Forever”where he was credited as “gay karate man” who picks up a hitchhiker going to his wedding. according to JC in 2012, he got free pizza and 50 dollars for the role.
In 1986 he got cast as the Russian villain in karate flick “No retreat no surrender”. which he got paid 250 dollars. Film got 2 sequels without Van Damme.
He was briefly involved in sci-fi classic Schwarzenegger movie Predator where he played the alien but was fired and replaced with Kevin Peter Hall.
One day he saw legendary B-movie company Cannon group producer Menahem Golan on the street and showcased him his martial arts abilities by doing kick in front of Menahem face. Golan was impressed and invited him to his office.
The Producer wasn’t keen on hiring unknown actor but Van Damme persuaded him to hire him. He took his shirt off and did split into two chairs. Menahem finally felt for Van Damme and gave him script “Bloodsport”. He went to Hong Kong to shoot the film. Van Damme gave everything to the film, all his frustration, energy, all his life. The film showcases his athletic abilities, his famous roundhouse kick, and split.
This was his movie.
Star was born
After completion of the film, Menahem decided not to release the film because he thought it was bad even in Cannon group standards. Van Damme persuaded him to recut the film himself. JC edited the film at night while driving a limo at a day job. 2 years later Bloodsport was finally released and it became a box office hit. With 1,5 million budget it grossed 30 million worldwide.
Nobody had expected that. Unknown kid from Belgium with an accent kicked himself into stardom.
The film became martial arts classic and got 3 sequels in which Jean-Claude did not appear.
After Bloodsport Van Damme started doing films nonstop and the rest is history. His peak was in 1994 when his sci-fi action movie Timecop made 100 million worldwide. He got paid 7 million for Street Fighter video game adaptation.
He was responsible for bringing John Woo into Hollywood with his American debut in 1993 “Hard Target” my all time favorite Van damme film. He brought Ringo Lam into America with whom they made 3 movies together.
He tried also his hands at directing in 1996 with his martial arts adventure “The Quest”.
He lived a wild rock n roll life and had a substance abuse problem. In the mid-90s his box office star started to fade,he was more known for his crazy private life than for his movies.
His 1998 hong kong action film “Knock off” with sidekick Rob Schneider bombed at the box office. Films sad ending pop song “Its a knock off” really captures the feeling.
Van Damme tried for a comeback in 1999 with the sequel Universal Soldier :The return but it flopped at the box office. It was his last theatrical release.
After that he continued making lower budget direct to DVD films and got mainstream comebacks in 2008 with french drama JCVD that got good reviews and in 2012 with Sylvester Stallones summer hit The Expendables 2 in which he played the main villain.A couple of years ago he made hugely popular kickass Volvo commercial which has gotten 83 million views on youtube.
I had an honor seeing him live in Brussels 2012 at his Statue unveiling ceremony.I shot a little video back then:
I have been following his career since 2002, I m happy that he has gotten the recognition he deserves and is back in the spotlight. Check the best Van Damme forum in the world, Sheldon Lettich himself posts there time to time!
Now he lives in Los Angeles, he is filming his tv show Jean Claude Van Johnson and sequel to his classic Kickboxer is set to release 2016.
Van Damme’s story is inspirational. It’s unbelievable what a person can achieve if he sets his mind to. The determination and belief in a dream. Van Damme had a burning desire to achieve his dream. Rationally you might think he was crazy and he was, but with that attitude he eventually he got his dream. He believed in himself. He made it happen. He threw his fishing pole into the water and eventually caught his fish. From struggling young man in Los Angeles to worldwide recognition. A true modern Cinderella story.A true inspiration for all of us who have any kind of dream.
In 2003 documentary Dans La Peau Jean-Claude Van Damme, he gave advice anyone who wants to succeed in cinema but it can be applied to any other area of life:
“is not listen to ado of the world but to the quietness of the soul. I mean people will tell you in life it’s impossible, you´re too far away, it’s not makeable, it’s too hard.People listen to the world ado, but people never listen to the quietness, which is the sound of the soul, to put oneself inside oneself and ask oneself “what do I wanna do in life”.From gardener to pilot whatever, but to be happy. When you have the answer,which will come automatically, you have to follow the silence. And that’s what I followed. You have to listen to the soul, that’s what’s provided me the success because I believed in myself”