Once upon a time, Jean-Claude Van Damme was a popular Hollywood movie star. He even appeared in numerous action and martial arts flicks throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including Kickboxer, Timecop, Death Warrant and Street Fighter. But now the work seems to have dried up – and the “muscles from Brussels” hasn’t headlined an American film in years.
Yep, make no mistake: Van Damme was one of the biggest names of his era. He even had a cameo on Friends – as himself. And in the episode, Monica and Rachel have a fight over who gets to go on a date with the movie star, such was his desirability at the time. Yet Van Damme is now 58 years old, and his heartthrob days appear to be well behind him.
This is particularly noteworthy, as many actors who also started out as hunky action stars have continued to enjoy success as they’ve grown older. Think Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example. Van Damme, on the other hand, seemingly hasn’t had the same luck. In fact, he’s been stuck for years doing limited release or direct-to-DVD movies. So, what went wrong?
Well, Van Damme was actually a martial artist from a very young age. At ten, for instance, he started learning Shōtōkan karate, and at 18 he achieved a black belt in the sport. Van Damme also had ballet lessons, which can be invaluable to a fighter. “If you can survive a ballet workout, you can survive a workout in any other sport,” the star told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1989.
So, come 1982, the martial artist and one-time “Mr. Belgium” headed to Hollywood with the hope of making it in the acting world. And things went well. Van Damme in fact befriended another martial artist – none other than Chuck Norris – and found employment as a security guard at Norris’ bar. He also got to join the star’s movie stunt team.
Then in 1986 Van Damme appeared in the martial arts film No Retreat, No Surrender, in which he played a bad guy. The film was greeted with derision by critics, however, with the Los Angeles Times calling it an “amateurish clunker.” But for Van Damme, it was another stepping stone on the road to stardom.
Van Damme actually had his first hit movie with 1988’s based-on-a-true-story flick Bloodsport. The picture was a commercial success and established Van Damme as a martial arts film star. This led him on to films such as Cyborg, Kickboxer and Lionheart – and he was the fight choreographer on those last two as well.
Throughout the 1990s, too, Van Damme appeared in a handful of box-office hits. In 1992, for instance, he co-starred alongside Dolph Lundgren in Universal Soldier, which brought in more than $100 million globally. After that came 1994’s Timecop – which also earned in excess of $100 million and is still Van Damme’s biggest movie in commercial terms. That same year, Street Fighter – despite a critical drubbing – made millions as well.
But that period, it seems, was the peak of Van Damme’s star power. The sequel to Universal Soldier was released in 1999, for instance, and it fared badly both in both commercial and critical terms. And it would be many years before another Van Damme movie would receive a full release. In fact, the next one came in 2012 in the form of The Expendables 2.
Alas, it seemed that moviegoers were simply losing their appetite for the Van Damme brand. Throughout the 2000s, then, most of the star’s movies went straight to video or DVD. And then there were the actor’s personal troubles. In the mid-1990s, you see, Van Damme developed a cocaine addiction to go with his greatest successes.
In fact, Van Damme’s substance abuse led to him almost being fired from Street Fighter. “I couldn’t talk about it at the time, but I can now: Jean-Claude was coked out of his mind,” Street Fighter director Steven de Souza told The Guardian in 2018. “The studio had hired a wrangler to take care of him, but unfortunately the wrangler himself was a bad influence.”
Drink was sometimes involved in Van Damme’s Street Fighter on-set antics, too. According to assistant director Keith Heygate, who also spoke to The Guardian, “There was one time he was in the trailer, and he was quite [drunk]. My assistant couldn’t get him out; I couldn’t get him out. So I had to call the producer Chad Rosen to get him out. Then he came out with a bottle of champagne. I told him it was against health and safety to have alcohol on set. From that point on, he hated me.”
So Van Damme didn’t apparently endear himself to many people on the set of Street Fighter. “He had the presidential suite at the hotel, with a gym put into his room,” actor Roshan Seth told The Guardian. “Sometimes he wouldn’t turn up on set. The message would come through from him saying, ‘I have to pump up my muscles!’ And that was that.”
During the calamitous filming of Street Fighter, however, Van Damme did win over at least one person: his Australian co-star, Kylie Minogue. After all, the two allegedly had a fling while Van Damme was still married to his fourth wife, Darcy LaPier. And his relationship with LaPier had started as an affair, too.
Van Damme confessed to the infidelity in an interview with The Guardian in 2012. “Yes, yes, yes. It happened,” he said, after some coaxing. “I was in Thailand; we had an affair. Sweet kiss, beautiful lovemaking. It would be abnormal not to have had an affair. She’s so beautiful, and she was there in front of me every day with a beautiful smile, simpatico, so charming. She wasn’t acting like a big star.”
Yet this was a revelation to LaPier, who’d left Van Damme in 1997. She later revealed to the media that she’d been pregnant with the couple’s son, Nicholas, when the affair had supposedly taken place. LaPier informed FOX411’s Pop Tarts column, “I was shocked he would talk to the press about this all these years later to gain some notoriety. I didn’t know about it. I have had my feelings hurt, and I feel betrayed.”
“There is a lot of water under the bridge between us, but the fact is I was pregnant with our son at the time,” LaPier continued. “He’s almost 17 now, and I wouldn’t want him finding out all of this and being hurt by it, too.” What’s more, LaPier had actually met Minogue. “Kylie always seemed intimidated by me, and now I know why,” she added.
“I speak to [Van Damme] about once a week, so I will say something,” LaPier explained. “This is not cool.” She then threw another revelation into the mix for good measure. “I plan to see The Expendables 2, it looks like an amazing movie,” LaPier said. “I hope it does really well, because he hasn’t paid child support in seven years.”
There were some other tidbits about Van Damme’s ailing career in the 2012 Guardian piece, too. You see, although the star appeared in The Expendables 2, apparently he’d also been offered a role in the first one – but hadn’t taken it. According to Sylvester Stallone, Van Damme had declined the offer because he didn’t want to be seen being defeated in a battle.
“I wanted to set Jean-Claude against Jet Li, but he didn’t want to lose to Jet,” Stallone told The Sunday Times in 2010. “He didn’t think that was cool. But that’s why it would be cool: to have Jean-Claude beaten by the other man. Hey, they could have a rematch.” He added that Van Damme wasn’t “really into [his] gallows humor.”
In The Guardian’s interview, though, Van Damme denied Stallone’s account. He said the story was “bull****,” in fact, and claimed that he had turned the movie down because at the time he’d been working on a film called The Eagle Path. However, said movie, which is now titled Full Love, still hasn’t been released yet – while The Expendables made $35 million in its first weekend alone.
Yet Van Damme admitted in his Guardian interview that he’d become greedy early on his career – and it had spelled disaster. “I was f***ed up, man,” he confessed. “But you know, it was not about the money… I was making movie after movie, and in between movies I was doing promotion. I was tired. Everything I was touching was making money. Jim Carrey was being paid a fortune. And I wanted to play with the system. Like an idiot. Ridiculous.”
So following the success of Timecop, Van Damme reportedly demanded $20 million for his next contract. And after a major Hollywood studio turned him down, Van Damme told The Guardian, the star was “on the blacklist.” Universal stopped calling, in fact. And things spiralled from there. The actor’s drug use seemingly became worse and worse, for instance, and he was arrested for driving under the influence in 1999. Then, eventually, the action hero was informed by medics that he had bipolar disorder.
In 2011 Van Damme talked to the show Behind Closed Doors about his mental health. “Sometimes you’re gonna like me, and sometimes you’re gonna hate me,” he said. “But what can I do? I’m not perfect. I’m an extreme bipolar, and I’m taking medication for this.” People with bipolar disorder are generally at risk for substance abuse issues, too.
And there have been other setbacks in Van Damme’s career – some of which have tarnished his public image. For instance, in 2011 he attended a party in honor of Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya. Yet Kadyrov has been repeatedly accused of allowing multiple human rights violations to be committed under his rule.
Human Rights Watch even released a statement to The Hollywood Reporter in which they called out the stars who attended the party. “Ramzan Kadyrov is linked to a litany of horrific human rights abuses,” it read. “It’s inappropriate for stars to get paid to party with him. It bolsters his image and legitimizes a brutal leader and his regime.”
Other stars spotted at the event subsequently apologized. Yet despite supposedly being heard to profess his love for Kadyrov at the party, Van Damme did not say sorry. And a couple of weeks later he actually went back to Chechnya to dine with the disgraced leader and accompany him to the theater. It was, to say the least, not a good look.
In 2015, a few years later, his wife Gladys Portugues filed for divorce. Van Damme’s relationship with her had always been complicated: she’s both his third and his fifth wife. How did this happen? Well, Van Damme wed her in 1987, and the couple had two kids together before divorcing in 1992 – after the star cheated with LaPier. Then, in 1999, Van Damme and Portugues married again.
According to Hello magazine, the reason for the second divorce given in the paperwork was “irreconcilable differences.” Yet the divorce didn’t go through, and the couple called the separation off in May 2015. “The kids are strong, the wife is strong,” Van Damme told TMZ at the time. “There’s so much divorce around the world, and it’s very bad for the children.”
Divorces aside, though, controversy and difficulty seems to follow Van Damme wherever he goes. In September 2017, for instance, his son Nicholas was apprehended for allegedly threatening a man with a knife in Arizona. There was reportedly a lengthy standoff before Nicholas was taken in by the police. And in the end, Nicholas received 18 months’ probation.
In fact, 2017 wasn’t a good year for Van Damme. That same year, you see, he did a commercial for an Australian company named Ultra Tune. In the ad, a couple of women stop to change a tire but are then menaced by a group of armed men. Things look bad – until Van Damme suddenly arrives, and the would-be assailants greet him warmly.
This Van Damme advert subsequently became one of the most objected-to in Australia that year. The website 9News reported that one complainant said, “The ad is promoting the sexualization of women but also the predatory behaviour of men.” Nonetheless, Australia’s Ad Standards Bureau dismissed the complaints.
In December 2017, though, Van Damme attempted a comeback with a TV show for Amazon called Jean-Claude Van Johnson. The program was a tongue-in-cheek comedy starring Van Damme as a fictional take on his real-life persona. So the title character, Van Johnson, was a failed actor turned assassin.
To promote the show, Van Damme spoke to Rolling Stone about how his life was going. The subject of his bipolar disorder came up in the resulting conversation. “I train differently, I eat differently, I’m trying to talk less fast because I have lots of passion for the project,” he told the magazine. “I’m better than yesterday.”
In the same interview, Van Damme talked about his career and his favorite films. “I like Bloodsport, Timecop and Lionheart,” he said. “I’ve done some good classic films with lots of heart and sincerity. I like to mention that, because in the VHS era – with Stallone and Arnold – and in some countries you had to go by bicycle or bus through the snow to return tapes. It was almost like an event.”
Van Damme also spoke to Sharp magazine that same month about his hopes for the future. He said, “It comes to a point where, look, I’m 55-plus and there’s no time to waste. And also, I think I’ve had a muzzle on me. What’s that thing they put on dogs? Muzzle. Yeah, I think I’ve been muzzled in my career, in terms of not being able to go all [the] way.”
During the Sharp interview, Van Damme also displayed a healthy perspective about his career so far. “One day you hit it big and you score, one day you don’t,” he said. “The actors of Hollywood, including me, they should not take themselves too seriously. You have some very smart actors, and you have some very dumb actors… Maybe I’m one of the dumb ones, but we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously!”
And of the comeback show, Jean-Claude Van Johnson, the actor said, “Hopefully we will have a second season, but you never know in life. If we don’t, believe me, I will not be sleeping because I will be sad for a while, but it’s only a show, okay? We have to think about other things in life also.”
Alas, Van Damme was right to take that attitude. Jean-Claude Van Johnson was canceled by Amazon in January 2018, despite receiving a few more good reviews from critics than bad ones. And since then, Van Damme has starred in three mostly unheard-of limited release films and another Kickboxer sequel.
Thankfully, though, Van Damme seems to take a philosophical view of his career and appears grateful for all he’s achieved. He told Sharp, “To go from nothing, from being a kid from Belgium who has to fight… to go up against all these expectations and fly around the world and try to become something. It’s a long story, but basically it was great all the way up.”