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FROM APEMAN TO MOGUL

TEN YEARS AFTER 'TARZAN,' CHRISTOPHER LAMBERT GOES HOLLYWOOD. IT'S A JUNGLE OUT THERE

Frenzied with anticipation, Christopher Lambert spent Labor Day weekend pacing the floor through two important debuts. By Monday, the results were in: His science-fiction thriller Fortress had grossed a respectable $4 million in its first four days, and his wife, actress Diane Lane, had given birth early on Sunday to their first child, Eleanor Jasmine.

Even for Lambert, it was an exceptionally productive weekend, but the American-born, Swiss-bred actor, who first tasted Hollywood success a decade ago as Tarzan in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, is accustomed to overdrive. Since Greystoke, his movies, including both Highlanders, have been smashes overseas, yet have barely made a dent here. Now 36 and determined to establish himself with American audiences, Lambert is appearing in four modestly budgeted action films-all of which the Disney-owned Miramax will release in the next 16 months. Fortress is the first.

In the $11 million futuristic film, Lambert plays a stalwart prisoner who masterminds a breakout from a jail run by a mind-controlling supercomputer. ''It was like being plunged into a comic book full of splatter guns and laser bars,'' he says. November brings Gunmen, starring Lambert and Mario Van Peebles (Posse) as bounty hunters fleeing villains Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation) and comic Denis Leary. ''He really goes balls out,'' says Van Peebles, ''sort of like Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.'' Early next year comes Roadflower, set in the American Southwest. ''It's like Cape Fear or Deliverance,'' says Lambert, ''about how far you can push a human being until he reacts.'' And in the wings is Highlander III: The Magician, in which Lambert returns as time-traveling swordsman Connor MacLeod, but minus costar Sean Connery, whose character, Lambert notes with movie-biz practicality, ''died already, twice.''

So far, Miramax seems pleased with its considerable investment: Fortress' 1,200-screen opening marks the company's widest release ever. ''Christopher appeals to men in his action films,'' explains Miramax cochairman Bob Weinstein, ''and women like him as well, dating back to Greystoke.''

Born in New York City, Lambert was just 2 when his father, a diplomat, moved the family to Geneva, where Christopher grew up largely in boarding schools. By his early 20s, he was studying acting, but so lackadaisically that an elite Paris drama school expelled him. In 1982, a casting agent for Greystoke discovered him, but despite the film's popularity, the only Hollywood offers that followed required him to be ''half-naked,'' he says. So Lambert returned to Paris to jump-start his career. It worked, halfway: Subway (1985) won him a Cesar, France's Oscar, as best actor. The 1986 Highlander and its sequel grossed over $200 million worldwide and turned him into a star in Europe and Japan. In the U.S., however, both films bombed.

In 1985, Lambert began a romance with Lane while they were in Rome on separate publicity junkets. They married in 1988 and costarred last year in Knight Moves (Lane played a psychologist to Lambert's mercurial murder suspect). Again the film did much better abroad than Stateside.

When Lambert has tried to play the studio game, the results have been unhappy. His 1987 performance as a ruthless guerrilla in Michael Cimino's The Sicilian was blasted by the critics; a 15-year-old girl even waylaid him on the street. ''She told me, 'You can't portray somebody arrogant, proud, and angry,''' he says. ''I knew it when I was shooting the movie. I wanted the guy to be a positive hero.''

Since then, Lambert has been shaping his persona by sticking to larger-than-life good guys like Fortress' fiercely protective warrior husband. ''You are trying to project your own personality,'' he explains earnestly. ''I gotta be me.'' The formula has yet to pay off in America-Fortress nosedived in its second week and won't come close to the $40 million it has so far earned overseas-but Lambert and Miramax remain confident. ''He knows his audience,'' says Weinstein.

On top of his four new films, Lambert is venturing behind the scenes. He has just produced The Phony Perfector, a $2 million black comedy by his friend Adam Dubov; Lambert shepherded the film when Dubov, a first-time director, couldn't get backing for a sci-fi-Western called Purple West. (''Now we're going to do Purple West!'' says Lambert with a triumphant grin.) And a Fortress sequel is already lined up.

Talking story points on the telephone with a producer, Lambert in fact looks and sounds more like a moviemaker than a movie star. His hair and beard are cropped short, and his myopic brown eyes are hidden behind gold-rimmed spectacles. Only when he stands does he look like the lanky athlete who does his own stunts, a perilous endeavor since Lambert can't wear contacts and can't see without his glasses. (He was sliced by a sword on Highlander II and singed by a burning truck in Fortress.) And while his green jeans, sports shirt, and white sneakers are pure Hollywood, his taste for Coca-Cola and Marlboros is somehow distinctively French.

The dual identity isn't just superficial. When Lambert first returned to America at age 18, he recalls, ''When the plane landed, even after spending 16 years in Switzerland, I was feeling something -- I was coming back to my birthplace. Back then, I dreamed of the day I'd have 10 scripts on my desk. So I've arrived,'' he says, smiling as he drags on a Marlboro. ''But I work 10 times harder -- and have 10 times as much anxiety.''

Originally posted Sep 24, 1993 Published in issue #189 Sep 24, 1993 Order article reprints
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