Movie Article

The Man Who Would Be Arnold

The next Arnold Schwarzenegger -- Jean-Claude Van Damme is on his way to giving the Terminator a run for his money

The day is leaning toward 10 p.m. and the cast and crew of Jean-Claude Van Damme's latest movie, Double Impact, are getting cranky. ''Okay,'' shouts Van * Damme, who suddenly decides to entertain the troops during the dinner break, ''all the ladies naked now!'' He sets aside his Chinese food and saunters through a bunch of production assistants. ''Do you know what's great about being a big star?'' he asks in his fetching Belgian accent. ''I can walk into a movie studio and say, 'You guys want my movie?' And I go (he mimics the sound of flatulence). And they stay and say, 'Yeah, yeah, we want it!'''

A curious negotiating style, perhaps, but for Van Damme it seems to work. After kickboxing his way through eight independent films in the last six years (including this year's Lionheart), the 30-year-old action mogul has signed a three-picture deal with Columbia Pictures that commences with the release of Double Impact. While Van Damme is already a bona fide superstar on video, he hopes that the support of a major studio will make him a full-fledged box office attraction in the mold of Arnold Schwarzenegger (his idol and favorite topic) and Steven Seagal, who both found their original audience in the action-adventure section of the video store. ''Right now (producers) want me as an action star because they don't know better,'' says Van Damme. ''Nobody wanted Arnold to do Twins. They say, 'It's going to flop.'''

In Twins (1988), Schwarzenegger proved he had a warm, fuzzy side. With Double Impact, Van Damme hopes to do the same by playing, not coincidentally, twins — one tough, one soft...well, softer. It's his chance to flex his acting skills along with his biceps. ''I love karate,'' he says. ''It's like a bible to me, but deep inside I'm so...'' He gropes for the English equivalent of the French word. He pounds his chest. ''I mean, I'm so sensitive. I can do those movies with a romantic part or a dramatic part. No problem.''

Van Damme grew up in Belgium, going to the movies ''all the time.'' In the early '80s, he sold his health club in Brussels and moved to Los Angeles, ''naked,'' he says, except for a black belt and a burning desire to become a star (a sort of Eve Harrington to Schwarzenegger's Margo Channing). He learned English on the street, cleaned carpets, and stole food — until he impressed Cannon Pictures chairman Menahem Golan by doing a high kick over the producer's head outside a restaurant. Golan cast him as the lead in the 1988 quickie Bloodsport. The movie sold a respectable 2,831,000 tickets, but the video has been rented nearly 20 million times. Naturally, more followed, including Cyborg (1989), Kickboxer (1989), and Death Warrant (1990).

Van Damme recently moved into a 5,000-square-foot home in California's San Fernando Valley with his wife, Gladys Portugues, a former bodybuilding champ, and their children, Bianca and Kristopher. ''You need a family to be very successful,'' he says. ''Look at Arnold. He's very good with Maria.'' Whether Van Damme can join the ranks of his idol remains to be seen. But his dreams are even mightier than his scissors kick, and that gives him energy to spare. Back on the set, an 18-hour day is coming to an end. Still, Van Damme is strutting around doing what he does best — and loudest: ''Do you know who farts most?'' he asks an actor before boarding his black Mercedes. ''Arnold.''

Originally posted Aug 23, 1991 Published in issue #80 Aug 23, 1991 Order article reprints