'Bloodsport' at 35: How a desperate Jean-Claude Van Damme begged his way into the action film that made him a star

JCVD reveals unbelievable behind-the-scenes story of how he landed his role in the 1988 martial arts hit that made him an overnight sensation.

Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career began with a whimper.

The Belgian actor and martial artist arrived in Hollywood in 1982 determined to become a movie star. But over the next five years, the best he managed was some screen time as an extra in the old-school hip-hop favorite Breakin’, doing stunt work for Chuck Norris and almost playing the alien in Predator.

He lived on the street and nearly got arrested for sneaking onto Sylvester Stallone’s property in a misguided attempt to meet the star of Rambo and Rocky.

Everything changed, though, when the undeterred Van Damme was logging time as a waiter in a Los Angeles eatery and spotted Cannon Films executive Menaham Golan at a table. Van Damme shot his shot — or, more precisely, kicked his kick — executing a roundhouse kick over the producer’s head. It may not have wowed the typically unflappable Golan, but it impressed the Asian film buyers dining with him enough to score Van Damme a meeting.

BLOODSPORT, Jean-Claude Van Damme, 1988. ©Cannon Films/courtesy Everett Collection
Jean-Claude Van Damme in 'Bloodsport' (Photo: Cannon Films/courtesy Everett Collection)

Golan, however, remained cynical.

As Van Damme recounted during a Role Recall interview (watch above): “I met him weeks later, and he said, ‘My friend. Michael Dudikoff. He is a star. Chuck Norris. He is a star. You will never be a star. ...’

“This voice I have, this intuition voice I’ve had for years and years, said, ‘Go around the desk and beg, bro. This is your last shot, right?’

“I was living on the street, sleeping in cars and garages, sometimes I stole food. I didn’t have good money. … I was so starving for movies. When you want something, you want something, right? So I go around the desk [and] say, ‘Anything? Do you have a small part?’ And he [saw] me so sad, and the situation of a guy asking — almost begging — and he said, ‘Sit down.’ He was sad to see me like that. He looked at me strange, he waited for two or three minutes, and he said [to an associate], ‘Karen, bring me Bloodsport.'” And he gave me Bloodsport like that.”

Released in theaters 35 years ago, on Feb. 26, 1988, Bloodsport starred Van Damme as Frank Dux, a U.S. Army soldier who leaves the military to enter a fight-to-the-death martial arts tournament in Hong Kong.

In true-to-form scrappy Cannon fashion, the Newt Arnold-directed film was made on location in Hong Kong for only $1.5 million.

According to Van Damme, Golan, who died in 2014, never planned much of a theatrical push.

“The movie was released only on a few screens in Los Angeles,” Van Damme says. “And we did $9,000 per screen, which was huge. So he stopped the VHS release. He opened it in more theaters.”

Not before long, that $1.5 million movie had grossed $50 million. It became a certifiable martial arts cult classic when it was eventually released on VHS. And the project would turn “JCVD” into one of the biggest stars of the late 1980s and ’90s, with follow-up roles in Kickboxer (1989), Lionheart (1990), Double Impact (1991), Universal Soldier (1992) and Hard Target (1993), among others.

“I became a sensation overnight because of Bloodsport,” Van Damme says.

He just had to beg for it.