Van Damme: Getting a kick out of stardom
By Pearl Sheffy Gefen
When Moshe Diamant first met Jean-Claude Van Damme, he befriended a young man he found to be likable, but doubted he'd ever become a big-time star. That was 10 years ago. Since then, the Israeli has produced the last seven of Van Damme's films, including The Quest, which has just opened in Tel Aviv. The Quest, which co-stars Roger Moore, and was made on a budget of over $30 million, was the most popular film in North America the weekend it opened. It's the first Van Damme has directed as well as starred in.
"I wanted to do something noble for martial arts," he says. In the film, Van Damme plays a New York pickpocket on the run who finds himself on a freighter heading to the Far East. He winds up at a martial-arts tournament surrounded by crooks and 15 martial-arts champions.
"When these guys came to fight in the competition, it was not so much for the money. It was a question of being the best. In the Thirties, when The Quest is set, honor and being the best was what counted. In 1996, we're looking for money and security."
There's a lot more to the "Muscles from Brussels" than bulging biceps. There's a strong will, a romantic heart, and a grace that comes from his early training as a ballet dancer. Born in Belgium, Van Damme grew up in Brussels, a puny kid who wore glasses. He didn't like his image. So he set about changing it with a will rare in 11-year-olds. His father sent him to both ballet and karate classes, and he eventually won both the Mr. Belgium bodybuilding and European middleweight black-belt karate championships.
But he wanted to be in movies. He divorced his first of (so far) four wives and moved to Hong Kong, where martial-arts films were flourishing. But he didn't make it there and left for Los Angeles. He was 20, spoke little English and had little money. Over the next five years he worked as a bodyguard, carpet cleaner, bouncer and one-man PR firm, pushing his resumes and photos anywhere he could.
Along the way he changed his last name from Varenberg to Damme, managed to get bit parts in a few films and ran into Menahem Golan, who was then co-owner of Cannon Films and a high-flying independent producer in Hollywood. Van Damme confronted him on the street one day and grabbed his attention by shooting his leg right over Golan's head. Golan was intrigued and offered him his first lead in Bloodsport. (He later made two other films for Golan.)
Bloodsport, and films such as Cyborgand Double Impact made his name familiar, if not universally applauded.
As audiences grew, so did his fees - to $1 million and more. A decade or two younger than rivals like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal, he made the 1994 futuristic action thriller Timecop, which earned over $135 million worldwide.
Van Damme's paternal grandmother was Jewish, but that's not why his rise to stardom has been inextricably linked with Israelis.
"It's destiny," he says. "Israelis like to take chances. I'm a Belgian guy with an accent, and they took a chance with me. It's difficult for a studio to take a chance on a guy with a foreign accent."
His lucrative linkage with Diamant began when Van Damme walked into Diamant's office in Milan 10 years ago and announced he was going to be a star. Diamant, previously a co--owner of a lab called Film Technique in Tel Aviv where he says he developed the first video subtitling system for Israeli television, had set up a similar company in Los Angeles before becoming a producer. He says he told Van Damme he didn't have star quality, but they nevertheless became friends.
"I liked him as a person. Jean-Claude is an immigrant to the US, and he's more comfortable with another immigrant. And we Israelis are warm. Though I didn't believe in his future, and I was open in telling him, I helped him buy his first house.
"Then when his film Kickboxer came out, my son and I went to see it with him. The theater was packed. What surprised me was all the women and children cheering whenever he did the splits and took off his shirt. When we walked out, nobody recognized him. He was totally unknown. I said to him: 'You know, I never saw it on the tape you showed me, but you're right, you have a chance to be a star. Let's find a way to do it.'
" Why do children love Van Damme? The actor says he thinks "it has to do with sincerity. I try to be sincere and pick up on that. I'm a big child myself, and still insecure."
Diamant, who has five children, three born in Israel, two in the US, says it's because "Jean-Claude is accessible; he's not Superman. He is a hero who is still vulnerable... and smart, the way kids think they can be."
November 29, 1996