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How Jean-Claude Van Damme lost a huge role in Predator

1987's Predator is a stone-cold classic, a perfect blend of '80s action and sci-fi that still stands up to this day. The flick had it all: Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, Carl Weathers looking as ripped as he ever has, Shane Black cracking wise, and Jesse Ventura firing the biggest gun you will ever see. But it almost had one additional, awesome element: Jean-Claude Van Damme. The story of how he missed out on appearing in the iconic film is something of a Hollywood legend — mainly because its substance varies wildly depending upon whom you ask.

To understand how Van Damme ultimately came to be booted from the film by producer Joel Silver, it helps to know that when Predator entered production, the titular alien headhunter looked virtually nothing like the version we've all come to know. The original design was rooted in quite a different conception of the beast, one which posited that the creature would rely mainly on inhuman agility and stealth in tracking its prey.

To this end, the creature's original design was skinnier, slightly more reminiscent of the Xenomorph from the Alien movies, with a head that was less mandible-y and more insectoid. (That was the idea, anyway… as we'll see shortly, it didn't quite work out that way.) Based on its preferred mode of hunting, producers were not necessarily looking for an actor who was tall or physically imposing, but one who was extremely flexible and agile — and as casting director Jackie Burch remembered in The Hollywood Reporter's oral history of the film, she knew of a relative unknown who fit the bill perfectly. 

"Jean-Claude Van Damme was someone who used to constantly come into my office, jumping up in the air, showing me his moves, begging me for work," Burch said. "He was nobody. He didn't have any credits. So finally I said to [Silver], 'He'd be great as the Predator because no one moves like him.' I mean, he really is quite amazing."

Van Damme, who actually did have one lonely credit (1986's No Retreat, No Surrender) prior to his brush with the Predator franchise, won over Silver, and landed the role. Trouble, however, reared its head nearly immediately: while the "Muscles from Brussels" was under the impression that he would be portraying more of a human-like alien (in other words, that the audience would be able to see his face), his tenure on the film began with his sitting for the casting of a full-body suit and headpiece, which was a bit of an ordeal in and of itself.

While Van Damme didn't sit for the oral history, he shared his experiences with THR in a 2019 interview with the publication. "I like to breathe — and they're gonna do my head and everything," the actor remembered. "They put in my mouth [a breathing tube]. I was covered in that cast for at least 20 minutes. It was boiling hot. My friend told me, 'If you cannot breathe, just [move] your finger and I'll pull that stuff away from you.' And I did it. I started to panic. And they go, 'No! Five more minutes!'"

Van Damme survived the experience, but when he arrived on the film's Palenque, Mexico set, he had another issue — one which was shared by the majority of the cast. Nobody had actually seen the finished Predator costume before it was shipped to the set, and when it arrived, nearly everybody involved with the production found it to look ridiculous. Said Schwarzenegger years later, "It looked like a guy in a lizard suit with the head of a duck."

That doesn't sound terribly intimidating, but hey, the show must go on — and as a virtual unknown working on a major studio picture, Van Damme gamely donned the getup and got to work. Once he did, though, more problems quickly presented themselves.

"My head was in the neck," Van Damme told THR. "My hands were in the forearms, and there were cables [attached to his fingers to move the creature's head]. My feet were in his calves, so I was on [stilts]. It was a disgusting outfit."

What's more, the design prohibited him from doing what he had been hired to do: display the otherworldly moves that were his trademark. In that ungainly getup in the blazing heat of the Mexican jungle on rough, mountainous terrain, Van Damme was being asked to portray inhuman agility — a task that he found to be nearly impossible to accomplish. Finally, one day came the breaking point, and we now arrive at Van Damme's version of the events that led to his dismissal from the film.

During the shooting of a scene in which the Predator was to make a catlike leap through the jungle's canopy, Van Damme saw his life flash before his eyes. "When [Silver] asked me to jump, I knew it was gonna be a bad one," the actor recalled. "I said, 'This is impossible, Joel. I think we're gonna have a problem… the guy who did my stunt, something bad happened to him."

Van Damme then strongly implied that the stuntman had broken a limb, which he says was the catalyst for a complete redesign of the Predator costume. This version of events, it should be noted, is strongly disputed by both the film's stunt coordinator Craig Baxley (who told THR that "no one was ever hurt" during the film's production) and its second unit director Beau Marks (who was a touch more blunt, saying, "Nobody broke their f***ing leg").

In any event, producers turned to legendary VFX artist Stan Winston to lead the Predator's redesign, and Winston promptly threw virtually everything about the previous design out the window. Said Marks, "Stan decided that the way to do the suit is to start with the tallest, biggest guy he could find, not someone who was the agile mover that Van Damme was."

That guy ended up being Kevin Peter Hall, who certainly fit that description. The 7"2' Hall had literally portrayed a mutated bear in John Frankenheimer's 1979 horror flick Prophecy, and the same year Predator was released, he appeared in Harry and the Hendersons — playing, essentially, Bigfoot.

So, it was a hasty redesign of the titular creature (which, it should be noted, led to one of the most iconic movie monsters in history) that ultimately led to Van Damme's dismissal from Predator. When it comes to the actual circumstances of his firing, though… well, good luck finding two people who can agree on that. Everybody who worked on the flick seems to have their own version, which is kind of amazing if you think about it. THR singled out no fewer than six distinct scenarios which were recalled by six different members of the cast and crew.

First, the "Van Damme was a prima donna" scenario. This version, prominently floated by Burch, posits that Van Damme was simply a giant pain in the keister during his time on the shoot, and that his incessant griping about everything from the suit to the weather to his co-stars eventually became too much for Silver to handle. "I heard he was complaining the whole time and they fired him," she recalled. "And he came back and got his stuff out of my garage. And then the next time I saw him he was getting $5 million dollars a picture."

Second, we have the recollection of Baxley, who remembers the breaking of a crucial prop as being the final straw for Silver. "He was there to play the creature… It had the head of an ant. And they spent an absolute fortune on this," he explained. "And so they brought Jean-Claude out, and they put the head on [him], and Jean-Claude stood up and freaked out, and took off this $20,000 head and threw it on the ground and it shattered. And Joel said, 'What the f*** are you doing!' And he told Jean-Claude, 'You'll never work in Hollywood again! Get off my set!' So that was it." (A side note: Van Damme did, in fact, work in Hollywood again, so there's that.)

Third, there's producer John Davis, who maintained that there was no drama, and that the issue was simply that Van Damme — for all his flexibility — couldn't magically become 7"2'. "He was the original Predator," Davis said, "until we realized the Predator couldn't be 5"6'; he actually needed to be of greater stature." (We're betting that you didn't realize Van Damme was that short.)

Fourth, some remember Van Damme's canning being purely a studio decision — like Richard Chaves, who played Poncho in the film. "When they sent some of the first dailies of Jean-Claude in this original suit," Chaves remembered, "the people at Fox hated it, absolutely hated it, and thought it looked like a rat — and it did! As soon as Joel was told about that news, he let [Van Damme] go." (We can't be the only ones finding it fascinating that the original suit has now been described by three different parties as looking like either a duck, an ant, or a rat.)

Fifth, here's a fun one: actor Bill Duke (who played Mac in the movie) swears that Van Damme simply couldn't stay conscious while shooting in the costume. "[He] had passed out twice from dehydration," Duke said. "And Joel came over and said, 'Jean, I know it's hot, but we're losing time, man. If you pass out one more time, we gotta fire you.' So Jean says, 'I'm not doing it on purpose!'… So two weeks went by, and he's flying on these wires in trees and everything and he passes out, and Joel comes and tells him, 'You're fired.'" 

Finally, VFX supervisor Joel Hynek offered a different take: he claims that Van Damme had had his heart set on a kickboxing Predator, which for some reason didn't fly with Silver. "[Jean-Claude] wanted to kickbox," he recalled, "and [Silver] was telling him, 'Look, the Predator is not a kickboxer.' And Van Damme was like, 'I must do that; that's how I see the Predator.' And Joel said, 'Well, you're fired. Get out of here.' And Van Damme says, 'Kiss my b***s!' and walks out, and that was the end of that.'"

Wildly specific recollections, all. Well, it seems that we can pretty much pin the blame (or perhaps the credit) on original VFX company Boss for botching the Predator's initial design, the factor which is most likely to have led directly to Van Damme's sacking. When it comes to exactly how it went down, though, that detail looks destined to remain forever murky… because like all legends, the best Hollywood tales vary with each telling.