×
Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Action stars from the '80s who disappeared

The '80s action movie boom gave birth to a new breed of Hollywood star, making household names of stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger. These two juggernauts dominated the genre for years, but back in action genre's heyday, there were plenty of parts to go around, and if you were a martial artist or a bodybuilder capable of stringing a few lines of dialogue together, you had a shot at stardom in the '80s and '90s. The likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, and Chuck Norris were able to take advantage of that climate and each had their 15 minutes of fame, but one by one the lesser action heroes of the day fell by the wayside. As we entered the new millennium, movie audiences began to grow tired of gratuitous explosions and bloody shootouts.

Of course, not every star stops working once the spotlight fades. Van Damme's comeback Amazon show might not have gone according to plan, but between the rebooted Kickboxer franchise and his self-deprecating commercials, the Muscles from Brussels has managed to remain somewhat relevant. The same can't be said for a number of his peers from back in the day, many of whom completely vanished from Hollywood after promising starts in the industry.

Every action star has a shelf life, and the following heroes all expired a long time ago.

Vernon Wells

Vernon Wells personified a very specific type of 1980s villain: the guy who always seemed to have his wardrobe on loan from a sex club. It started with his role in the post-apocalyptic chaps 'n' chains extravaganza Mad Max: Road Warrior, in which he played shoulder-padded, Mohawked madman Wez—a role he'd tip a hat to again a couple years later as "Lord General" in Weird Science and then again as "Ransik" in the Power Rangers movie Time Force. His other prominent role was as the over-the-top villain Bennett in Commando. These days, Wells looks more like a dad than a leather daddy, and he has a sense of humor about his characters being seen as gay icons, but to this day still swears there was no sexual subtext intended.

Wells has been keeping himself busy with bit parts and voice acting, but mostly can be found focusing his career behind the camera, directing and producing. He also works with Wolf Connection, a nature preserve to domesticate wolves and allow bonding with visitors and campers.

Jenette Goldstein

This one also became a gay icon, but of a different gender. Jenette Goldstein made a name for herself as an actress by playing the tough no-nonsense Vasquez from Aliens, a Space Marine who completely broke stereotypes. The moment we're introduced to her character, she's doing pullups as Bill Paxton's character Hudson walks up and asks if she's ever been mistaken for a man. Without missing a beat, she drops the withering reply, "No. Have you?". She also had roles as Meagan Shapiro in Lethal Weapon 2 and Janelle Voight, the foster mother of John Connor (as well as her T-1000 impersonation) in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Goldstein remains extremely proud of her genre-and-gender-defying role, for good reason. Director James Cameron found her so perfect for the role that he gave the character her first name. Now she owns a company, Jenette Bras, that also carries the same moniker. She founded the company when she realized department store lingerie departments were rarely accommodating for women with smaller band-sizes combined with larger cup sizes. Under the catchy slogan "The Alphabet Starts With D," the company caters exclusively to the needs of larger-endowed ladies—which is heroic itself, if you ask us.

Christopher Lambert

He was born in New York, but Christopher Lambert picked up that distinctive accent growing up in Switzerland. He moved to England aged 18 and then had stints in France and Italy, but the country he's most associated with is Scotland. Lambert played immortal swordsman Connor MacLeod in cult 1986 hit Highlander, but any hopes the actor had of making the leap to bona fide action star were dashed by three terrible sequels.

He popped up in a handful of other action properties (perhaps most notably as Raiden in the Mortal Kombat movie) in the '90s, but he couldn't escape the shadow of the Highlander. "I cornered myself a little into the action genre, because it became such a huge movie," Lambert told The Scotsman. When the big offers stopped coming and B-movies loomed, he decided to branch out with some new business ventures, including a winery in Provence. Apparently, they all took off. "I don't need to work," Lambert said, but he admitted that making movies is "like a drug" that he can't kick. He occasionally falls off the wagon and did so as recently as 2018 when he appeared as the villain in Kickboxer: Retaliation.

Speaking to Den of Geek, Lambert explained why '80s throwbacks like the Kickboxer films are still relevant in the GGI age. "With some action movies, I have the feeling I'm watching a video game," he said. "There's nothing real in them, there are no feelings, like real feelings, deep feelings, hard feelings."

Sonny Landham

Sonny Landham played Billy Sole, the tracker from the mercenary team slaughtered in the first Predator movie. He also made appearances in The Warriors, 48 Hrs, Firewalker, Action Jackson, and Lock Up. His acting career dwindled in the mid-'90s as he devoted more time to his political career—but it came to a screeching halt in 2008 after a bafflingly deranged and racist appearance on a college radio show while he was campaigning for a Kentucky Senate position on the Libertarian ticket.

Reciting increasingly vitriolic slurs for Middle Eastern people, the nadir of the show came when Landham told an Arab-American caller that her opinions didn't matter and he only cared about Americans—and then publicly expressed doubts of her citizenship when she stated that she was an American citizen. The Libertarian Party withdrew their support for his candidacy and he was proved unable to transfer the signatures that put him on the ticket to run again as an independent. Later acting credits were sparse, including roles in the low-budget horror films Disintegration and Mental Scars. In August 2017, at the age of 76, Landham passed away from congestive heart failure.

Jesse Ventura

Name a high-stakes profession and the chances are Jesse Ventura has dabbled in it at some point. A Vietnam War vet, this former Navy SEAL and Rolling Stones bodyguard made a name for himself as a professional wrestler in the early '80s (he's best remembered for his feuds with Tony Atlas, Ivan Putski, and Bob Backlund) before making the move to the big screen. He got to rub shoulders with genre kingpin Arnold Schwarzenegger on several occasions, most notably in 1987's Predator.

Ventura played the bullish, tobacco-chewing Gunner Blain Cooper in John McTiernan's action classic, almost upstaging the leading man despite a limited amount of screen time. Critics have argued that Cooper makes "the biggest impression of any character" in the movie, and Ventura also made quite the impression on set—he apparently entered a wager with Arnie over who had the bigger muscles. Ventura made another notable appearance in 1993's Demolition Man, but by the end of that decade he had switched his focus to politics.

He served as the governor of Minnesota from 1999 to 2003, but today his political platform is a lot smaller. In 2014, he started hosting an internet talk show named Off the Grid, which is exactly where Ventura is today. He became embroiled in a five-year-long defamation case against the estate of murdered Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, and the last we heard from him he was hosting a reality TV show on the Russian state-sponsored network, Russia Today America.

Peter Weller

Peter Weller's first love was jazz, but when he realized he "wasn't going to be Miles Davis" he switched his focus to acting. He cut his teeth on the New York theater circuit before heading out west in search of movie work, arriving in Hollywood during the action movie boom. Weller gave viewers a glimpse of what he was capable of in campy 1984 action satire The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, and Paul Verhoeven apparently liked what he saw enough to cast Weller in what would become a career-defining role: Officer Alex Murphy, a.k.a. RoboCop.

"When I met Paul Verhoeven in a hotel room in New York, I knew that, because Paul was directing it, it was going to be great," Weller told AV Club. "He was not going to just make an action movie." Unfortunately for Weller, 1990's RoboCop 2 was a bog-standard action movie, with all the gore but none of the heart that made the 1987 original a success. His career tapered off after that and he eventually moved behind the camera for work, directing several episodes of Sons of Anarchy.

According to Entertainment Weekly, Weller moonlighted as a literature and fine arts teacher at New York's Syracuse University for a time, putting his master's degree in Renaissance Art History to good use. A return to the limelight could actually be on the cards for Weller, as director Neill Blomkamp has expressed an interest in bringing him back for a planned RoboCop sequel.

Charles Bronson

Charles Bronson was a no-nonsense tough guy even before he started his acting career way back in the 1950s. Born to Lithuanian immigrants, he fought in World War II in order to escape the grueling conditions at the mine his family worked for, during which he received a Purple Heart. After taking theater classes while supporting himself with odd jobs, Bronson moved to Hollywood, where he took on television roles, changing his distinctly Lithuanian birth name to evade the scrutiny of the anti-communist House Un-American Activities Committee.

In the '70s, Bronson finally made his breakthrough as vigilante Paul Kersey in the Death Wish films. That role served him well through three sequels in the '80s, earning him a rough-and-tumble reputation he embellished with tales of his arrests and violent hobbies—all of which he completely made up. Bronson's gritty archetype grew archaic in the "everyone needs a gritty backstory and also needs to blow everything up" '90s, but what ultimately ended his career was hip surgery in 1998. He struggled with health problems afterwards, eventually passing away in 2003 at the age of 81.

Timothy Dalton

Taking over from Roger Moore as James Bond was never going to be easy, but it was a chance that Timothy Dalton grabbed with both hands. The classically trained actor made his debut in 1968's The Lion in Winter but had failed to climb the ladder from character actor to star. Bond was his chance to do just that, and even though he only played 007 twice (first in 1987's The Living Daylights and then again in 1989's Licence to Kill) both of his appearances were ultimately well-received by the critics.

Speaking to AV Club, Dalton revealed that he was actually offered the role of James Bond after Sean Connery gave it up, but he was only in his early 20s at the time and found it too daunting. He was older and wiser when he finally accepted the role, but still felt pressure. "No one, no matter how well someone can communicate, can tell you what it is like to be the actor playing James Bond," he said. "The only actors who can are the other actors who've played the part." Dalton compared the experience to being "in a bubble," one that he chose to burst before it was too late.

A contract dispute between Eon Productions and MGM delayed Dalton's proposed third outing as Bond and gave the actor a legal way out, according to The Week. He decided to call it quits so he wouldn't be forever remembered as Bond, but that's what happened anyway.

Michael Biehn

Michael Biehn owes his stint as an '80s action star to James Cameron, who cast him in three of his earliest films. The Nebraska native played Kyle Reese in 1984's The Terminator, Hicks in 1986's Aliens, and Lt. Coffey in 1989's The Abyss, giving him plenty of fans in sci-fi and horror circles. The most iconic of those characters wound up being Kyle Reese, though at the time Biehn had no idea just how big The Terminator would become.

"People talk about it being an iconic movie, with iconic characters and so on [but] it was never that back then, and you have to remember, too, that Arnold was not a superstar," Biehn told Den of Geek. "He was basically a bodybuilder and Mr. Universe and, with all respect due to him for being Mr. Universe, but all he had done at that time was Conan, and people didn't take him particularly seriously as an actor." Schwarzenegger went on to cement his action hero status with 1987's Predator, but for Biehn, that star-making role never came.

His most noteworthy appearances since have been in 1996's The Rock and 2007's Grindhouse, in which he played a commander and a sheriff, respectively. Taking part in Grindhouse rekindled a love for B-movies that Biehn forgot he had and inspired him to start his own production company specializing in grindhouse-style features. As he told Forbes, "I thought we could make that kind of movie and realized that we didn't need big budgets to do it."