Jean Claude Van Damme, though a monster in his own right, couldn't hack it as the Predator. Screenshot courtesy of Parliament Cinema Club 4K/YouTube.
If there’s one scene most people remember best from the first time they watched the original 1987 film Predator, it’s probably the moment when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character “Dutch'' meets Carl Weathers’ “Dillion.” They clasp hands, then arm-wrestle midair just to assure each other that they are real men. Without a doubt, it is the most testosterone-laden bromantic handshake ever captured on film.
If there were two things we vividly remember from Predator, the second would, of course, be the big reveal, when the extraterrestrial hunter finally takes off the helmet and we see what he really looks like. “One ugly motherfucker” is how Dutch describes him — and he’s right. He looks like the love child of Whoopi Goldberg and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
All of which is to say, the Predator, aka Yautja, is a near-perfect Hollywood monster: big, grotesque, and insatiable in his appetite for big game trophies (i.e., people).
What many fans of Predator don’t know is that the spider-mouthed, dreadlocked alien who appears in the film bears little resemblance to the Yautja as the monster was originally conceived. The original Yautja was half as intimidating, had a head that resembled a chicken, and was played by none other than the Belgian kickboxing action star Jean-Claude Van Damme.
So what happened to the original Yautja? The short answer is, he didn’t make the cut. And neither did Van Damme. Here are five of the reasons why.
We got the monster we deserved. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Arnold Schwarzenegger as “Dutch” isn’t the one who killed the original Predator. That honor goes to Van Damme. In 1987, Van Damme was a nobody — but he was a nobody with a 6-foot vertical leap who could do the splits midair.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Craig Baxley, second unit director and stunt coordinator, recounted watching Van Damme demonstre his acrobatic karate skills in a hotel hallway in Mexico. This was Van Damme’s way of auditioning for a role in Predator. “[He] jumped up in the air, I swear to God, did the splits with his legs straight out and his crotch was at eye level,” Baxley recalled, “and I’m 6 feet tall.”
The spectacle worked. Impressed, producer Joel Silver hired Van Damme to play the alien. It turned out to be a bad call for the movie’s budget, but a great one for action-movie history.
Van Damme was called to the set to put on the original costume. When the costume head was put in place, JCVD apparently freaked out and tossed the $20,000 chicken head to the ground, shattering it. Some have suggested that Van Damme destroyed the mask on purpose because the actor was adamant that his face be seen in the film.
Apollo Creed deserved better. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
The only character not constantly dripping in sweat throughout the entire film is the Predator itself. There’s a good reason why everyone else looks like they just crawled out of a sauna: The movie was shot in the jungles of Jalisco, Mexico, near the ever-humid Pacific coast, in the middle of summer, and the actors shot most of the scenes wearing full battle rattle.
According to casting director Jackie Burch, JCVD — who, of course, had to wear the giant monster suit — was not thrilled with the heat, the humidity, and his costume, and he was not shy about complaining about it. We assume that this only made it easier for director John McTiernan to fire Van Damme; at least now they could have some peace and quiet.
If you want to complain about anything, it should be “Double Team.” Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
You may have noticed that the cast of this movie is full of large men. Bill Duke and Jesse Ventura were both 6-foot-4, Sonny Landham is 6-foot-3, Schwarzenegger and Weathers are 6-foot-2, and Shane Black and Richard Chaves, though diminutive by comparison, are 5-foot-10. Top all that off with the fact that they were at their physical peaks and pumping iron at the personal gym Schwarzenegger flew in to Mexico from California, and you have some seriously large humans.
And then there’s Van Damme, who's 5-foot-6. You can’t have a menacing alien monster who gets dwarfed by the regular old humans — that is, according to the movie’s production staff, anyway. The Yautja who replaced JCVD’s chicken monster was played by actor Kevin Peter Hall, who measured 7-foot-3. Now that is a monster.
Pass out 20 minutes into “Street Fighter” like the rest of us. Photo courtesy of Universal.
Heat stress might have been unavoidable for Van Damme during filming, but low blood sugar and dehydration were not. The actor had to wear a red felt suit that resembled the chicken-headed monster (for the invisibility special effect to be added later) during his early scenes, which required him to soar around the treetops suspended from wires. Add that to the 100-degree jungle heat, and you can understand why JCVD kept fainting.
After the first two times Van Damme passed out on, Silver warned him that the production would need to replace him if he kept fainting because their shooting time was limited. Two weeks after the warning, the actor passed out midflight, while dangling from some wires. At that point, Silver made up his mind that it was time for JCVD to go.
Not many young American lads grow up learning to hunt big game using nothing but their hands and feet, but maybe hunting is a totally different sport in Belgium. For whatever reason, JCVD kept kickboxing with the other actors during fight scenes. Visual-effects supervisor Joel Hynek recalled a conversation where he had to repeatedly tell Van Damme that the Predator was not a kickboxer.
Blake Stilwell is a traveler and writer with degrees in design, television & film, journalism, public relations, international relations, and business administration. He is a former US Air Force combat photographer with experience covering politics, entertainment, development, nonprofit, military, and government. His work can be found at We Are The Mighty, Business Insider, Fox News, ABC News, NBC, HBO, and the White House.
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