In 1980s America, gritty streets were filled with crime, the threat of Cold War hovered in the air, and action movies starring tough guy heroes dominated the box office. This was a time in cinema when muscle, martial arts, and the perfect weapon were the keys to saving the day; when the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone ruled the silver screen and their on-screen carnage was only rivaled by their off-screen competition.
Why did this golden age of action movies emerge when it did, and why don’t they make films like that anymore? Here to chart the rise and fall of the golden age of action movies is Nick de Semlyen, author of The Last Action Heroes, The Triumphs, Flops, and Feuds of Hollywood’s Kings of Carnage. Today on the show, Nick shares the stories behind the larger-than-life stars of the action genre — including Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Chuck Norris, and Steven Seagal — and the iconic films they starred in. He also discusses why the action genre fell out of favor in the early 90s, why its movies nonetheless continue to endure in popularity, and the three action films he most recommends watching.
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Brett McKay: Hey, before we get to today’s show, quick announcement, we are opening it up, an enrollment for our online program, the Strenuous Life Next week. The Strenuous Life is an online program that we developed to help you put into action all the things we’ve been talking about and writing about on the Art of Manliness podcast and website for the past decade. And we’ve done that in a few ways. We’ve provided weekly challenges that are gonna push you outside of your comfort zone, physically, mentally, and socially. We also have 50 different badges based around 50 different skills that you can earn. We have badges that cover hard skills like wilderness survival, rucking and badges that cover soft skills like social skills and public speaking. And we provide daily accountability for physical activity and doing a good deed. So you can be a well-rounded man. Head over to strenuouslife.co where you can learn more about the program. And while you’re there, make sure you get your email on our email waiting list so you can be one of the first to know when enrollment opens up next week. Hope to see you on The Strenuous Life.
Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. In 1980s America, gritty streets are filled with crime. The threat of Cold War hovered in the air and action movies starring tough Guy heroes dominated the box office. This was a time in cinema when muscle martial arts and the perfect weapon were the keys to saving the day. When the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone ruled the silver screen and their onscreen carnage was only rivaled by their off-screen competition. Why did this golden Age of action movies emerge when it did? And why don’t they make films like that anymore? Here to chart the rise and fall of the Golden Age of Action movies is Nick de Semlyen, author of The Last Action Heroes, the Triumphs, Flops, and Feuds of Hollywood’s Kings of Carnage. Here, in the show, Nick shares the stories behind the larger than life stars, the action genre, including Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, and the iconic films they starred. He also discusses why the action genre fell out of favor in the early ’90s, why it’s movies nonetheless continued to endure in popularity in the three action films he most recommends watching. After the show is over. Check out our show notes at aom.is/lastactionheroes.
Nick De Semlyen welcome to the show.
Nick De Semlyen: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you got a new book out called The Last Action Heroes, the Triumphs Flops and Feuds of Hollywood’s Kings of Carnage. And this is all about the golden age of the Action Hero that happened in the 1980s and early 1990s. So we got stars like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, and the Mysterious and kind of weird Steven Segal. What was going on in American and Western culture at this time that led to this proliferation of these big action packed movies starring tough Guy action heroes.
Nick De Semlyen: Well, it was like a bad time in America. Like obviously you don’t need me to tell you that, but coming out of the ’70s into the ’80s, a lot of bad things were happening, abroad, Vietnam, and then at home with Watergate. And it was just a furry kind of dark and gloomy and complicated time. And then, that was reflected in the movies of the ’70s as well, which were generally downbeat and often depressing with very complex heroes who were trying to do stuff and having Chinatown happen to them and stuff like that. And then you got these, this really just amazing group of larger than life people who came along and their movies were the opposite of that. They were upbeat in the sense that they would just kill anyone who tried to stop them, whatever they were doing.
And they brought like a very simple philosophy. And I kind of have Rocky really as the marking point. The first one of those that really, even though it’s not your typical action movie, it’s about a boxer, it was really the first kind of version of that one man Army movie with an upbeat ending that kinda made you wanna cheer for one of these guys. And then, Schwarzenegger came after Stallone and then as you say this a matter of sometimes quite bizarre action heroes. Definitely in the case of Seagal and Van Damme just coming in their wake. But I think there was just something in the water in America and abroad that just made things the perfect kind of conditions for these guys to arrive with their big bombastic action epics.
Brett McKay: Yeah, people were looking for some hope, they’re looking for some confidence. ‘Cause I think you’re right, the movies in the ’70s, you look at Francis Ford Coppola, his movies like Apocalypse Now you’re kind of watching this thing. It’s like, I don’t know, it’s, there’s no, it’s kind of murky and you kind of feel cynical or with Martin Scorsese you had like, Taxi Driver and even The Godfather kind of this murky thing, sort of ambiguous and then these guys, simple story, there’s a good guy and a bad guy. It was kind of almost a return to like the 1950s, black hat, white hat, cowboy western in a way.
Nick De Semlyen: Exactly. Yeah, it was a return to that very simple black and white storytelling. And it’s interesting, the year Rocky came out and was at the Oscars, it was up against Carrie, Network, and Taxi Driver, free Fury, brilliant, but very depressing films. And it was Rocky that triumphed that night and changed everything even though he doesn’t technically win at the end of that film. Which, some people forget, the first one didn’t have the traditional, triumphant ending, but it still definitely felt a lot more upbeat and had a lot more montages than, Taxi Driver, that’s for sure.
Brett McKay: Right. And besides the storylines about, good guy versus Bad Guy, underdog story, these guys also changed the games in terms of like special effects. Like they were just blowing stuff up, it was big, a lot of violence and that was another thing they brought to this genre of film as well.
Nick De Semlyen: Yeah, well their movies just kind of mutated. I mean, it’s, you go back and they look quite quaint. The stuff these guys were starting with, like the first few Rockies and Conan and it’s a guy over a sword or a guy in a boxing ring. And then over the next 15 years, the genre just kind of went berserk and they were all trying to one up what they had done. But also you’ve got these guys getting into pissing contests with each other and insanely competitive these stars and trying to outdo what the others were doing. So you get these action movies turning into big sci-fi things with predator going into space with total recall. And you can see it even like within a franchise like Rocky, where it starts with a guy in Philadelphia trying to box. And by the time you get to the fourth one, he’s going up against the whole Soviet Union [laughter] And you see the same thing happen with Rambo. So it was like this thing where they were just getting, pumping them these movies up and up and up and you got some very bizarre and often outrageously entertaining things as a result.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned earlier that you pinpoint Rocky as the starting point of this, the genre or this golden age of the Action Hero. And this was, again, this is Sylvester Stallone, this is the movie that put him on the map. And what’s interesting about Stallone is that if you look at his early life and his early career, I don’t think you would have pegged him to become one of the brawniest tough guy action hero types. So like, what was he like as a kid and what was his early movie career like?
Nick De Semlyen: I mean, forget being one of the biggest stars on the planet. I don’t think anyone would’ve pinpointed him to be a successful actor, like a working actor. Like he had such an amazing kind of Cinderella story that his early life was, he was living in poverty. He was a strange looking kid. He had a slur, he was bullied. And you know, I kind of opened the book with him in one of his many terrible early jobs where he’s at a Central Park Zoo getting pissed on by Lions. And he had like, year after year of just the most gruelling, kind of humiliating circumstances. And, but the thing about Stallone is he just does not give up. And you see that all through his career. Like even when everything is absolutely against him, he just keeps going and going. And so I think Rocky really is like a it’s a kind of biographical character for him because Rocky is the same. But he is a kind of fascinating guy to write about Stallone.
‘Cause he’s this real study in contrast that he, this action star, but he’s also he’s obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe and he writes poetry and he wouldn’t have got Rocky made had he not written it himself. And that kind of sets him apart from any of these other action stars is that he just did not give up. And he was like, I’m gonna make myself a movie star no matter what happens. And he did. And it’s an incredible story.
Brett McKay: Yeah. The story behind why he’s got that sort of distinct look and the way he talks. I didn’t know this until I read your book, and also on Wikipedia, I guess when he was born, the doctor was using forceps to get him out and he like squeezed too hard and just basically destroyed a nerve, I think.
Nick De Semlyen: Yeah, exactly. And he compared himself to Mr. Potato Head. So [laughter], I mean, see another thing about him is he’s very self-deprecating. Well, at points, not always, but he can be. And he’s very very funny.
Brett McKay: And I think another thing I was impressed by Stallone that I didn’t know about, but you bring out in the book is unlike a lot of these other action stars, he seemed more of like an artsy type. Like you said, he loved Edgar Allan Poe, he wanted to write this film about Edgar Allan Poe. He’d write poetry, he loved to paint. I mean, he was larger than life, but his personality wasn’t like a Schwarzenegger. He was a little more subdued, I think.
Nick De Semlyen: No, I mean, it’s been said about Schwarzenegger, he never reads a book unless it’s directly for work. Like he cuts out, eliminates anything kind of wasteful. And I think that includes the great art and sitting down with a book or looking at a painting. Whereas Stallone, as you say, like he was very in touch with his artistic side and I think kind of became an action star, partly against his will. If you look at the movies that he did after Rocky, he could have done anything. You know, he was even in talks to play Superman, he made some really strange films and experimental kind of more dramatic, risky films like Paradise Alley and Fist, which I’m not sure I recommend either the title or the film. But he didn’t just follow action movie after action movie he was trying to get out of it took him quite a long time to become comfortable with being Rocky.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about Rocky. So this is part of the western pop culture collective consciousness. We all know Rocky, the theme song of Rocky people play that to get pumped up when they’re at the gym or playing a sport. The story behind Rocky is really interesting, the making of it. Stallone actually wrote this movie. So where did he get the idea of this underdog boxing movie?
Nick De Semlyen: He went to a boxing match, Chuck Wepner, who was a kind of a Rocky Balboa type guy, like a real life underdog who wasn’t hugely successful, but he just kept going and going. He was like grimly determined. And that was kind of the element that Stallone loved, and admired about him. So he channeled that in and it was just, Rocky was just one of many, many scripts that Stallone was writing. He was just writing like, because he wasn’t getting anywhere with being an actor. So he was like, right, I’m gonna have to make this happen. I’m gonna have to write scripts. So he would paint windows black of his apartment and just stay in there and write on these marathon sessions. And one of the scripts was Rocky the first draft of it was incredibly dark. It wasn’t, didn’t have much resemblance to the movie that ended up getting made. But he took it into Winkler chart off production company. And they weren’t massively impressed, but they were looking to do a boxing movie. It was kind of a lucky break for him and they didn’t wanna cast him. So he basically played chicken with him. He said, I’m gonna, you can only have the script if I play the main role. And so he kind of forced himself into it. And yeah, it was like nobody, including the people making it thought it was gonna be a particular success. It really took everyone by surprise.
Brett McKay: And it was made on a shoestring budget. It was really kind of put together haphazardly almost.
Nick De Semlyen: It was. It was shot in Philadelphia. They didn’t really have any money for there was no catering. They were kind of making do, they were running around the guy who invented the Steadicam, Garrett Brown was there. And so you got that iconic Steadicam shot up the stairs of the Philadelphia library. But yeah, it was a real kind of ragtag shoot that nobody thought was gonna amount to much, but it’s a big part of that is Stallone’s performance that he just put his heart and soul into it and he was like, this is gonna be a success. He kind of willed it into being.
Brett McKay: Didn’t he have to sell his dog to make this movie happen?
Nick De Semlyen: Butkus? Yeah. Famously he sold his very badly behaved rather stinky dog Butkus to somebody, and then fortunately managed to buy him back. So Butkus was back in Stallone’s keeping by the time the movie actually was being shot. But yeah, that was crazy. He was so poor that he had to sell his own dog.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And Butkus, he stars in the movie and he gets a credit, at least in the Amazon Prime version of Rocky. Butkus The dog gets a credit there. So…
Nick De Semlyen: Well deserved.
Brett McKay: Well-deserved, Butkus. And so, yeah, no one thought there was gonna be success, but then it just landed. Like, why was this movie, why did it become such a, not only a critical success ’cause it won an Oscar, but also just a popular success.
Nick De Semlyen: Well, I asked the producer Owen Winkler that, and he said that his theory is that people just wanted it. It was that it just came along at the right time and everything had been so gloomy and depressing and then it came along and it’s just the story of a guy. It’s very relatable. This guy is, nothing is going right for him. You look at him and listen to him and he’s not massively impressive and he just prevails by just keeping going and having a dream. And that just really connected. You forget just how giant it was. It wasn’t just the number one movie at the box office, but it was at the Oscars and Stallone was on stage shadow boxing with Mohammad Ali. Stallone didn’t get the Oscar himself, which apparently bummed him out, but it was gigantic and politicians were into it. I mean, it just became a pop culture zeitgeist smash. It was huge.
Brett McKay: So as you say, this launched Stallone’s career and at first he loved the success ’cause it allowed him to experiment when he did some weird movies. You said there was like one, I think Rhinestone, it was kind of a weird movie. It was a flop though. No one liked it. But then, people wanted more Rocky and did Stallone at some point start feeling like he was a prisoner of this Rocky character?
Nick De Semlyen: He started feeling that straight after the first one came out. He was kind of strangely, I mean maybe not strangely, but he was resentful because it became the one thing that everyone associated him with. And everyone would come up to him on the street and go, yoh Rocky. And he saw it as just one thing he wanted to do all kinds of things. But yeah, he kept being asked to make more Rocky sequels and it took him a long time to accept it. And he did come to a point where he accepted the character and kind of fell back in love with him. But yeah, there was a long time where he was very unhappy and you imagine after Rocky kind of changes him from being a poor unknown guy to being one of the biggest stars in the world that would transform your life in a good way. But he, the more I read up on it, the more you realize that he had a really hard time adjusting to fame and he really resented Rocky and there were quite a few years where he was just feeling bruised and misunderstood and became quite isolated from everyone. So it was quite a difficult time for him adjusting to fame, although he did manage it.
Brett McKay: And you talk about in the Rocky movies, you can kind of see Sylvester Stallone playing out this ambivalence he has towards the character and towards his own career with the movies themselves. Right? So in the first one, Rocky is the underdog, just like Stallone was the underdog. And by movie four, Rocky is this big star making tons of money, he lives in this giant house. They got a weird robot. That talks and somehow has artificial intelligence in 1985. And then here you see Rocky, he feels like I’m getting soft and I’m, I just don’t feel like I’m back to my roots.
Nick De Semlyen: You see whatever his preoccupations are at the time kind of bleeding into the films. And that’s really interesting ’cause it’s not many of these action icons who were creatively so involved with their films and I think definitely with Stallone more than any of them. He was quite hyper controlling. And I spoke to lots of directors and writers and he would tend to come in and he would kind of insert himself right in the middle of the process, right the way into the editing suite. And so, yeah, I think he took these films deadly seriously and he put a lot of his personality in and whatever he was struggling with at the time would make it into the film.
Brett McKay: And speaking of, we mentioned earlier how these movies, they started getting bigger and bigger and more bombastic as they progressed. One thing I noticed with Rocky, if you watch Rocky one, you look at Stallone’s physique, and he has a good physique, but it’s not huge in bulking. But by Rocky three, the guy looks like a bodybuilder. And I think that’s what people wanted. People wanted the really jacked brawny action hero guy.
Nick De Semlyen: Yeah. And like I was saying, it was kind of like this arms race against Schwarzenegger. The two of them were competing in every single aspect and part of that was how big their muscles were. [chuckle] I think they were like keeping an eye on each other’s specific muscles and then heading to the gym. But I think the biggest change between one film and another is probably First Blood to Rambo First Blood part two, where he’s plays John Rambo and he’s this Vietnam vet and he’s quite a big guy. He’s quite an impressive guy, but he’s not super jacked. And people that they were considering for the role were people like Paul Newman and Robert Redford and Al Pacino. These are not big guys, but it’s hard to imagine Paul Newman in Rambo First Blood Part two because by that point he’s a monster. Like Stallone is a monster. His body in that is just like super, super ripped.
Brett McKay: So I’m curious, do you have a favorite Rocky movie?
Nick De Semlyen: Well I have a soft spot, obviously more than a soft spot for the first one, which is a classic and the original and it kind of made so many things happen. But for me, I tend to put on Rocky four. I think that that’s just for pure entertainment value. I love that about, it’s, I think approximately 80% montage [chuckle] I might have got that number wrong. I watched the robot cut though Stallone famously recut it a couple of years ago and got rid of the robot. But for me, I’m a robot purist.
Brett McKay: Right. This past summer or this past spring, our family, we watched all the Rocky movies from the start and then we went all the way through the Creed films as well. And our favorite one was Rocky two.
Nick De Semlyen: That’s my girlfriend’s as well. She’s a Rocky II hardliner, so you may well be right.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned Rambo is this other character that basically became Stallone, like Stallone became Rambo synonymous and it, as you said, he wasn’t the first pick for this. He had other just like Paul Newman, Robert Redford. How did Stallone end up being Rambo?
Nick De Semlyen: Well, he didn’t really want to do it. It’s a weird one. He signed up and then he tried to back out a bunch of times, even after the film was finished, he was offering to buy the negative and burn it. It was the director Ted Kotcheff, who was a fan of Stallone who kind of came up with the idea of casting him and went to him and got a quick yes. But yeah, it was an unusual film. It sort of got one foot in the ’70s and one foot in the ’80s. It’s this kind of character study of this Vietnam vet who kills himself at the end. So that was how it was originally written. And, but it’s also like a kind of a rip-roaring action film. And it was neither one thing nor another and I think everyone was a bit uncertain how it was gonna do much like Rocky. But yeah, the film itself changed during the shoot and Rambo doesn’t kill himself at the end. Spoiler. That was Stallone’s thing that he decided he wanted to keep playing the character potentially. So he, obviously his feelings changed. But yeah, there was a big argument over that Kirk Douglas, who was originally cast as Colonel Troutman quit the film in protest because he loved the original ending. But yeah, it was not a film that Stallone really was proud of when it came out. And again, it took him a while before he kind of fell in love with the character.
Brett McKay: And what do you think was behind Rambo’s success?
Nick De Semlyen: Well, it’s just this really, really great underdog story. I think even more than Rocky because you look at Rocky and he’s got Mickey, he’s got Adrian, he’s in some films, he’s got the robot. But if you look at First Blood, it’s literally just this guy in the woods and he’s got absolutely nothing. He hasn’t got a home, he hasn’t got friends, he hasn’t got allies and everyone is hunting him down. And it’s just this very well-put-together kind of underdog story of this guy managing to survive that and come out of it. And I think had he killed himself, he probably wouldn’t have connected in that way. But as it is, it just came out and people really, really loved it. And it’s hard to say why one film connects and another one doesn’t, but people just love that character.
Brett McKay: And then, yeah, it became a pop cultural phenomenon with the sequels. And I remember as a kid, I watched the Rambo cartoon. I had Rambo toys and looking back and it was pretty interesting that my parents would be like, “Hey, we’re gonna get you some toys for this rated R movie. You could never see.” [laughter] But I thought it was pretty cool. But…
Nick De Semlyen: Yeah, there was a Chuck Norris cartoon as well around the same time, and it’s like, which kids are watching Chuck Norris? [laughter] Who’s watching Forced Vengeance or Silent Rage? But yeah, they did. They made some strange cartoons in the ’80s.
Brett McKay: Oh, they did that with the Police Academy movies too.
Nick De Semlyen: Really? You remember that?
Brett McKay: Yeah, the Police Academy movies, there was a cartoon and then they also had toys. And if you watch Police Academy movies today, you’re like, this is not like a kid should not be watching this movie. But here there’s some toys.
Nick De Semlyen: Should not be pointing kids towards that. Yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah. The ’80s weird time. And so does Rambo, I think one of the Rambo movies, doesn’t it still hold the record for most people killed in a movie?
Nick De Semlyen: Yeah, I believe that’s Rambo III. It’s definitely way up there. Obviously Spoofed by Hot Shots Part Potter, but which is basically a bit of a Rambo spoof where you see Charlie Sheen in like kind of Rambo gear just firing this giant gun. And you see the actual numbers on the screen going up and it’s like more than Total Recall, more than Rambo. But, yeah, that, like I said, like he Stallone and Schwarzenegger got into this pissing contest over like who was gonna have the biggest body count. And I think it was Commando where one of the producers or something went to watch Rambo II and counted how many people got killed, and then went back and they did a re-shoot to make sure that they had more people dead. [laughter] So it became this weird thing, a kind of a symbol of quality if you could kill more people than the other films.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So Stallone’s career rival was Arnold Schwarzenegger. And so how did this Austrian bodybuilder with a funny accent become one of the biggest movie stars of the 20th century?
Nick De Semlyen: Kind of like the same way as Stallone in that he was just relentless. He was not gonna take no for an answer. One of them was suffering a lot more than the other one because Schwarzenegger broke through. He had massive success in the bodybuilding world and then he came and he got into real estate in America. So he was already super-rich even before he was a movie star. So he was having one success after another. That’s how the two differ. But they both were so ambitious and so relentlessly fixated on that they were gonna be successes. And Schwarzenegger even wrote himself a list when he was still in Austria. He was like, “Right, I’m gonna go to America and I’m making a list and I’m gonna do this and I’m gonna do that.” And one of them was be a movie star and he just worked his way tere. I love that it wasn’t even his only ambition, it was just one on the list, but he made everything happen. And he was incredibly charming and straightforward and I don’t know he just came along and nobody had ever seen anything like him in Hollywood. It did take a while for him to take off ’cause his first bunch of films were not good. [laughter]
Brett McKay: Yeah. What were was his first films that he did?
Nick De Semlyen: Well, he made something called Hercules in New York. It’s a bit of a rite of passage for… There’s a whole history of Hercules movies with Hercules being played by bodybuilders and wrestlers and they’re all terrible. But one of them was starring a guy called Steve Reeve, which was a big defining moment for Schwarzenegger when he went to the cinema and saw it. But yes, Schwarzenegger played Hercules super low-budget film. He wrestles a guy in a bear costume in Central Park. I mean, it is truly terrible. But it took him another decade after that to get a bigger break. His first real break was Conan the Barbarian. That was the one that took him over the top.
Brett McKay: Didn’t like his first movies, maybe this was with Hercules in New York, didn’t they dub his voice because they couldn’t understand him?
Nick De Semlyen: They did. They not only dubbed his voice with another actor, but they changed his name to Arnold Strong. So he didn’t have his own voice and he didn’t have his own name, but he was fine. He was kind of like, sure he was happy. I spoke to the director, for the book and he was very graceful Schwarzenegger about it and happy to do it. So I think he wasn’t in a rush. He was like, “I’m gonna be famous at some point so I’m not gonna stress about it.” [laughter] So he was more easygoing probably than Stallone.
Brett McKay: So his first big break was Conan the Barbarian, and then after that was the Terminator. That’s the one that really put him on the map.
Nick De Semlyen: Yeah, Conan, Terminator took him over the top in a different way, kind of put him on the A-list that was where you see his one-liners starting to come into effect. And he only says 84 words or something like that in it. So it’s a very… It’s obviously an iconic performance but it was something so different from anything he had done because Conan the Barbarian is quite chatty and quite smiley and so were all the other previous movies he made, but it was a new thing for him playing a villain. He was quite unsure about doing it, but he decided to do it and not every actor would have at that point in their career.
Brett McKay: So as you mentioned, Schwarzenegger had a different personality than Stallone. Stallone is more quiet, subdued, and artsy, Schwarzenegger, a life of the party. Charismatic just wanted success. He was kind of a type A person.
Nick De Semlyen: Yeah, Stallone is the tortured artist who is always on the brink of a big disaster or something going really right or really wrong and there’s always a lot of drama. Whereas Schwarzenegger just rolls through and seems to just have one big success after another. He doesn’t really have those giant failures that Stallone endured. Like you mentioned Rhinestone, Staying Alive. There were a whole bunch of real calamities possible career-enders. But yeah, Schwarzenegger just seemed to make everything look easy and was just rolling through. And even when he tried his hand at comedy, it worked for him straight away with Twins and then all the other comedies he did. Well Stallone wanted to do comedy, but every time he tried it was like a complete fiasco.
Brett McKay: And why do you think, I mean, for most of their careers, Stallone and Schwarzenegger, they hated each other, they’d actually almost come to fist blows when they’d saw each other and when they did encounter each other, what was behind the rivalry you think?
Nick De Semlyen: I think, you know the same thing, you see the same kind of viewed going on with Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme. I think these guys are just all type A, super competitive you know, going back to Arnold and the bodybuilding world where you just wanna take down everyone and they’re all your enemies and you are gonna destroy them. And that was the attitude that they had against each other. It all kind of started with Stallone furring a vase of flowers at the Golden Globes in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s direction when he won an award. And Stallone didn’t in the ’70s, but they genuinely was so competitive. And it’s fascinating reading interviews from the time where you get Schwarzenegger kinda shit talking Stallone’s fur coats that he used to wear at the time, [laughter] and saying that Stallone’s Cigar Club is sexist and they had all these little things and they were… They didn’t have a lot of interactions.
They didn’t encounter each other a whole lot. They were kind of moved in slightly different circles. But yeah, there’s a famous story about Stallone and his entourage going into a bar in New York and there’s a picture of Schwarzenegger on the wall and Stallone makes the bartender take it down before they’ll stay. [laughter] So, I mean if this was like real pumped-up rivalry and people kept trying to get them together in a movie and not succeeding because there was just too much bad blood.
Brett McKay: Yeah. The thing about Schwarzenegger, he loves psychological warfare and that goes back to his bodybuilding days. He would kind of corner competitors and tell them, “Man, you’re looking really small. What’s going on there?” And psych them out or he would tell them to do things that he knew would not be good for the competition. And he carried that over into his film career too, just kind of just messing with people’s minds to knock them off their game.
Nick De Semlyen: Completely. So that’s probably what he was doing with Stallone when he was talking about him to the press and putting this stuff out. But yeah, they definitely kept a very close eye on each others like box office everything from the muscles to the size of the knives that they had to the box office figures. They were definitely trying to outdo each other in every respect.
Brett McKay: Alright, so Stallone and Schwarzenegger were sort of the big guys in this golden age of the Action Hero movie. And you also talk about some of these other characters that also played a role in this era of American film. And one of them is Chuck Norris. He’s become a legend and an internet meme. How did this country boy from a small town in Oklahoma end up one of the greatest martial arts movie stars of all time?
Nick De Semlyen: Well, he was a soldier in being stationed out in Asia and he came across a karate class just completely by accident and decided to join in. And that was it. He became that this karate expert kinda like Schwarzenegger with the bodybuilding. He was in that world and of competitive combat and he was getting belts and working his way up. It took him quite a long time. He came into acting quite late in life, but he had the real skills, he went up against Bruce Lee in Way of the Dragon and held his own and in the big kind of climactic showdown in the Colosseum. And he was like a, he was like a kind of a taken really seriously in that world. And then he got into acting. His acting was not the best. So he’s kind of become a bit of a, to a point, a figure of fun obviously the Chuck Norris facts. The people love quoting about how invincible he is. But yeah, no, he can really kick your ass. But he has like a really interesting persona of this kind of cartoonish cowboy guy who, it’s kind of hard to take a lot of his films seriously ’cause he’s up against, he’s in some quite silly films and, there’s one where he is up against a kind of reanimated serial killer, like a kind of Frankenstein type thing. And yeah, it’s quite something to work your way through the Chuck Norris era.
Brett McKay: What were the movies that made him a big star in the ’80 eighties, that he’s known for?
Nick De Semlyen: He never made it as big as Stallone or Schwarzenegger. He was definitely a few degrees below them. He was kind of doing the B-movie versions of what they were doing. His breakthrough was probably this movie called Good Guys Wear Black, where he drop kicks a moving car and it didn’t make a massive amount of money. I think it made like 18 million or something like that. So it wasn’t like giant numbers, but it cost nothing to make. So, it was so profitable they let him keep going. And then he did things like Silent Rage and Forced Vengeance and all these movies with these kinds of slightly generic Steven Seagaly titles. It probably his, the one that kind of broke him out the most is Lone Wolf McQuade with David Carradine from Kill Bill as the Villain. And that’s a really entertaining film. And then he did a movie called Code of Silence with Andrew Davis directing who did The Fugitive and Under Siege. That’s probably his best film. That’s the, if anyone asks me what’s the Chuck Norris film you recommend, go see Code of Silence because it’s really fun. He’s a Chicago cop and he’s kind of partners with Dennis Farina and it’s a lot of fun.
And what was his personality like and how was it different from some of these other big-name action stars?
He was kind of this genial guy. Stallone was playing these intense characters and Schwarzenegger was these like walking sheds, these giant behemoth colossal guys, like Chuck Norris. He was deadly, but he was not outlandishly huge and he was kinda genial. It was like this kinda this blonde guy from the Midwest just going around karate-kicking people. [laughter] And so, I don’t know, I think there was a level of kind of wishful film fulfillment from people maybe because Schwarzenegger was, you were never gonna be Schwarzenegger, but maybe you could be Chuck Norris. So, you could buy a pair of his action jeans and then try and karate kick people. But he was, yeah, I think genial is probably the word. He’s just kind of like quite a kind of calm, sort of easygoing persona, which is quite unusual in these crazy action films.
Brett McKay: My favorite Chuck Norris film is Sidekicks. That was an awesome one when I was a kid.
Nick De Semlyen: That’s a good one.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Nick De Semlyen: That’s where he plays himself.
Brett McKay: Yeah, he plays himself And it’s funny, I still use, there’s this… Sidekicks who haven’t seen it. For those who haven’t seen this about this asthmatic kid who fantasizes or dreams that he’s friends with Chuck Norris and Chuck Norris helps him out, defeating bullies or whatever. And then this kid starts karate, but there’s like this tip, this running tip, the asthmatic kid got like he’s supposed to breathe in four steps and breathe out four steps. I was watching that when I was, I don’t know 10, 11. I still do that [laughter] whenever I’m jogging. I think Sidekicks. So thank you Chuck Norris for teaching me how to breathe.
Nick De Semlyen: Sidekicks changed your life.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Then how did he become Walker, Texas Ranger? How did that happen?
Nick De Semlyen: He just kind of faded. I think that was around ’93. He was phasing out of films. He was getting on a bit in age and just deciding he wanted to mellow out his screen persona. He was kind of done with laying waste to drug dealers and serial killers. And he was moving into comedy himself. Sidekicks was kind of part of that wave, but Top Dog is maybe the Nadir and the Chuck Norris filmography. That’s the one where he teams up with the dog. Have you seen that one?
Brett McKay: I have not seen that one. [laughter] No.
Nick De Semlyen: Check out the poster. Maybe don’t watch the film, but just look at the poster because it’s incredible. But yeah, he teams up with a dog. That’s kind of his Turner and& Hooch. And then he had a bunch of flops. And then I think this opportunity to do a TV show came along and he took it and the character hit big. And so he kind of just stayed doing that and gave up the films.
Brett McKay: ’cause another, one of the weirder action heroes that to come out of this era was Steven Seagal. And he seemed to come out of nowhere. So where did this guy come from and what was his backstory?
Nick De Semlyen: Well no one really knows I think to this day because he gave different stories about where he came from. And I think what you’re saying is actually his appeal. The fact that this mysterious guy with no one really knew, like he talks about, I’ve spoken to him and he’s told me, he told me a story about being in Japan and having his life saved by a mysterious white dog that then vanished when his dojo was burning. So he has all these kind of quite wild stories about what he got up to in Japan and taking on gangs of bad guys in real life. So I think that was part of his appeal was that he seemed like the real deal. He came along in Hollywood and there were all these action stars who were clearly just actors playing roles. But then he would talk in interviews about having done operations for the CIA and been a bodyguard and what he was up to in his dojo in Japan.
So I think people were like, who is this guy? And then I think even within Hollywood, people took him very seriously and he was training people. He trained Sean Connery. So I think, who is this kind of mythical, kind of mystic guy who might have been a real assassin? And there was a bit of a throwback I think to like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, those kind of strong silent types. And he came in and yeah, had a lot of charisma at the start and became increasingly weird.
Brett McKay: So you haven’t been able to verify, was he actually a CIA operative that actually happened?
Nick De Semlyen: He kind of, his line is, because I tried to raise this with him when I spoke to him and his line is kind of like, “Oh, I can’t get into that.” So his whole thing is that it would be breaking some kind of covert ops code if he were to talk about it. So that’s the thing. You can never quite pin it down. But I spoke to a screenwriter for the book who worked with him and he said, “Seagal would come in with like a loaded gun and the writers would ask him, what were you up to on the weekend? And he would say, Oh I was… Oh, I can’t talk about it. It’s classified.” So even way into his career as a movie star, he was still kind of pretending or whatever that he was, he was out doing real movie star stuff on the weekend.
Brett McKay: What were his biggest films?
Nick De Semlyen: Well he was pretty big right from the start. I think a lot of these guys, almost all of them really struggled from Van Damme to Schwarzenegger to Stallone. It took them all a long time and a lot of starts. And Seagal kind of came in fully formed. Warner Brothers signed him up for Above the Law, his first film, which was based on his apparent real life. And it was a hit. And then he did more films with free titles. And then he did Under Siege, which was a giant hit and one of Warner Brothers biggest summer movies. So he had this really meteoric rise and then quite a quick fall as well. So it’s a really strange career. It’s quite unusual.
Brett McKay: When did these guys like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, when did they start to realize that their days were numbered? Things were shifting in the United States where their type of movie wouldn’t be, wouldn’t have a receptive audience.
Nick De Semlyen: I mean you could maybe go all the way back to Die Hard, which kind of changed the game in the action genre in terms of who the hero was and who the hero looked like. Because up to then it was the Rambos, the Commandos. It was these giant monster jacked-up guys. And then you had Bruce Willis come along, who’s this quite slight, relatively cop, who’s quite vulnerable. And so that kind of started to change it. And I think Stallone and Schwarzenegger paid attention to that. Stallone has mentioned the Tim Burton Batman in 1989 as something that he’d looked at that. And I think he said something like, “Now they can velcro on muscles and we’re in trouble.” And then I think just as you got into the ’90s as these guys started to get older, and then just the arrival of visual effects. And I kind of pinpoint in the book Last Action Hero coming along as Jurassic Park is about to come out. And they both came out the same summer in ’93. And Jurassic Park was giant and Last Action Hero wasn’t giant. And people were paying to see the visual effects.
And these guys were the visual effects in the 80s. It’s like their bodies, they transformed their bodies. And now you could do anything with the visual effects. It kind of made what they were doing a bit less special. And nowadays with the Marvel films and everything, literally any actor can be an action star. So the USP of these guys had kind of gone. So I think it’s the early to mid ’90s is when you see them really going to fade away.
Brett McKay: And how do they respond to that?
Nick De Semlyen: In different ways. Chuck Norris kind of stopped making movies. Arnold eventually went into politics. Bruce Willis got more into drama, you know, Pulp Fiction and stuff like that. Kind of left action behind. Other ones just kept going. Stallone kept going and is still doing I think Expendables 4 is out in a couple of months. And that’s him and Dolph Lundgren and a bunch of these other guys still doing that, doing the ’80s action thing. Seagal and Van Damme kept making their movies, but were going direct to DVD instead. So I think they reacted in different ways. I think Schwarzenegger and Stallone, who you could argue are the kind of the smartest out of the bunch, they both tried to get into comedy. They both realized they needed to stop doing pure action and they needed to expand what they were doing. So you see both of them they’re trying to evolve what they’re doing.
Brett McKay: Well I think it’s interesting with Stallone, we mentioned that he’s very involved in his films and oftentimes the films he does reflects what’s going on in his life. And I think you make the case Demolition Man, that came out in 1993. What sort of a response to this decline of the Action Hero? It was a demolition Man’s all about this tough guy cop that gets cryogenically frozen. He’s from the ’90s, then reawakens in the 2020s in America where everything’s bland and woosy saying like, oh here, we’re no longer needed, but actually we’re needed if you really need us.
Nick De Semlyen: Exactly. Yeah. It’s set in the future, but it might as well just be set in the ’90s. ‘Cause I think that’s, it’s definitely a reflection of what was going on that these big, brutal, tough guys were suddenly out of time and out of their time and they get a lot of comedy out of that in the film. And Stallone is very game for going along with it. And I think it’s a really great film. It’s got a lot to say about the Action drummer and it’s basically making the point that these big action movies are done and all the guns are in a museum. But yeah, it’s quite a smart commentary on what was going on with the genre. Definitely.
Brett McKay: Yeah, three shells. Do you ever figure out how to use the three Shells? [laughter]
Nick De Semlyen: I’ve never figured it out. I’ve never figured it out. I’ve spent quite a lot of time attempting to figure out.
Brett McKay: There’s some diagrams out there that are interesting hypotheses, [laughter] and they’re disturbing. So I think one thing I noticed, so you mentioned we have these Marvel action stars and there’s some other action hero like Chris Pratt. Maybe you can call him an Action Hero type, but I feel like a lot of today’s Action Star, they don’t have the same type of appeal or star power or tough guy cache compared to these stars at the Golden Age of Action Heroes. Someone like, yeah, Jeremy Renner or all the different types of Chris’s that are out there. They’re just not on the same plane as a Schwarzenegger, a Stallone. Why do you think that is?
Nick De Semlyen: I just think there was something about these ’80s and ’90s action stars. There was a purity to them. They dedicated their lives to doing action and you very rarely saw them doing something that wasn’t an action movie. I think nowadays you have actors who dabble in doing a big VFX Marvel thing and then they’ll go off and do a drama or they’ll do a musical or whatever. But you look at these guys and they literally dedicated their lives to it. They were in the gym all the time, chugging protein shakes, they were transforming their bodies and there was just something really unique about them. It was almost impossible to imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger just doing something normal. It was hard to imagine him in a supermarket, do you know what I mean? He was like a walking special effect.
So there was something totally unique to them. I mean, you get Dwayne Johnson who’s probably the closest thing these days, but it’s not the same I think. They were so pumped up, no pun intended. And I think also they just worked with great action filmmakers. There’s something about their films. They were working with James Cameron and Paul Verhoeven and you’ve got really, really interesting action films out of it. And I think that they weren’t working in that factory like you get with Marvel, where it’s the same kind of film, it doesn’t really matter who’s in it because you know what you’re gonna get. Like These big crazy movies were being crafted around these guys’ screen image. And so you got really bizarre but cool films.
Brett McKay: Another thing I noticed with all these action heroes you highlight in the book is all of them came from poverty and also very adverse backgrounds. Stallone got beat as a kid, same with Schwarzenegger his dad was abusive and he had alcohol problems and they all had to work incredibly hard to get to where they were. So I think that might have given them a bit of grit.
Nick De Semlyen: Definitely.
Brett McKay: Today a lot of actors come from a middle class backgrounds and they went to college and then they become an actor and something about that doesn’t give you the same sort of cache.
Nick De Semlyen: Yeah, definitely. I think there was something about almost all of these guys, like you say, they couldn’t fail. They had something to prove and they were gonna prove it and they weren’t gonna give up. Like I don’t think Stallone or Van Damme who came to America and he was sleeping in a car and these guys were just… They were not gonna give up. And you’re right, a lot of them had really tough upbringings and difficult relationships with their fathers, like you say, in lots of cases. And I think there was definitely something to prove with a lot of them. And there was this kind of relentlessness and drive that they had for real, that I think then translates into the movies. And you can see in any of these movies that these guys really, they’re gonna… They’re not gonna give up.
Brett McKay: So these movies that these guys started in, they’re 30, 40 years old now, but they’re still a big part of our pop culture. Why do we keep going back to them? What’s the appeal of these movies even in 2023?
Nick De Semlyen: I think part of it is the simplicity of these movies. They’re not generally part of a big complicated mythology. You can just pick up a Predator or a Terminator and you just get it straightaway. They have a primal, a kind of, I don’t know, they just appeal to that part of your brain that just wants to watch one person go up against an army and prevail. And I don’t think any movies have done it better or more entertainingly. If you watch Commando, it’s so much fun still today. Just to watch Arnold going up against a literal army of people and there’s just a sense of fun to them and imagination and kind of an anything goes craziness as well. I think it was fun. We haven’t talked about Jackie Chan, but Jackie Chan was also making great action movies at this time and the amount of inventiveness in his films that he probably wouldn’t be able to get away with these days, he certainly couldn’t get away with it when he came to America.
Brett McKay: And I think another thing too, I appreciate about those action movies, I get annoyed with a lot of movies do this today, but particularly action movies, modern ones, they’re too self-aware about themselves. And so you’ll watch a movie made today and you’ll see some action thing and then the stars will make some sort of ironic knowing quip about, Hey, we know this is a cliche and so we’re gonna make like a sort of a subtle commentary on it. It just takes you out of the whole thing. And those movies in the ’80s and ’90s, they didn’t do that. They just we’re gonna kill this guy in a weird ridiculous way. We’re not gonna even say anything about it. Maybe a one-liner and that’s it.
Nick De Semlyen: Yeah, yeah. The one-liners are essential, but yeah, I know what exactly what you mean. I think the Expendables movies is where they go wrong is they wheel on people and then they’re trying to do, hey it’s Chuck Norris, and then they’ll have five minutes of jokes about Chuck Norris and they forget that it’s just gotta be a throwaway thing, but you gotta actually have great action and imaginative stuff going on as well.
Brett McKay: So if there were, say three movies from this period that you think every man should watch, what would they be?
Nick De Semlyen: This is like an impossible question.
Brett McKay: Okay. [laughter]
Nick De Semlyen: It’s a really hard… It would be hard to pin down even three per person, but I’m gonna have a go. I just mentioned Commando not long ago. I think Commando still holds up as, I mean is it is not a masterpiece. It’s definitely not as good as Terminator 2, but I’m gonna pick it for an Arnie film just because it’s so fun and entertaining. And Arnold hoist a log with one hand and it’s called John Matrix and it’s so ridiculous and outlandish all the way through that if anyone hasn’t seen it, you’ve gotta watch Commando.
Brett McKay: Alright, Commando. Is there any other ones you like?
Nick De Semlyen: I’m gonna throw in Die Hard, it’s obvious, I think probably the greatest action movie of all time, the greatest action movie villain. It’s just timeless. It’s got such a great script, so many brilliant one-liners and characters. It’s a rare action movie where you can probably quote 30 different characters in that. It’s got such a deep bench of great characters, which is very rare in action. And then for the third one, I’m gonna throw in a Jackie Chan ’cause we haven’t really talked about him, but Police Story I got to see on the big screen in the Prince Charles in London recently. It’s incredible. It’s got a shopping mall fight at the end that is so crazy and involves so much broken glass that it’s just, it’s immense.
Brett McKay: Well Nick, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Nick De Semlyen: Well, the book is now out. So wherever you can find books and I’m editor of Empire magazine, which is the world’s biggest film magazine and that’s a monthly one. So you can head to wherever you can find magazines and hopefully find a copy of that.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Nick de Semlyen, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Nick De Semlyen: Thank you so much. This was great.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Nick de Semlyen. He’s the author of the book, the Last Action Heroes. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Make sure to check out our show notes at aom.is/thelastActionheroes. Where you can find links to resources, and we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you’d think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast, you can do so at Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up and use the code Manliness at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, it’s Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.