Jean-Claude Van Damme's Predator Casting Was Doomed From Day One

A footnote in the career of martial artist and action-movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme is that he was originally cast to play the titular alien in the 1987 sci-fi action-horror film "Predator" before he was unceremoniously canned and replaced by the late Kevin Peter Hall. In recent years, it seems like everybody and their mamas have stepped forward with conflicting eyewitness accounts of what led to Van Damme's dismissal, but the consensus is that his casting was doomed from day one.

Van Damme, then an aspiring action star, got the villainous role and anticipated showcasing his speed, athleticism and roundhouse kicks in an epic clash with one of the best action movie actors of the decade: Arnold Schwarzenegger. It would be a showdown that would've surely put the young and hungry Belgian on the map. It appeared that he and casting director Jackie Burch were on the same page. "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 told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017. "So finally, I said to [producer Joel Silver], 'He'd be great as the Predator because no one moves like him.' I mean he really is quite amazing."

So, what went wrong?

The original Predator costume design was a disaster

The alien's design in the "Predator" that hit theaters in June of 1987 was not the look the executives first had in mind. In an interview with Matt Winston (actor and son of the late special effects artist Stan Winston), FX artist Steve Johnson, who worked on the original suit, recalled an executive meeting that included the film's director John McTiernan and producer Joel Silver. "With great pomp and ceremony, McTiernan comes in and slams down a bunch of designs [of the Predator] that have already been done by a production designer ... They said, 'Here's what we want you to make.' What they needed was a character with backward-bent reptilian legs, extended arms, and a head that was out here."

Johnson said the original alien designs, though ahead of its time, were awful and the protruding head especially sucked. "And they wanted to shoot on the muddy slopes of Mexico in the real jungles," Johnson said. "It was virtually physically impossible to do." Johnson warned them it wouldn't work but proceeded with the design. His team made a red version of the suit made of thick rubber as a cloaking device (the scenes were to be shot against the greenery of the jungle and red is the opposite of green on the color wheel).

The 5-feet-10 Van Damme was no match for the suit's protruding head; even while on stilts, his head was in the suit's neck. "I hate this. I hate this. I hate it. I look like a superhero," Johnson recalled Van Damme complaining onset. Finding out that he was essentially an invisible stuntman infuriated the action movie star hopeful even more. "We get him out there for the first shot and he's just seething," Johnson said.

Yes, Jean-Claude Van Damme hated it

Jean-Claude voiced his grievances with the original "Predator" alien suit in an 1989 interview with Starlog Magazine. He points to miscommunication; whether it was unintentional or deliberate miscommunication is unknown. "They said I would be in a tight leotard with half-[human], half-animal makeup on my face," Van Damme told Starlog. "Then, I got a full-body cast and, in the creature outfit, my arms and legs were on metal stilts."

Not only did the costume prevent Van Damme from being able to showcase his martial arts prowess on screen like he had anticipated, but also, he said the costume, which took him 20 minutes to get into, was so dangerous that if he had fallen and tried to brace himself with his arms, he would have broken them. Additionally, being in the costume impaired his vision and made it difficult for him to breathe ... not to mention being in a rubber suit in a jungle in Mexico is pure torture.

"They wanted me to make a big jump, and I told them, 'It's impossible [from that height]. I know my limitations and I'll break my legs,'" Van Damme said. Starlog reported that a stuntman was hired to execute the jump Van Damme refused to perform, and the stuntman subsequently broke his leg. And while Van Damme seemed to back up this account in a 2019 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, supervisors on the film denied any injuries happened on set. "Nobody broke their f****** leg," the film's first assistant director, Beau Marks, told THR.

A new Predator suit, but no Jean-Claude Van Damme

Regardless of whether an injury onset of the "Predator" was the catalyst, the producers sent Jean-Claude Van Damme packing home and went back to the drawing board to develop a new and safer design for the alien. The new suit didn't require the use of stilts as the 7-foot-2 Kevin Peter Hall was hired to take over the titular role, and the film became a box office success without Van Damme.

Van Damme told Starlog in 1989 that he didn't bear the folks associated with the movie any ill-will. What's an alien? It's a guy inside a plastic suit," he said. "That's not my goal in life, which is to be a good actor." Van Damme finally got to showcase his martial arts prowess on the big screen just months after "Predator" was released. He had his breakout performance in 1988's martial arts action film "Bloodsport," where he plays a U.S. soldier Frank Dux who enters an underground martial arts tournament in Hong Kong called the Kumite. Van Damme went on to become one the greatest action stars of the '90s — even without that could've-been-epic Arnold Schwarzenegger showdown.