We can’t quit these 1980s movie action heroes

Career opportunities for actors dwindle as they age. Scores of youthful leading men and women have made their mark in the movie biz, only to age out of their Hollywood “sell by” date just as they find their stride. But Hollywood didn’t count on one thing: Baby Boomers started aging—and nobody puts Baby in a corner! In the ’80s, Sylvester Stallone was a kingmaker. A role alongside him in a Rocky movie was often a ticket to stardom. Thirty years later, Stallone is once again (re)crowning Hollywood royalty with an entirely new genre: Geezer Flicks. 

Okay, okay, we made that up—but you get the point. Stallone wrote and directed much of The Expendables film franchise and recruited some of his back-in-the-day buddies (and former rivals), to play a group of aging, elite mercenaries on a mission to take down a dictator. These leading men proved they still have the mojo. With two sequels, several cast additions, and plans for future films in the works, The Expendables has proven to be a bona fide age-is-just-a-number time machine for action heroes of yore. We thought we’d take a look at what these stars have been doing in recent years. And we also came up with a few more action stars from the 1980s we think would make excellent additions to any modern casting roster, Expendables or not. We just can’t quit these tried-and-true action heroes.

Sylvester Stallone still rocks

Let’s start with the source. Sylvester Stallone has had such a fortunate ride with the Rocky film franchise that he could have done only those films and been considered a success. He rode Rocky all the way to the bank, culminating in an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win for his performance in Creed in 2016. Stallone acts, directs, writes, and produces. His work is so prolific in Hollywood that he even appeared on The Muppet Show. After Rocky came Rambo, followed by dozens of other performances. Actors and actresses who appeared alongside him saw their careers skyrocket. Stallone is indeed a Hollywood powerhouse, and he likes it that way.

If he has learned one lesson in filmmaking, it is “stick to that works!” In that vein, he is still, more than 30 years after Rocky first premiered, still making both Rocky and Rambo movies. And The Expendables franchise is also a hit, though it will not likely see the longevity of the other two—not because it isn’t a good idea, but because most of the lead actors were senior citizens when the first film premiered. But Stallone and his posse of aging badasses keep on keeping on, and we love it!

Harrison Ford: The reluctant silver screen icon

When Harrison Ford appeared as lovable scoundrel Han Solo in the first Star Wars film in 1977, he became that which he never aspired to be: a movie star—an aversion he voiced to People (via New York Post) in 1981. Still, as he told PA Media (via Independent.ie) in April 2020, “Success has been very important to giving me options in my life. I am very grateful for that.” He should be. In 2016, Box Office Mojo named Ford the highest grossing actor in the history of the United States (via The Guardian). He lives with his wife, actress Calista Flockhart, whom he married, People reported, in 2010 while on location in New Mexico filming Cowboys and Aliens.

Ford appeared in blockbusters like The Fugitive, Air Force One, and Patriot Games, as well as some film franchises you’ve probably heard of before. Ford told Entertainment Weekly he finds his Indiana Jones character, first introduced in Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, much more interesting than Solo. (A fifth Indiana Jones film has been in the works for years, with copious delays.)

An avid pilot, Ford has had some flying adventures, including rescuing a hiker and making an emergency landing on a golf course. His son, Ben, updated fans on Ford’s condition following his crash, tweeting (via CNN), “Dad is ok. Battered, but ok! He is every bit the man you would think he is. He is an incredibly strong man.”

Go ahead, make Clint Eastwood's day

Clint Eastwood’s Hollywood career has spanned more than 60 years. After establishing himself as an actor in the ’50s and ’60s, Eastwood transitioned into directing. However, he didn’t abandon one side of the camera for another. His 1971 directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, kicked off a string of rough-and-tumble films in the 70s and 80s in which he both starred and directed.

In the ’90s, the actor/director turned his focus to films like The Bridges of Madison County, which relied more heavily on character development than action. His 1993 film, Unforgiven, won both the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. He continued to explore complex characters in films like Gran Torino in the 2000s, and he again won both the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars with Million Dollar Baby.  His focus shifted again in the 2010s, when most of his work was done behind the camera with biopics like American Sniper and Richard Jewell. Perhaps Eastwood’s most indelible mark on Hollywood was when he forever altered the pop culture lexicon with the line, “Go ahead, make my day!” in the “Dirty Harry” film Sudden Impact.

Seemingly as much of a rogue in his personal life as some of his onscreen characters, Closer Weekly reported Eastwood has fathered eight children with six women.  A source told the outlet in May 2020, “He’s taken great comfort that at this time of his life, all his kids are close.”

Mel Gibson is no stranger to controversy

Mel Gibson is a wild ride, and some fans have indeed been able to quit him. Before post-apocalyptic was chic, he brought Max Rockatansky to life in three Mad Max films between 1979 and 1985. Gibson’s Lethal Weapon chemistry with partner-in-crime-fighting Danny Glover received rave reviews. And a fifth film in the Lethal Weapon series is in the works and will include both Gibson and Glover (via MSN).

A lightning rod for controversy, Gibson’s headlines are a mixed bag of industry news and personal woes. In the last two decades, the woes have outnumbered the wins. In 2006, TMZ reported Gibson had gone on a profanity-laced anti-Semitic rampage during a drunk driving arrest. One of the arresting officers, L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputy James Mee, was reportedly told to file a report that omitted Gibson’s tirade, but the original report surfaced. (In 2016, Gibson told Variety it was “an unfortunate incident.”)

In 2010, Winona Ryder told GQ she’d learned Gibson was anti-Semitic during the ’90s when a drunk Gibson “said something about ‘oven dodgers” at a party after discovering Ryder is Jewish. (Variety reported Gibson denied Ryder’s allegation.) That same year, RadarOnline obtained audio recorded by Gibson’s ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, in which Gibson used racist and sexist language. But somehow, as Variety reported, despite “cancel culture,” Gibson still has a career. Just how mad is Mad Max? Perhaps it’s Gibson’s just-barely-keeping-it-together energy that attracted audiences to him in the first place.

Eddie Murphy brings the laughs and the action

Eddie Murphy is, of course, a comedy legend. Rolling Stone ranked him the second-best Saturday Night Live cast member in history, behind only John Belushi. They credit Murphy with single-handedly saving SNL during his tenure there in the early ’80s, writing, ” It is customary (and accurate) to say that Eddie Murphy is the only reason SNL survived the five-year wilderness without Lorne Michaels.” Murphy appeared on the SNL 40th Anniversary Special in 2015 and returned in 2019 to host the show.

His film career kicked off with 48 Hours, and that was followed by Beverly Hills Cop and Coming to America. Roles like these seemed perfectly suited for the raunchy, fearless Murphy. If you had told us, on the heels of his Delirious and Eddie Murphy: Raw stand-up specials, that he would become a family film staple, we would have dropped our buckwheat. The leather-clad, foul-mouthed stand-up comedian who was so wrong he was right was as far from family-friendly as it gets (at least, as it got at the time). But, here we are in the 2020s, and Murphy delivered us The Nutty Professor, Doctor Doolittle, and Shrek‘s Donkey.

Life takes us places we never dreamed we’d go, and Murphy is going back to the ’80s. Sequel Coming 2 America is scheduled for a December 2020 release, and Digital Spy reported Beverly Hills Cop 4 is on the way. We can already hear the Axel F theme song in our heads.

Bruce Willis is anything but expendable

Santa Claus brings Bruce Willis to us every year in the way of Die Hard showings. If an annual visit from Willis’ Die Hard character, John McClane, were all we had of the actor, it might be enough, because that’s how awesome a Christmas movie Die Hard is. But Willis is thankfully the action-hero gift that keeps on giving. From blockbuster movies like The Fifth Element and Armageddon to psychological thrillers like The Sixth Sense, Willis is a box-office draw. Continued success is certainly not a disqualifier for The Expendables films, and Willis appeared in the first two films in the franchise. His rare career longevity is a testament to his acting chops. 

Willis never stopped delivering awesome silver-screen performances, and it’s easy to forget he got his big break on the ABC television “dramedy,” Moonlighting, alongside Cybil Shepherd. He also never stopped playing the role of dad as part of a family unit with his ex-wife Demi Moore, and their kids. Their daughter, Rumour, told Larry King her parents “always made an effort to do all of the family events still together…as one unit.” They even quarantined together as one big happy family during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mickey Rourke wrestled his way into awards season

In 2009, on the day he won the Golden Globe for his performance in The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke told ABC‘s Barbara Walters he had “self-destructed” in the ’90s and that the only thing keeping him alive was concern over who would take care of his dogs. What led him to rock bottom? People reported it was the fallout from Rourke’s arrogance following the success of films like Body Heat, The Pope of Greenwich Village, and 9½ Weeks. Angel Heart director Alan Parker said of Rourke’s reputation for being difficult, “working with Mickey is a nightmare. He is very dangerous on the set because you never know what he is going to do”

In 1991, Rourke became a professional boxer, a passion from his youth. He told the New York Times he made the move because, “I’d be less of a man if I didn’t react violently to the war in my head.” Injuries from fights disfigured his face, and the plastic surgery required rendered his face unrecognizable.

Far from his days as a counterculture sex symbol, Rourke showed he still had powerful performances to deliver when he was cast in The Wrestler. This role, for which he won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar, offered Rourke an opportunity to be, as CNN put it, “Hollywood’s latest comeback kid.” It worked, and he subsequently obtained roles in blockbusters like The Expendables and Iron Man 2. He also appeared as Gremlin on The Masked Singer.

Dolph Lundgren: Bodyguard-turned-movie star

Dolph Lundgren’s success story is quintessentially ’80s. His life changed forever after being assigned to guard Grace Jones’ dressing room, NPR reported. The two became romantically involved, and the Swedish-born hunk decided to forego a Fulbright Scholarship to MIT (and the chemical engineering career he had planned) to follow Jones to New York, where he modeled and spent time with the “fabulosity” crowd at Studio 54.  

After being cast in a small role in the Bond film A View To a Kill, Lundgren received the break of a lifetime in 1985 when he was cast as Soviet boxer Ivan Drago, the antagonist against Sylvester Stallone, in Rocky IV. This led to roles like He-Man in Masters of the Universe and Soviet operative-turned-hero in Red Scorpion.

A career slump in the ’90s resulted in more than a decade of low-profile acting work, but Lundgren got another big break when old Sly came through again! The Expendables jump-started Lundgren’s career, and the actor slayed his first theatrical release in 15 years. In addition to appearing in both Expendables sequels, Lundgren was cast in high-profile roles like King Nereus in Aquaman and a reprisal of the role of Ivan Drago in Creed II. Lundgren marked the 10th anniversary of The Expendables on Instagram, calling the film “a long awaited return for me to the big screen thanks to my old buddy @officialslystallone.”

Action fans sure are taken with Liam Neeson

A brilliant dramatic actor from Northern Ireland, Liam Neeson just barely squeezed himself into 80s-action-hero status with his appearance in Next of Kin with Patrick Swayze. While many of our action heroes on this list had their heyday in the 80s, Neeson was just getting started. His real launching pad was his 1994 role as Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, for which he was Nominated for an Academy Award. Amid dozens of roles in dramatic and suspense films, he appeared as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, a box office smash. He also voiced lion Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia flicks in the 2000s, played Ra’s al Ghul in The Dark Knight movies in the 2010s, and was the lead in the Taken trilogy

Neeson was romantically linked to Helen Mirren in the early 80s after having met her on the set of the 1981 film, Excalibur. He married actress Natasha Richardson in 1994, with whom he had two sons, and to whom he stayed married until her death in a skiing accident in 2009. In another tragic loss, the Belfast Telegraph reported, Neeson’s mother died in June 2020, but he was unable to go to her funeral due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions.

Sigourney Weaver: Queen of aliens and avatars

Sigourney Weaver also knows a good film franchise when she sees it—and she’s smart enough to ride that wave of success as far as it will go. Many fans refer to her as “The Queen of Sci-Fi,” thanks to Weaver’s iconic breakout role as Ellen Ripley in Alien that launched a decades-long career in action films with an extra-terrestrial bend, along with some human-centric flicks. Stellar performances in Aliens, Gorillas in the Mist, and Working Girl earned her three Academy Award nominations. In 1989, Weaver won both the Best Leading Actress and best Supporting Actress Golden Globe Awards for Gorillas in the Mist and Working Girl.

It wasn’t just a lucky casting break that propelled her success. Weaver came to Hollywood armed with an MFA from the esteemed Yale University School of Drama, where she studied and performed with classmate Meryl Streep. After the first film in the Alien franchise, Weaver signed on for Ghostbusters and a slew of other film and television roles befitting the Queen of Sci-Fi. She hasn’t (yet?) been cast in The Expendables, but Weaver’s dance card is extremely full right now with another film franchise. The first Avatar, in 2009, introduced Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine. IMDb says Avatar 4 and 5 are currently filming, and Avatar 2 and 3 are in post-production. We can’t get enough of watching Weaver interact with non-human beings. If she stars in it, and at least one character isn’t from Earth, you can bet audiences will come.

Arnold Schwarzenegger went from Terminator to Governor

When bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared on the silver screen as Conan the Barbarian in 1982, who would have predicted the Austrian-born five-time Mr. Universe and six-time Mr. Olympia would parlay his Barbarian-turned-Terminator fame into being The Governator? Apparently, he would’ve! After marrying into the Kennedy family in 1986, he and wife Maria Shriver had four children and moved into the California Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento when he won a special election in 2003. Schwarzenegger and family stayed through his second term, following his 2006 reelection. Schwarzenegger credits Ronald Reagan with his patriotism and love of politics, saying (via Biography), “I became a citizen of the United States when [Reagan] was president, and he is the first president I voted for as an American citizen.” Term limits prevented The Governator from running for a third term, and he left the Governor’s mansion in January 2011. His marriage to Shriver also dissolved that year when it was revealed Schwarzenegger had fathered a child with their housekeeper.

Starting anew in many ways, the star lived up to the “I’ll be back!” line he made famous and eventually went back to Hollywood. He appeared in The Expendables and The Expendables 2. He is also revisiting the Terminator, having starred in two new films in the franchise, released in 2015 and 2019, and another announced for production.

Chuck Norris is meme-worthy martial arts icon

Chuck Norris is the quintessential badass. His reputation as an action hero and martial arts champion has earned the 80-year-old actor legendary status. While he doesn’t appear to be working in Hollywood right now – Norris does appear in internet memes more ubiquitously than Grumpy Cat, many of which contain hilarious hyperbolic claims of his badassery. A six-time undefeated World Professional Middleweight Karate Champion, Norris started in Hollywood as a martial arts trainer for celebrities, including Steve McQueen, Donnie and Marie Osmond, and Priscilla Presley. His friend in martial arts, Bruce Lee, suggested he try acting in action movies. And the rest is (sometimes exaggerated for internet laughs) history.

Roles in indie martial arts hits like The Octagon and An Eye for an Eye in the early ’80s led to appearances in box-office hits like Lone Wolf McQuade, Missing in Action, Code of SilenceThe Delta Force, and its 1990 sequel. But nothing cemented Norris’ mainstream status as a man not to be crossed than his television role as Cordell Walker on Walker, Texas Ranger from 1993 to 2001. While The Expendables 2 seems to be the only film in which Norris has starred in the last decade, he has become an active conservative political activist, even endorsing former Judge Roy Moore in the 2017 Alabama Senate Republican primary for Jeff Sessions’ previously-held seat. And, of course, he remains active in the martial arts world, having founded the United Fighting Arts Federation. 

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