Tough As Nails Facts About Death-Defying Action Stars

Henry Gomes

Nothing provides escapist pleasures more than an outrageous and exhilarating action movie. One of the reasons we respond to action movies are because of their larger than life stars. These heroes and anti-heroes are what make going to the movies such a memorable and scintillating adventure. Here are some truly thrilling facts about some of your favorite action stars of the big screen.

Action Stars Facts

1. The Many Careers of The Rock


You’re probably aware that before Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson became one of the most bankable movie stars in cinema history, he was an electrifying presence in the world of professional wrestling. But did you know that before his wrestling career, The Rock pursued a career on the gridiron? The Rock was part of the University of Miami’s 1991 national championship-winning team.

Although his collegiate career was hampered by injuries, The Rock did have a brief pro career as a member of the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League. After being cut by the team mid-season, he would switch tracks and follow in the footsteps of his father and maternal grandfather on the wrestling circuit.

2. A Pre-Action Star Entrepreneurial Career

Arnold Schwarzenegger has had quite the life. From humble origins in Austria, he became a prolific bodybuilder, then Hollywood’s biggest action star, and even the Governor of California. But few people know that in his early days, Schwarzenegger started a successful bricklaying business. Even before his Hollywood career took off, Schwarzenegger was already a self-made millionaire.

3. The Parallels Between Fighting and Dancing

Belgian action star Jean-Claude Van Damme holds a black belt in karate and has practiced kickboxing, Muay Thai, and Taekwondo, but he’s also an expert at something we don’t usually associate with action heroes: ballet. Van Damme studied the dance for five years and credits it with preparing him for the physical rigors of other pursuits.

He stated that ballet “is an art, but it’s also one of the most difficult sports. If you can survive a ballet workout, you can survive a workout in any other sport.”

4. Life Imitates Art

Best known for playing the titular character on the long-running show Walker, Texas Ranger and for being an internet meme, Chuck Norris is a major action star. In 2010, Norris finally achieved admittance into the elite Texas law enforcement unit, when he was named an honorary Texas Ranger by then-Texas Governor Rick Perry.


5. Thank Jackie for the Tomatometer

Do you like to check the scores on Rotten Tomatoes? If so, you have Jackie Chan to thank. Rotten Tomatoes founder Senh Duong was a big fan of the legendary action star and would compile American reviews for his many Hong Kong action movies. Duong founded the site in 1998, just before Chan’s first major Hollywood film Rush Hour.

He coded the initial version of the site in two weeks and gathered reviews for the film from critics all across the country.

6. Preserving Their Stars

Errol Flynn was the action star of the 1930s and 40s. Like many of his contemporaries, the Australian-born and newly naturalized American citizen attempted to enlist in the armed forces and serve during World War II. However, he failed the prerequisite physical exam as he tested positive “for malaria, a heart murmur, various venereal diseases, and latent pulmonary tuberculosis.”

In order to protect Flynn’s image as a physically fit and heroic star, Warner Bros. decided to bury the real reason why he wasn’t admitted into the forces. This had a terrible consequence: many people accused him of being a draft dodger.

7. Hollywood’s First Action Star

The great Douglas Fairbanks could be considered Hollywood’s first action star, with the actor starring in the swashbuckling films like The Mask of Zorro and Robin Hood. It’s not a coincidence that Fairbanks’ movies were all distributed by United Artists— Fairbanks owned the company, along with his wife, the actress Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith.

Through the company, Fairbanks had something other actors coveted: total control over his movies.

8. Doing it for Diana

In preparation for her starring role in Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot underwent a special diet and extensive training program to gain 17 pounds of muscle. But when the production underwent reshoots, Gadot looked very different. She was five months pregnant! With a green cloth placed over her midriff, her pregnancy was edited out of the final picture.

9. Well-Deserved Recognition

Actors who star in action flicks don’t usually get the recognition they deserve from the fancy awards shows like the Oscars, but there’s always an exception that proves the rule. Sigourney Weaver received an Academy Award nomination for her work in the 1986 film sci-fi action film Aliens. Ellen Ripley really was a trailblazer in every way.

10. A Serious Injury

Before starting production for The Matrix, Keanu Reeves suffered a terrible injury. Two discs in his spine began to fuse together, causing partial paralysis to his legs. Production had to get completely reorganized so that Reeves could get neck surgery. When he returned to set, Reeves continued his training under the supervision of famed martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping.

Sadly, even though Reeves worked hard (he even trained on his days off), the pain in his legs was so bad that he couldn’t kick in the final film.


11. Like Father, Like Son-In-Law

With his appearances in the rebooted Jurassic Park film franchise and in Guardians of the Galaxy, Chris Pratt has become a major modern action star. He further cemented this status by marrying into action star family royalty. In 2019, Pratt wed Katherine Schwarzenegger, daughter of Arnold, which makes The Terminator the father-in-law of Peter Quill.

Action Stars FactsGetty Images

12. Diving Into the Competition

Before his famous roles in The Transporter, Fast and the Furious, and The Expendables franchises, Jason Statham made a splash in an entirely different profession, literally. The British action star was a competitive diver. He even represented England in the 1990 Commonwealth Games in the 10m, 3m, and 1m disciplines.

13. The Role that Got Away

In the 1990s, Will Smith had an unparalleled string of hit movies, until it all came crashing down. Smith could have ended the decade with the role of Neo in The Matrix. However, he turned down the role for the lead in Wild Wild West. Big mistake. Wild Wild West turned out to be the one glaring critical and commercial flop in an otherwise incredible start to his movie career.

14. A Tribute to a Close Friend and Co-Star

The central theme of the Fast and Furious movies is the importance of family, even when familial connections aren’t rooted in blood. It’s a theme that star Vin Diesel clearly took to heart. He named his daughter Pauline after his close friend and Fast and Furious co-star, Paul Walker. In a tragic twist, Walker died in a car accident in 2013.

15. A Hero On and Off  Screen

Away from the film sets of big-budget action films, Paul Walker made his mark with a heartbreaking gesture. The actor founded Reach Out Worldwide, an organization that provides relief efforts to disasters. Walker established the organization shortly after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The organization continues to carry out relief missions following Walker’s untimely passing.

16. Just Another Film Shoot for Cruise

During the filming of Mission Impossible — Fallout, Tom Cruise broke his ankle, causing production to be halted for multiple weeks. Cruise, however, made a full recovery, even returning to set a couple of weeks earlier than anticipated. Shortly thereafter, Cruise solidified his reputation as a fearless action star with a death-defying stunt. 

The then-55-year-old actor jumped out of an airplane 106 times at a height of over 25,000 feet in order to get just three shots for the final cut of the film.

Action Stars FactsShutterstock

17. Childhood Activities Paying Off Dividends

Wesley Snipes’ got an early start to prepare for the many action movies he would eventually star in. He was just 12 years old when he started his martial arts training. Snipes holds a 5th-degree black belt in Shotokan karate and a 2nd degree back belt in the Korean martial art Hapkido. He has also trained in capoeira, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, kickboxing, and kung fu.

18. An Early Brush With Fame

When he was 11 years old, future international action star Jet Li performed a demonstration with his Chinese wushu team at the White House for then-President Richard Nixon. The President was so impressed by young Jet Li that he made him a stunning offer. Nixon wanted him to take a job as his personal bodyguard.

To which the young Li replied, “No, I don’t want to protect any individual. When I grow up, I want to defend my one billion Chinese countrymen!”

19. Putting in the Work

Known for her appearances in a wide variety of action film franchises, Michelle Rodriguez has a series of rigorous workout routines to help keep her in shape. One such routine saw her embark on 2.5 miles of daily running, lifting weights, high-intensity boxing sessions, performing 100 sit-ups, and 40 push-ups.

Action Stars FactsShuttterstock

20. Brains and Brawn

Which action star has a Master’s degree in chemical engineering? Before taking on famous roles like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV and He-Man in Masters of the Universe, Dolph Lundgren was on track to become a chemical engineer. After his Master’s degree, Lundgren received a Fulbright scholarship to continue his studies at MIT.

However, while still in Australia, he became the bodyguard of singer and actress Grace Jones and later started a relationship with her. She convinced the budding Swedish engineer to move to New York City with her and start an acting career.

21. One of Hollywood’s Most Bizarre Mysteries

Before hitting it big as an action star, Kurt Russell started his career in Hollywood as a child actor in a variety of television shows. In 1966, an ailing Walt Disney, the founder of the animation and entertainment empire, is said to have written “Kurt Russell” on a piece of paper, which ended up being his last words.

To this day, no one knows what Disney meant by the mysterious note.

22. Learning Her Lines and a New Language

The biggest challenge Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh faced during the martial arts epic film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wasn’t the rigorous physical training. While Yeoh was fluent in English and Malay since childhood and had learned Cantonese later as an adult, she was not familiar with Mandarin, which would be the language used exclusively in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

She had to learn her lines phonetically.


23. Fighting Through the Pain

Shortly before the filming of The Terminator commenced, Linda Hamilton, who would star as the film’s heroine Sarah Connor, badly sprained her ankle. Although the scenes involving her running were moved later in the production schedule, Hamilton was in serious pain throughout filming. Even though her ankle had to be taped up every day, she fought through the pain.

24. First Foray into the Movies

Action star Danny Trejo’s first job in the movies was providing boxing training to actor Eric Roberts for the 1985 film Runaway Train. He got the job because of his dark past: Trejo and the movie’s screenwriter Edward Bunker served time together at San Quentin, where Trejo was the prison’s boxing champion. He impressed the filmmakers so much that he even got a small part in the movie.

25. A New Chapter in an Already Great Career

Before Taken, Liam Neeson was mostly known as a dramatic actor with very few action-y credits to his name. He actually thought that the movie would be a failure, and would only be released direct-to-video. Of course, with Neeson’s special set of skill, Taken would become a massive worldwide hit. It spanned two successful sequels and ushered in a new phase in Neeson’s career.

He’s since starred in similar action thrillers like Unknown, Non-Stop, and The Commuter.

26. Doing His Homework

When Daniel Craig was offered the role of British super-spy James Bond, the actor had a shocking reaction. He turned down the role because he felt that the movies were becoming too formulaic. He accepted the part after reading the script, which clearly impressed him. To prepare for the role, Craig read all of Ian Fleming’s novels and met with Mossad and British Secret Service agents.

27. The Key to A Ripped Bod—An Early Wake-Up Time

In 2018, Mark Wahlberg shared his, er, unique and frankly terrifying daily schedule on Instagram. Apparently, Wahlberg wakes up at 2:30 in the morning and begins his first workout of the day about an hour later. He also reserves time for cryo chamber recovery and plenty of meal and snack breaks.

28. A Role He was Destined to Play

Seeing as he would eventually play Aquaman in the DC Cinematic Universe, it was perhaps fitting that Jason Momoa briefly majored in marine biology in college. His first acting role also had an aquatic theme as he played a surf shop worker in the television series Baywatch Hawaii.

29. Character Building at a Very Young Age

Charles Bronson became a hit with audiences due to his many tough guy roles, perhaps most notably as the grizzled vigilante in the Death Wish series. Physical resiliency came to him at a young age, but it had a terrible cost. Following the death of his father, a 10-year-old Bronson became a provider for his family by working at the coalmines in rural Pennsylvania.

He is said to have earned a dollar for each ton of coal he mined.

30. Now That’s a Real Badge

Mel Gibson studied three unique fighting styles for his role as Martin Riggs in the first Lethal Weapon film. He learned the Brazilian martial art of capoeira; Jailhouse Rock, a fighting style developed in American prisons; and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a variation of the Japanese martial art popularized by the Gracie family.

Along with his co-star Danny Glover, Gibson also spent time with the LAPD to learn to behave like real police officers.

31. Opposite Roles

After a series of period films and romantic comedies, Kate Beckinsale became a major action star in the first decade of the 21st century. Ironically, her most famous roles are polar opposites of each other. In the Underworld films, she portrays a vampire, while in Van Helsing, she portrays a human who hunts vampires.

Action Stars FactsGetty Images

32. Only in the WWE

To get John Cena enough time off to film The Marine, the pro-wrestling world sent off his persona with a pretty ludicrous story. On an episode of WWE Smackdown, presenters said that Cena was stabbed in the kidney at a Boston nightclub. But who was the culprit? Apparently, it was the personal bodyguard of Cena’s in-ring adversary Carlito.

After filming was completed, Cena returned to the ring to avenge “his stabbing.” He defeated Carlito for the United States Championship.

33. A Pretty Impressive Breakthrough Performance

It seems like only Bruce Willis could play John McClane in Die Hard, though studio execs disagreed. They initially offered the part to a whole slew of actors including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Burt Reynolds, and Nick Nolte. After they all turned down the offer, the filmmakers settled on Willis.

Willis was so unknown that he wasn’t event prominently featured in the movie’s promotional posters. Eventually, the gamble paid off, as Die Hard became a massive success.

34. The Truth Behind the Voice and Look

Action star and director Sylvester Stallone is known for his signature slurred speech and snarled look. This was the result of a violent incident during his birth. Doctors used forceps used to deliver him. During the delivery, they severed a nerve and caused Stallone’s signature facial paralysis.

35. Martial Arts Master

Throughout the 1970s, future action film star Steven Seagal spent time in Japan learning and teaching the martial art of aikido. Seagal attained the rank of 7th dan black belt. He would later become the first non-Japanese person to operate an aikido dojo in Japan, after taking over the dojo operated by his father-in-law in Osaka.

36. LOTR: Hold My Beer

For her role in the science-fiction action film The Fifth Element, Milla Jovovich had to learn another language, but not just any other language. Jovovich had to learn a fictional language comprised of 400 words. Jovovich and the director Luc Besson practiced by having conversations and writing letters. Evidently, it was a romantic activity.

They went on to get married, and immediately after their wedding, the new couple went sky-diving.

37. The Real Superheroes are Moms

With her appearances in Avatar, Star Trek, and the Guardians of the Galaxy and MCU films, Zoe Saldana has carved out a reputation of playing incredibly strong women who kick serious butt. Perhaps her most impressive feat of strength was when she started her work on Avengers: Infinity War only two months after giving birth to her third son Zen.

38. Barrister Gerard Butler

Before an acclaimed career as one of Hollywood’s leading action stars, Scottish actor Gerard Butler was a prospective lawyer. After completing his law degree, he attained a trainee role at an Edinburgh law firm. However, Butler’s penchant for staying out late partying and drinking led to his dismissal.

He would then ditch his legal dreams and move to London for his acting career.

39. A Strange Casting What If?

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones, but the iconic part almost went to another actor: Tom Selleck. Producer George Lucas was hesitant to cast Ford, despite the wishes of director of Steven Spielberg. Lucas had already worked with Ford in American Graffiti and Star Wars and was seeking a new star.

Selleck was almost cast in the role, but couldn’t get out of his contract for the television show Magnum, P.I.

40. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Secret

In 1989, a tabloid exposed Clint Eastwood’s deepest, darkest secret—one he’d kept for 25 years. Eastwood had fathered a secret child during an affair in 1964, and hidden her existence the whole time.

41. Chasing Himself

Steve McQueen was taken to the morgue by a group of cops for a role—and his reaction was chilling. McQueen had spent the day riding around with the police officers to prepare for the movie Bullitt. They decided to see how tough he really was with a trip to the morgue. Allegedly, he didn’t bat an eyelash, and even walked in eating an apple.

42. From the Mean Streets of Hong Kong

Bruce Lee was an absolute legend before his untimely death—but few know his even darker history. Growing up in Hong Kong, Lee frequently got into brawls. His parents enrolled him in martial arts classes, hoping the lessons would curb his violent tendencies. Sadly, they were wrong. After Lee got into a tussle with a person who had links to organized crime, his parents sent him to live in the United States for a safer life.

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