Before the 1970’s karate movies were only really popular in Asia, where they had been made for years, but that all changed when the world met Bruce Lee. Enter The Dragon, which was released in 1973, made a superstar out of Lee posthumously, but the true star that was introduced was martial arts.
The genre took the world by storm, and introduced to the world a new form of actor. These actors did not have thespian training as much as martial arts, and so instead of delivering a line, they would do a fly kick through the air.
While most of the stars of karate movies like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Stephen Chow, Jet Li and Sammo Hung are of Asian descent, there have been a few from America and Europe who used the genre to get famous.
Chuck Norris, a karate world champion, had appeared in early Bruce Lee films, but in the late seventies and early eighties he became a superstar, thanks to American karate movies. Today he is still a household name, thanks to his TV Show, Walker Texas Ranger.
Jean-Claude Van Dame rose to fame with films like Bloodshot and Kick boxer, and at one stage was competing with some of the blockbuster action stars like Schwarzenegger and Stallone. This Belgian world champion though never quite maintained this popularity and by the late nineties his movies were hardly picked up by cinema distributors.
Steven Sea gal rose to fame in films like Under Siege. Physically imposing, he also had a brief brush with super stardom in the nineties, but it did not last long, and soon his movies were easier to find on DVD than at cinemas.
Though never quite rising out of B movie stardom, Cynthia Roth rock has been long considered the premier female karate star. She has appeared in dozens of action movies, with many considering the China O’Brien films to be her best.
He may be more familiar to audiences now as the host of Iron Chef, but Mark Damascus is another who rose to stardom through martial arts. His father was a martial arts instructor and it was in movies like Only the Strong, Crying Freeman and Double Dragon that he was first noticed.
Even Julia Roberts’ brother, Eric Roberts, had his brightest moment in a martial arts film. He was the star of the very popular film, The Best of The Best, and its sequel.
There are many action film stars who never quite make it into mainstream cinema, but are respected in the martial arts world including performers like Gary Hudson, Loren Avedon, Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Billy Blanks. Billy Blanks is of course more famous for his Tae-Bo exercise regime than any movie he ever appeared in.
There are of course a few stars who have started in karate movies, and used them as a stepping stone to a much brighter career. A good example of this is Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank, who many may remember as the girl who succeeded Ralph Macho in the Karate Kid movies.