For the first time, Jean-Claude Van Damme talks about the cocaine addiction that shattered his life and wrecked his career. Now that he has our attention, can he make a good movie?

By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
September 04, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Jean-Claude Van Damme is reliving the night he almost died.

He’s sitting poolside in shorts and a T-shirt at his luxe San Fernando Valley, Calif., home while his two children, Kristopher, 11, and Bianca, 7, are loping on the lawn with their four dogs. But he’s describing a very different scene, in which he was pacing a hotel suite in Hong Kong like a caged cougar, coked out of his mind. He narrows his gray eyes as he goes back a little more than a year ago, and he rests his hands on his brontosaurus-burger thighs. The generally jumpy Muscles from Brussels stop twitching, though as he talks his tone becomes agitated, his English more jagged.

”I was in the room. I wrote on the back of a script my problems, my complexes, my fears. I wrote with that coke, like, 80 pages. I wrote and I wrote, and I almost passed out. Then I was in the corner of the room. I was dying. I saw my body on the floor. I felt cold, I felt hot, I felt scared. I didn’t feel like a man or a woman. And then I just came back into that envelope, that body, with that soul, and I said, ‘I’m not ready. I know what’s death after life.”’

Van Damme runs his fingers through his graying hair, removes his glasses, and rubs his eyes. He looks up with a haunted, back-from-the-trenches gaze. Then: ”How many readers do you have at that magazine?”

There are two ways to win Hollywood’s attention, should you have the misfortune to drop off its radar screen: Win an Oscar. Or spill the beans. Which means that if your on-screen specialty is a kick ’em-where-it-hurts form of ballet, if what you’ve got coming up is the action thriller Knockoff (due out Sept. 4), or the upcoming period action movie Legionnaire, or the romantic action movie Inferno, and none of these titles are likely to get listed on an Academy ballot, your best bet is to go with a down-and-dirty saga. As Van Damme, 37, says of his last six years, ”When you dig a big hole and come out of it, you’re moving lots of dirt, you know?”

In 1993, EW put the actor on its cover with the line JEAN- CLAUDE VAN DAMME WANTS TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY (HE’S JUST KIDDING, RIGHT?). There was actually plenty to take seriously at the time: Universal Soldier had done well at the box office and it seemed to be his breakthrough role. A studio executive even speculated that the actor could become another Tom Cruise. Perhaps that was an overstatement, but Van Damme, with his beauty and biceps, certainly stood a chance of going up against aging competition like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But then bad choices turned to bad box office. Van Damme went from self-aggrandizing to self-destructive. He was divorced by his third wife, former bodybuilder Gladys Portugues, now 40, then married Darcy La Pier, 33, then split with La Pier, then returned to La Pier, had a son with her (no, we’re not done yet), split with her again, and returned to Portugues. Meanwhile, there was drug use, a diagnosis of cyclic manic depression, and accusations of wife beating.

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