“He didn’t like playing the Hollywood game,” director James Cameron once said of Michael Biehn. The actor was one of the most recognisable faces of 80s Hollywood, but he was never particularly attracted to stardom – and over the decades, he’s left fans and sci-fi enthusiasts wondering what became of him.
Movies like Terminator, Aliens and Tombstone made Michael Biehn a star – but after missing out on some huge roles and suffering through personal troubles, he vanished from the blockbusters. We’re taking a closer look at what happened.
‘I’m slow, I can’t jump’
Born in Anniston, Alabama in 1956, Michael Biehn was raised in Lincoln, Nebraska and Lake Havasu City in Arizona. One constant throughout his childhood was his love of sports – although the star has since admitted that he was not a natural talent. “I was very active as a kid,” Biehn said to the Los Angeles Times in 2016. “I love sports and I love competition, but I wasn’t an athlete. I’m slow and I can’t jump. My dad was a baseball player and was drafted by the Cubs, and my older brother is a real athlete, but I’m not like them. Physically, I’m not a strong guy.”
“But I still grew up playing baseball, basketball, football, swimming, wrestling and tennis,” he added. “I was able to play varsity sports because it was a small school in Arizona, and by hustling lots and brown-nosing coaches.”
It was at his high school drama club that Michael Biehn discovered his true calling in life. His talent for acting took him to the drama program at the University of Arizona, and then on to Hollywood.
His movie debut was fleeting but life-changing: Biehn appears very briefly in classic 1978 musical Grease. He was 21 when the film hit cinemas, and he stars as the uncredited character of Mike. You may recall Biehn’s character as the one punched in the gut by Danny (John Travolta) on the basketball court.
‘Who the f*** is Jim Cameron?’
Another stroke of luck came along for the young Biehn in the form of a top Hollywood agent. Impressed by Biehn’s good looks and ambition, agent Ed Limato – who has worked with Mel Gibson, Denzel Washington and Richard Gere over the decades – took the young actor under his wing.
Limato found Biehn his first lead role in the 1981 movie The Fan, in which Biehn plays a stalker obsessed with an actress, played by Lauren Bacall. After this movie flopped, Limato sent Biehn a script entitled ‘The Terminator’.
To this day, Biehn remembers reading the author’s name and thinking, “Who the f*** is Jim Cameron? I’ve never heard of him.” The only actor that had been cast at that point was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who – excepting a dubbed performance in the far from illustrious ‘Hercules in New York – was known largely for bodybuilding.
Biehn was nevertheless impressed by the Terminator script, and he was soon cast as freedom fighter and time traveller Kyle Reese. The actor’s expectations for the unknown director were low, however: “It didn’t have anything going for it as far as I was concerned,” he has recalled. James Cameron and Michael Biehn formed a close friendship while making The Terminator. “I found him to be very easy to work with, and very smart about how to play a scene,” Cameron would later say of Biehn. “We quickly fell into a groove where we trusted each other. And the camera loved him.”
The Terminator was a box office hit, and it spawned a successful franchise. But Biehn was not destined for a long franchise role. He features in a dream sequence in the director’s cut of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, though this scene was lifted from the theatrical release. He’s yet to feature in another Terminator film.
‘I knew it was going to be unbelievable’
Compared to when they embarked on The Terminator together, Michael Biehn was full of confidence when Cameron cast him again, this time in Aliens. He was entrusted with the role of Colonial Marines corporal Dwayne Hicks in 1985, just a year after The Terminator’s release, when intended actor James Remar was fired from the role over drug possession.
“Aliens was something special because we knew we has a great director… we had Stan Winston, a great script,” Biehn said to Forbes in 2016. “And when I saw the sets at Pinewood Studios I knew it was going to be unbelievable.”
With a $19 million budget, Aliens certainly lived up to Biehn’s expectations. It remains one of the most beloved movies of that decade – and fans might argue that Biehn again left a long-running franchise at the peak of its popularity. Biehn was not cast in less successful sequel Aliens 3, but that’s not to say his departure from the franchise was smooth.
Biehn resented his omission from later Aliens movies. Biehn and Cameron agreed that Hicks’ off-screen demise in Aliens 3 was a “slap in the face” to fans. When Biehn discovered that his photo was used in the film, he successfully demanded that 20th Century Fox pay him almost the equivalent of his Aliens salary for the ‘cameo.’
‘The worst experience of my life’
Outside of the Terminator and Alien franchises, Michael Biehn met with success in a handful of blockbusters. He starred as outlaw Johnny Ringo in Tombstone, and he played Lieutenant Hiram Coffey in the notoriously difficult-to-film The Abyss, directed again by James Cameron. The 1990 movie Navy SEALs was a moderate box office success, but that was no consolation to Biehn, who noted in 2012: “It really turned out to be kind of a mish-mash and not a very good movie at all… it’s probably the worst experience of my life.”
“The script could’ve been shaped to be much better, and you just hate to see all that talent and passion go to waste,” he added. Other Biehn movies fared far worse financially. In 1987, he starred as a serial killer in the William Friedkin thriller Rampage, which returned about a tenth of its production budget in box office earnings. Taking the lead as a mountaineer in the survival drama K2 (1991), Biehn was caught up in another box office disappointment.
For a brief period, it seemed Biehn was being positioned as Hollywood’s new star – but outside of his collaborations with Cameron, audiences weren’t interested. Critics were losing interest, too. The crime drama Deadfall (1993) and erotic thriller Jade (1995) were commercially unsuccessful and critically lambasted; in the case of Deadfall, both Biehn and his onscreen nemesis Nicolas Cage met with negative reviews. As critic Daniel Barnes put it, “the lead role and most of the screen time goes to Michael Biehn, who brings the gravitas of Mr. Bean to his hardboiled con man role. As far as Cage goes over the top, Biehn goes exactly as far under the bottom.”
In 1996, Biehn played Commander Charles Anderson in Michael Bay’s action spectacular The Rock, which, with box office takings of $335 million, was ironically one of the biggest successes of Biehn’s career. By this point, though, Biehn’s billing and screen time had become drastically diminished. It seemed as though this recently hot new star was already being forgotten. Then, after Bay’s movie, Hollywood stopped calling.
‘It turned into hell for me’
Behind the scenes, Biehn was struggling with alcohol addiction. In an interview he gave after going sober, Biehn said the alcoholism that plagued him up to the mid-2000s “turned into hell for me.” In 2004, a Russian production company sued Biehn for his drunken behaviour on the set of The American. The lawsuit stated that the star was “excessively intoxicated, his speech slurred and erratic, and he had trouble walking.” It was claimed Biehn made sexual advances towards female crew and was spotted drinking vodka on-site over several days of filming. The company ended up suspending production as a result.
Biehn has described alcoholism as a “disease”, labelling his struggle “a nightmare. I wanted to quit, and I had a hard time quitting.”
“Drinking really has caused a lot of problems in my life. I’ve not only hurt myself, but I’ve hurt the people I care most about – my family, my parents, my children have all been affected by my alcoholism.” In 2011, Biehn reminisced about his performance in 1997 movie The Ride – which was closer to his heart than audiences might have known. “It had a Christian theme to it – about an alcoholic [who] finds God. It is a very small movie that we made in Phoenix about ten or 12 years ago.”
“That portrayal of that character really is like me,” he added. “I am an alcoholic. I’ve been sober now for three years… That character is more like me than any other character I’ve ever played before.”
‘A screaming maniac’
Following these departures from major franchises, Biehn continued to star in dozens of smaller and independent movies – but he never returned to blockbuster heights of his early fame. Instead, he turned his attentions to working as a director – once partnering with his actress wife Jennifer Blanc. Speaking to TNT Magazine, he has described himself as a “crazy, intense director … I thought I might be mellow, but that is not the word. I’m more like a drill sergeant mixed with a screaming maniac!” Biehn’s directorial works are The Blood Bond and The Victim.
Several huge roles have passed Michael Biehn by over the years. James Cameron planned to cast Biehn as Spider-Man in a never-completed movie project in the 90s. He was also considered for the part of Caledon Hockley (ultimately played by Billy Zane) in James Cameron’s Titanic – which would have undoubtedly catapulted Biehn back to stardom.
But Biehn clearly retains a lot of affection for the sci-fi genre. In 2020, Biehn revisited his action star days with a cameo in Season Two of The Mandalorian. He plays Lang, a mysterious mercenary who works for the magistrate Morgan Elsbeth, terrorizing the city of Calodan.
Overall, Biehn has pointed out that his limited commercial success – and his absence from later, even more lucrative opportunities – is not something to regret.
“People always talk about me being an ’80s star. I was not an ’80s star,” Biehn has commented to the Hollywood Reporter. “Bruce Willis was an ’80s star. Tom Cruise was an ’80s star. Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Mel Gibson. Those guys were making $20 million [a picture]. I never even got $1 million. I kind of liked it that way.” Likewise, Biehn prioritised family life after his action hero days. A devoted father to his children from three marriages, he has spent recent decades caring for Taylor, Dashiell, Caelan, Alexander and Devon.
“I have five boys and that was always important to me that I was going to be closer to them than I was to the movie business.”