Dolph Lundgren on visiting Israel, history and aging
Actor, filmmaker, karate champion and chemical engineer reflects on life during Pittsburgh visit
As a lead-up to Passover, it is customary to gather, share instructive words and take lessons to heart. Rare is it that the person reflecting and offering insight days before the seder is a beloved action hero, European karate champion and former Fulbright scholar — but that’s what happened when Dolph Lundgren visited Pittsburgh three days before Passover.
Lundgren, who rose to fame after playing Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV,” was in town April 1-3 for Steel City Con, one of the nation’s largest comic conventions.
In between meeting with fans, signing boxing gloves and autographing packages containing plastic figurine lookalikes, the Swedish-born actor told the Chronicle about aging, visiting Israel and his love of history.
Lundgren was born in 1957 in Stockholm, Sweden. As a young man, he excelled in school and karate. He studied chemical engineering at Washington State University and Clemson University before receiving degrees from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and the University of Sydney, as well as a Fulbright scholarship to attend MIT.
Lundgren also was an accomplished athlete. Though he initially practiced judo, he switched to Gōjū-ryū, a style of karate, and later Kyokushin. Following several years of international competition, he became European champion in 1980-’81.
Thanks to his then-girlfriend, Grace Jones, Lundgren eventually turned his attention to acting. He told NPR that playing the laconic Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV” changed his life, saying, “I went from a total nobody, basically, to Dolph Lundgren, movie star.”
Feature roles as He-Man in “Masters of the Universe,” Sergeant Andrew Scott in “Universal Soldier,” and Gunner Jensen in “The Expendables” showcased his talents to millions of cinephiles, but smaller roles and a love of karate brought him to Israel.
The first time he traveled to the Jewish state was for “Cover-Up,” a 1991-released movie with Louis Gossett Jr. Along with filming in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem, there were several memorable moments on that trip, Lundgren recalled.
One morning, he and his trainer were running near the beach in Tel Aviv. As it turned out, Lundgren said, their route was right where the IDF had thwarted a seaborne terrorist attack one day earlier.
Reports from JTA indicated that members of the Palestine Liberation Front had entered Israel with the intent “to bombard the hotels with 107mm Katyusha rockets and 23mm cannon, and spray them with machine-gun fire.”
“We were pretty happy because I think they found the map with all the targets,” Lundgren said.
One of the targets was where he was staying, he added.
Lundgren didn’t engage with any IDF soldiers at that point, but he did later in Jerusalem. A scene in the movie called for Lundgren to make his way through a parade of Easter celebrants. The crew, which relied on hidden cameras, followed Lundgren in the crowd.
“I was supposed to be staggering around, having gotten shot in the movie,” he said.
As the actor — made up to look bloodied — ambled through Jerusalem, he was apprehended by two young officers.
“They were armed, of course, and they stopped me, and were like, ‘Get on the ground,’ and they had their weapons out,” he said. “They weren't sure what was going on. They hadn't been told that there was a movie being shot.”
Members of the film crew and Lundgren’s security rapidly approached, explained the circumstances and deescalated the situation.
Lundgren was familiar with military personnel. Before receiving his chemical engineering degrees, he spent a year in the Swedish Marine Corps. Later engagements with Israelis, and visiting Masada, allowed him to consider his military service and upbringing, he said.
Lundren’s father served Sweden during World War II.
“Sweden was neutral, but he was in the army and they were on the Norwegian border,” he said.
As he got older, Lundgren understood why his father was “always reading about the Second World War and why he was so interested in it,” he said. “My parents grew up during the Second World War and that had such a huge impact on our world.”
“I realized how close my life has been in the shadow of World War II,” he said. “I was born only 12 years after they dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima. Twelve years ago from today would have been 2011. That's nothing.”
In Israel, he “saw a lot of people in the army, kids coming out of nowhere, walking into a cafe with assault rifles, having a coffee and disappearing into the blackness again,” he said. “It was interesting.”
Since that initial trip nearly 30 years ago, Lundgren returned to Israel to film “The Last Warrior” and for different karate exercises. Those excursions, and an interest in history, are part of why he feels connected to the Jewish state, he explained.
“It's a very interesting country and has such a mix of people from all over the world,” he said. “I kind of share that … I'm an immigrant. I am a Swede and I came to America.”
He also appreciates the Israeli way of life.
“There's a special energy there; the people don't sleep much,” he said. “They go out late at night and party, and it was kind of cool. It was kind of a high-energy place. I could relate to it.”
But history may be the biggest connector.
“I'm always studying that, and the military is quite a big part of Israeli history,” he said. “I'm interested in military matters, so I always read up on that and the different battles they've been in.”
Time also yields perspective, he said.
“As you get older, you get a little wiser. You get more relaxed and you're more content with what you've accomplished in your life — you're less looking at other people, trying to compete with other people.”
Aging — even for iconic action heroes — generates an awareness of life and its evanescence, he continued.
“Every day today is much more valuable to me than it was 20 years ago,” he said. “You realize your life isn't going to last forever. Especially if you have good experiences, which I do have a lot, you want to take them to heart.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at [email protected].