Acting great Carl Weathers was the ’80s action hero for the Black community — Andscape
Actors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone ruled action cinema with gun-toting iron fists during the 1980s. The two usually cast massive shadows over their co-stars. The reason it’s “usually” and not “always” is that one man stood toe-to-toe with both when few others measured up: Carl Weathers.
Weathers, who died in his sleep Thursday at 76, never looked out of place when boxing with Stallone or shooting guns with Schwarzenegger. Besides his superhero physique, it all started with his attitude and self-confidence.
And perhaps a little cockiness.
While white audiences may have been unfamiliar with the former Oakland Raiders linebacker, Black audiences knew him well from blaxploitation flicks such as Bucktown and Friday Foster and a guest role on Good Times in 1975. Those roles gave him enough self-confidence that he insulted Stallone’s acting skills when he auditioned for Rocky.
“There was nobody to read with, and they said you’re going to read with the writer,” Weathers told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. “And we read through the scene and at the end of it, I didn’t feel like it had really sailed.”
Weathers recalled reading through the scene with Stallone and, in his mind, unsuccessful during his tryout for Apollo Creed. He heard a deafening silence from the studio executives in the room and felt awkward. The tension increased, and he erupted.
“I could do a lot better if you got me a real actor to work with.”
Weathers had unknowingly disrespected Rocky himself. That outburst got him the role because Stallone believed it exemplified Apollo Creed. That brash moment made Weathers a star. He carried that swagger through the 1980s and became an action hero for those who looked more like him than his white counterparts.
White actors dominated the action genre 40 years ago. The Black action star went the way of the dodo once blaxploitation flicks fell out of fashion. The action genre also changed. Movies such as Dirty Harry and The French Connection, both released in 1971, gave way to The Terminator in 1984 and Rambo: First Blood Part II in 1985. The characters in these films carried big guns with bigger muscles while illustrating a “bigger” America that emerged from the 1970s. Weathers stood out while playing characters who went against type. Apollo Creed was not only a boxer but a savvy business executive. He came from meager beginnings but never let that define him or his journey. Through the character, Weathers grounded a series that grew exponentially when Ronald Reagan was president, from 1981-89. Apollo Creed frequently talked about his legacy as a boxer and Black man.
Then there’s Predator. The 1987 action/horror hybrid is different from the Rocky films, but even here, Weathers’ Dillon feels outside the norm for a Black man at the time. More importantly, it establishes early that Dillon is on the same level as Schwarzenegger’s Dutch. Dillon and Dutch greet each other with the most testosterone-filled handshake in cinema history. The moment has a life of its own as a meme nowadays, but it was a powerful statement in the context of the late 1980s. Schwarzenegger was the biggest star on the planet and a former Mr. Universe. Or as Weathers called him on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1988, “Mr. Everything.”
To that point, Schwarzenegger rarely, if ever, found his match on screen. But he rarely shared screen time with anyone who looked his equal. The man lifted a tree trunk and carried it like a bag of groceries in Commando. But in a few seconds, Predator director John McTiernan changed everything. Weathers’ character gets the same respect usually only afforded the action figures Schwarzenegger typically played. Even when he loses the levitated arm wrestling match in that famous scene, it’s implied that’s only because his new CIA desk job softened him up a little.
Predator’s next few minutes further cement Dillon on par with Dutch through bits of backstory, but those opening moments did more than any exposition ever could. Weathers matched Schwarzenegger in front of the cameras, possibly because he also pushed him behind the scenes.
“We’re doing Predator, and we’re down in the jungles of Mexico. And Arnold carries around about 80,000 pounds of weights with him. And he just takes over a portion of the hotel and sits weights there,” Weathers recalled on The Tonight Show episode. “Arnold’s got this gym, and he’s going down at 4:30 every morning to work out every day before we shoot. So I decided I’m going in at 4.”
Weathers realized this back-and-forth would only escalate and leave him with less time to sleep, so he changed tactics.
“I figure I won’t get up early but I’ll [work out] after we’re done filming in the evening. I’ll run a hill, which is 3.5 miles down and 3.5 miles back up. One day I’m running up the hill and here comes Arnold driving by. The next day, Arnold is out running the hill! So here we are, these two guys who are supposed to be actors, and it’s a competition.”
That respect translated on screen so much that it impressed Predator producer Joel Silver, who put Weathers in his own action film, Action Jackson.
Jericho “Action” Jackson was good with guns but preferred his fists or whatever object was handy, and boasted a Harvard Law degree. He felt as at ease in a black-tie affair as in a loud police precinct. And he cared more about saving the world he knew than the world at large. The film also, if only briefly, wrestled with police brutality and law enforcement politics. While the intended franchise never materialized, Action Jackson was a solid box office hit that proved Weathers’ star power. It showed his value to the genre while all those early seeds sowed working with Stallone and Schwarzenegger blossomed.
While Weathers never reached their box office level, he matched their intensity, charisma, and brawn when the director yelled “action!” on a set. Both men knew that working with him meant if they didn’t bring their A game, he’d push them aside and make the spotlight his, if only for a moment.
Modern audiences might associate Weathers with The Mandalorian or Arrested Development, but for an earlier generation, he’s synonymous with a period where action movie stars were kings. And for Weathers, the throne was never too far out of reach.