Biehn There, Done That

Fifteen years after Arnold Schwarzenegger stole his thunder to become the unlikely hero of The Terminator, David Hughes finds that MICHAEL BIEHN has given up waiting to be a movie star...

By David Hughes

In 1989, around the time I first began writing professionally, my friends and I ran a poll to discover our five favourite genre movies. Of the resulting list of titles—for which I make no apologies—three were James Cameron films (The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss), two were obscure horror movies (Rampage and The Seventh Sign), and Michael Biehn was in all of them.

Back then, it would have been hard to imagine that, ten years later, Michael Biehn's name would still be known only to a hardcore group of science fiction fans who remember his strong performances as popular genre characters: the lovelorn, time-travelling, freedom fighter Kyle Reese in The Terminator; the sympathetic soldier Dwayne Hicks in Aliens; the nervy Navy SEAL Lieutenant Coffey in The Abyss. Although Biehn's single scene in Terminator 2: Judgment Day was cut prior to the film's release, and he has scored only one major success since (Tombstone, in which he co-starred with Val Kilmer and Kurt Russell), it is difficult to see how an actor as handsome, talented and watchable as Michael Biehn has singularly failed to become a movie star, while his erstwhile Terminator co-star has become one of the biggest movie icons of all time.

"I don't know either," Biehn says down the line from his home in the Hollywood Hills. "I suppose it's because I've been in a lot of successful movies, but most of the movies I've done that have had me [in the leading role] have not been huge successes. The big deal in Hollywood, obviously, is whether or not your movies make money, and the only movies that I've been in that made money were Jim Cameron movies, rather than Michael Biehn movies."

Cast photo from AliensThere is also the fact that, with the exception of The Terminator, Biehn's biggest hits have been as part of a larger cast. "Aliens, The Abyss and Tombstone were all big ensembles," he points out, "so I've never really carried a movie myself that was very successful. If Rampage or The Seventh Sign would have made $200 million, I would have been a movie star. It's kind of the way it goes."

Born in Anniston, Alabama, in 1956, Michael Biehn moved to Los Angeles at the age of eighteen, his tough-but-vulnerable male-model looks and nascent acting ability quickly earning him a range of below-the-radar roles from Grease (1978) to the television series The Runaways (1978-79). Although his profile was slightly higher in The Fan (1981) and The Lords of Discipline (1983), it was his leading role in the runaway hit The Terminator (1984) which should have assured his future as a box office star.

As Sean French points out in his examination of the film for the BFI Modern Classics range, 'In the improbable event that we encounter Biehn's Reese in real life, we would consider him to be an extraordinary hero. He sacrifices himself for a mission to save a woman, out of idealism but also because he has fallen in love with her picture. He arrives in our world with nothing, and manages to save Sarah Connor with the pitiful weapons available to him and, more than this, to awaken her to her true self. But heroism doesn't work like that on the big screen.'

On the set of Terminator"I think The Terminator is the only movie I've done for which, at the time, I didn't get the recognition I deserved," Biehn considers. "Arnold kind of came out of that as a big star, even though he doesn't really say anything in it," he adds, referring to the fact that a character who utters a total of seventy four words and kills twenty seven innocent people is something of an unlikely hero, even by the gung-ho standards of eighties film making. Perhaps, as French points out, it was Reese's uncommon vulnerability that counted against him: "An authentic action hero does not die and leave the heroine to face the villain alone, however, capable she might be."

Although Biehn is anything but bitter about the direction his career has taken, he admits that his choices have not always been as shrewd as Schwarzenegger's. "There haven't been really too many [parts] that I've had offers on, but there have been a few that I've read but didn't quite 'get'" he says. "Like The Usual Suspects, which I read, couldn't figure out, and said, 'This isn't going to be any good,' Then it came out and made [stars of] Kevin Spacey and all those other guys. One other big one that I didn't do, which was a mistake, was Eight Men Out, the John Sayles movie about baseball.

"I was [also] offered a part in Near Dark, and if I would have known that it was going to be as good as it was, I'd have done it." Near Dark would also have given him the chance to work with his Aliens buddies, Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen. "I just didn't like the script," he admits. "[Director] Kathryn Bigelow hadn't really done very much at that time, and if you see Near Dark to this day, there are story points which don't really make a lot of sense. It's got an incredible amount of style," he allows, "but the script did not read that well to me, and I think that the movie is a little more style over substance."

So what are Biehn's criteria for choosing a project? "There's a number of things that go into me making a decision," he says. "I've got three kids, an ex-wife and a lot of expenses, and I like to live nicely, so I've gotta make money—that's really number one. Number two, I want to be in the best movies I can be in, but if I can't be in the best movies, then I want to be the best I can be in whatever I am in."

These days, another factor he takes into consideration is location. "I'd rather be shooting something in Los Angeles than sitting around in a trailer in Spain," he says. "I've got people that I love here, and I want to be close to my children when they're growing up. There's also, like, who's directing the film or the show, or who's producing it." Having said that, he adds, "I've also taken jobs that had bad directors, or the scripts weren't that good, because I didn't have any money in the bank and I needed to make my house payment,'s a combination of things."

Biehn admits that those criteria have continued to change over the past few years. "For a long time, I was trying to prove myself," he says. "I was really picky and I wouldn't do a lot of things. Then I turned forty and I thought, 'People know that if I'm in a good project then I'm good, so now if I'm in something that's not very good, they're not gonna say, "He's not very good",' So I decided I was going to work like Michael Caine. He just does everything, and some things are really good and some things aren't, but he's always good."

Michael Biehn and Sigourney Weaver in AliensOne of the "easier choices" Biehn made recently was Asteroid, the big budget NBC mini-series which beat the similarly-themed Deep Impact and Armageddon out of the gate. "It was before those two movies," the actor acknowledges, "and it did incredibly well. It was, like, the number one-rated four-hour television movie for the past ten years. They did a lot of advertising for it, everybody watched it, and it did very, very well.

"After that, I did a movie for John Landis called Susan's Plan, which is another ensemble piece, [with] Dan Aykroyd, Nastassja Kinski, Billy Zane, Rob Schneider and Lara Flynn Boyle. It's about a woman who's trying to have her husband killed for the insurance, and she hires me and Rob Schneider, a couple of bozos who are, like, the worst killers around. It's kind of a broad comedy caper," he adds, "even though it's a black comedy, like An American Werewolf in London, so it's got laughs in it, but it's really violent, too."

In between other film projects—such as the Disney movie-of-the week Silver Wolf, and Wonderland, a mooted bio-pic of porn star John Holmes—Biehn is currently playing gunfighter Chris Larabee as part of the ensemble cast of the CBS series The Magnificent Seven. "We did a pilot, which was two hours, and we did eight more, and then they picked us up for thirteen more, so now we're working on our second installment," he says. "For a while, I resisted doing television, because I didn't want to be one of those guys like Lance [Henriksen]. I mean, he's in every shot of that show [Millenium]. He's putting in fourteen hour days, five or six days a week, and I don't know, man. This is tough enough for me as it is," he says of his duties on The Magnificent Seven, "and it probably averages out eight or ten hours a week!"

With Terminator 3 now all but certain to be made next there is a good chance that Michael Biehn may begin the new millennium with his highest-profile role yet. Nevertheless, the actor remains justifiably skeptical in view of what happened to his single scene in T2. There may be no fate but what we make, as the film's central message dictates, but for most actors, ending up on the cutting room floor is a fate worse than death. Biehn is swift to dismiss such notions of luvvie-dom, however. "First of all, when I heard that they were going to do Terminator 2, I didn't think that there was any way that they could break me back [in]," he says, "although I'm sure, knowing Jim Cameron, that if he had wanted to, he could have. I knew Arnold was going to be in it, but I couldn't really see me coming back, unless it took place in the past, because Kyle has been killed."

Cast photo from The AbyssNevertheless, Biehn soon discovered that he would be required to join his Terminator co-star Linda Hamilton for a day's shooting, to film a dream sequence in which Sarah Connor imagines a nocturnal meeting with Reese, her former lover and father of her son, John. "I went and shot it, it was good, and I enjoyed doing my one day's work on the show," he recalls. "Then I remember [Cameron] called me and said, 'We're trying to get the movie down to a certain length, and we keep cutting it down and cutting it down, and your scene is something that really doesn't further the story along, and although I really wanted it in there, we're not going to put it in the movie.' And I was, like, 'Don't sweat it.'

"It was really only one scene," he explains, "And Sarah's got, like, three other dream sequences, so it became a little redundant." Biehn was also used to Cameron's penchant for writing and shooting more scenes than he is able to use. "My role in The Terminator was smaller than what was shot," he explains. "A chunk of the character development, which at the time I thought was kind of important, was cut out. It was basically [my character] wandering around looking at the world, thinking, 'Hey, man, this is, like, really bizarre, being in a place like that with sunshine and children playing.' There was a whole storyline in Aliens that was cut out; Sigourney Weaver had a big chunk of character development cut out, about her daughter. And I saw the way The Abyss was shot and the cut. So it didn't really surprise me.

"The bummer about what happened [in Terminator 2] was that they used that scene in the trailer for the movie, which was made at the time when I was still in the movie, because mine was one of the last scenes to be cut. So everybody who saw the trailer said, 'I caught you in the trailer—can't wait to see you in the movie,' and I had to say over and over again, 'Well I'm not going to be in it.' And also, because it got cut out of the movie, it got cut out of the video, and any kind of residuals I would have gotten."

Surely he must have earned some revenue from the special edition, released on laserdisc and later video, which edited the Hamilton-Biehn scene back in? "I don't think so," he says, "I've never even got residuals from the first Terminator, which was one of the highest rated videos of all time, because the company that made it went bankrupt!

"Still," he adds, "the best thing that ever happened to me in this business was meeting Jim Cameron and working for him in his movies, and as far as I'm concerned he can do anything he wants."

This article has been transcribed from DreamWatch Magazine, Issue #55, April 1999 and This information has been shared here for your information and reading pleasure, however this material remains copyrighted by DreamWatch.

Note: Details on how to order back issue #55 are available at the DreamWatch website