"Everything Had to Go Right": What Happened to 'Terminator' Star Michael Biehn
"Who the fuck is Jim Cameron? I've never heard of him."
It was a fair question. Almost no one had heard of Jim Cameron, the young director whose most notable credit was being fired from 1981's Piranha II: The Spawning a few years earlier. But Jim Cameron had written a new script, about a cyborg from the future trying to kill a young woman, and apparently it was pretty good.
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Actor Michael Biehn, the guy who'd never heard of Jim Cameron, was a good-looking kid from Nebraska. He was intense, the type of person who took his work seriously, maybe too seriously — and he wanted to get even better. Ever since seeing Taxi Driver, Biehn wanted to work with the best — De Niro, Pacino, Nicholson, Redford. Guys who could push his craft forward.
So, Biehn was unimpressed when his agent, Ed Limato, told him the only person attached to this cyborg script was Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian body builder not known for his acting chops or even for his command of the English language.
Should he really read for The Terminator?
At his agent's suggestion, Biehn read the script. He liked the character of Kyle Reese, a freedom fighter from the future. He saw potential for The Terminator's love story. He knew he could give a good performance, even if the movie failed. Which, let's be honest, it probably would.
"It didn't have anything going for it as far as I was concerned," Biehn tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Now, nearly 35 years after it opened, Terminator is one of the most influential sci-fi franchises in history. The Oscar-winning Cameron is the biggest filmmaker in the world. And Biehn, 63, is best known for their collaborations, which include Aliens (1986) and The Abyss (1989).
Terminator is set to unleash its sixth installment in November with Terminator: Dark Fate, which sees much of the original gang back together. Cameron returns as producer to the franchise for the first time since Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Linda Hamilton is back as Sarah Connor. Even Edward Furlong, who disappeared from Hollywood after personal and legal issues, reprises his role as John Connor for the first time since T2.
But Biehn, apparently, will not be back. His character, Kyle Reese, died at the end of 1984's The Terminator, so his inclusion in Dark Fate wouldn't necessarily make sense. But like his Terminator contemporaries — Hamilton and Cameron — Biehn has been approached over the years for the series of ill-fated Terminator installments. Speaking of those earlier overtures, Biehn notes: "There is no way I was going to come in and do a cameo on any Terminator movie. … I find it ridiculous."
Ask anyone who knew Biehn in the 1980s, and one of the first things they'll mention is his good looks. His chiseled face helped Biehn land Limato, the powerful Hollywood agent who repped Denzel Washington, Richard Gere and Mel Gibson during his career. Limato, who died in 2010, believed Biehn could be a big star, and a few years before Terminator, the agent landed him a film they believed could be his big break. It was a thriller titled The Fan (1981), in which he played a young man obsessed with a stage star, played by Lauren Bacall.
The Fan turned out to be a dud, but as luck would have it, The Terminator was around the corner. Biehn, then in his mid-20s, was already making $100,000 a year thanks to steady work in commercials, TV and films. So he didn't feel he needed the movie. When he came in to read, he stood out instantly to Cameron.
"To me, he was the quintessential man, expressing the male values I admire — strength, honesty, a sense of duty, conviction," Cameron writes in an email from the New Zealand set of his Avatar sequels. "He wasn't too glib — his charisma didn't come from that too-cool-for-school wit or sarcasm like a lot of young actors — he wore his heart on his sleeve."
Perhaps above all, The Terminator was a love story, and Biehn delivered on that.
"If that doesn't work, you're never going to buy the entire premise," notes The Terminator producer Gale Anne Hurd. "You have to believe when he says, 'Sarah, I love you. I crossed time for you.' Otherwise people would have left the theaters."
For Biehn, the love story between Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor came easily, as he developed a bond with Hamilton.
"I fell in love with her when I made the movie. I was married. She was married," says Biehn. "It wasn't like we hooked up or anything. But she is just lovely and funny. She was beautiful, and sexy."
While Hamilton might not go as far as to say there was any real-life attraction between them, she notes the pair spent weeks of night shoots together, and grew to trust each other as performers.
"I loved him and I don't know a soul who doesn't. He was my world," says Hamilton.
Her favorite moment with Biehn ultimately did not make it into the film. It involved Sarah running away from Kyle, which required Biehn to do a running tackle to stop her. It was a challenging move, especially for Hamilton, who did not think of herself as an athlete.
"I had to trust that when I went flying that he would tuck me and roll with me," recalls Hamilton. "It was such a trust exercise and I loved that."
In addition to Hamilton, Biehn found an important partner in Cameron. Then 29, Cameron was years away from being the superstar filmmaker he is today. But Biehn recognized there was something special about this guy.
For a car chase scene that required Schwarzenegger's Terminator to break the window of a moving car and grab Sarah Connor, Cameron devised a way to shoot it without the car actually moving.
"Everything had to go right. It was a good two, three-hour setup," says Biehn. "Jim built this big thing that looked like a building. It was 10 feet high. It was on rollers. And when they called action, they just rolled that the opposite direction … it looked like we were moving backwards, but we were just sitting there."
Cameron was also open to collaboration. In a scene in which Reese is being interrogated by a police psychologist (Earl Boen), Biehn pointed out that his character would be smart enough to realize people were watching him through a two-way mirror. Cameron agreed, and added a line in which Reese looks past the psychologist and addresses the camera, asking who is in charge.
"I found him to be very easy to work with, and very smart about how to play a scene," says Cameron. "We quickly fell into a groove where we trusted each other. And the camera loved him."
After working long days, Cameron would spend hours more going over dailies. He was the rare director who invited his actors to come, too. Biehn was impressed with what he saw, but eventually had to tell his indefatigable director he couldn't keep staying late.
"I just worked a 12-hour day, running around the streets of L.A. without my shoes on, I've fallen down a couple of times. And I'm like, 'You know what Jim, I think I'm just going to go home,'" recalls Biehn.
While Cameron never seemed to slow down, his leading man was beat by the end of production. When filming wrapped, all he wanted to do was go home and sleep. So that's what he did, until he was awoken from a call from Hurd around noon. She said Cameron had a rough cut he wanted Biehn to come check out at his home.
When Biehn walked in, he found the filmmaker hard at work, one hand in a bag of Cheetos, the other typing away. He had no idea how Cameron was functioning, much less working.
Biehn said hello, and a cheerful Cameron explained he was developing a sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien, and he had to hand the treatment to the studio as soon as possible.
Biehn had just one thought: "This guy is a machine."
The Terminator was successful, earning $37.7 million during its original run on a $6.4 million budget. Limato, Biehn's agent and a big believer in the film, held an industry screening to get as many people to see The Terminator as he could. But the role didn't change Biehn's career, yet.
Cameron, meanwhile, was off developing Aliens, the sequel to Ridley Scott's seminal 1979 sci-fi film. Biehn had heard all about the movie, and the role of Corporal Hicks.
"I wanted to play that role. I thought I'd done a pretty good job for Jim on The Terminator, so I thought why not?" Biehn says. "But it got back to me that Jim wanted to go in a different direction."
Biehn was disappointed, but he was working steadily and didn't take it personally. But as was becoming a pattern in his life, he got a Friday afternoon call from Hurd as he sat in his studio city apartment.
James Remar, who had landed the role of Hicks, had been fired a few weeks into filming over drug addiction issues. Did he have an interest in playing Hicks?
"Before she finished the sentence, I said, 'Hell yes!'" recalls Biehn. "I got that call on a Friday morning. Monday morning, I was on the set in full makeup and wardrobe."
Unlike The Terminator, which had been made on what felt like a shoestring budget, Aliens was more expansive, with a $19 million budget. Biehn walked into a warehouse where massive sets were assembled, and noted Cameron would carry around a personal monitor to see the shots, something that Biehn had never seen before.
Aliens gave Biehn the chance to work opposite Sigourney Weaver, who turned in an Oscar-nominated performance reprising her role as Ellen Ripley, a woman who had a dire warning about an alien species that few, other than Hicks, believed. Weaver notes that Biehn brought a sensitivity to the role of Hicks, an alpha male who had no problem following a woman's lead.
"Michael played it so beautifully that you sort of fall in love with him," says Weaver.
Weaver had not seen The Terminator — 1984 had been a busy year, including a Broadway play and getting married — so she relied on Biehn to fill her in on Cameron's philosophy.
"He knew what Jim's values were, his priorities, what he looks for, and so he had that great experience that I didn't have," notes Weaver.
In Weaver, Biehn found a star who was the hardest-working actor on set.
"Sigourney Weaver was not the type of person to be in her trailer. If you heard Sigourney was on the set and you weren't, it's just common courtesy to be there," says Biehn.
Aliens also furthered Biehn's bond with Bill Paxton, then an up-and-coming star who had briefly appeared in The Terminator and was one of the actor's closest friends. (Paxton also has perhaps Aliens' most meme-able line: "Game over, man.")
"When Bill entered a room, you knew he was in the room. He was full of joy. He was upbeat," says Biehn of the late actor, who died unexpectedly in 2017. "I never heard Bill say a bad word about anybody. We did five films together. When you count them all up … that's about a year [of shooting]."
Studio 20th Century Fox was keeping the lid tight on Aliens and did not invite the actors to see early screenings, but Biehn and Paxton managed to sneak their way into a press screening in New York. They sat in the projector's booth and were wowed by what unfolded.
"Bill was jumping up and down, and I was jumping up and down and high-fiving each other," says Biehn. "Bill called it a roller coaster [that night]. … Since then it's been referred to as a roller coaster. I think that came from Bill Paxton spreading the word."
Aliens was a much bigger hit than Terminator, earning $131 million globally and winning two Oscars out of seven nominations.
There aren't many topics that are truly sore subjects for Biehn, but Alien 3 — and his character's controversial offscreen death — is among them.
Alien 3, the troubled 1992 directorial debut from David Fincher, saw Hicks and the young girl Newt (Carrie Henn) die in a crash after the events of Aliens — a move that essentially negated the climactic events of Cameron's sequel. Unbeknownst to Biehn, the production planned on using his Hicks in the film — and had created a fake version of the character with his chest burst open, apparently after incubating an alien Xenomorph. Biehn got word from a producer friend, and called up his agent, furious. After tense negotiating, Biehn and Limato killed the chest-burster idea, but gave permission to use his picture in the film — in exchange for a big payday.
"I've never seen anything past Aliens. I've never seen Aliens 3, 4, 5. I didn't watch Covenant. I have no interest in anything like that. Any movie I'm close to or movies I wanted that I didn't get, I just don't watch them. There's no reason to put myself through the pain of 'I could have done so much better than that,'" says Biehn.
Weaver still mourns the loss of Hicks, because of what further exploring that relationship could have meant for Ripley's character.
"I don't know what would have happened if Jim Cameron had directed Alien 3. I think it would have grown into a much more serious relationship and it would have been wonderful to see that," Weaver says. "I think he would be able to match Ripley strength for strength, which is something you haven't seen her experience."
After Aliens, Biehn would team up with Cameron one more time with The Abyss, the 1989 sci-fi film that pushed technological boundaries with its underwater filming, but which had a third act that didn't quite work due to technological limitations.
"It's the only misstep in Jim Cameron's career that I know of — the end of that movie. If that third act had been able to top that second act, there would have been Academy Awards all over the place," says Biehn.
With his leading man good looks and action chops, perhaps Biehn could have had a career akin to that of Bruce Willis or the other '80s tough guys whose scowls, biceps and one-liners propelled them to ungodly paydays.
"People always talk about me being an '80s star. I was not an '80s star," says Biehn. "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."
He was in the running for Tim Burton's Batman, but the role ultimately went to Michael Keaton. Again, no hard feelings.
"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," says Biehn, who has been married three times.
In the early '90s, Limato sent Biehn the script to Tombstone, the 1993 historical drama that would star Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, the role Biehn actually pitched himself to play when he first read the script. He ended up playing Johnny Ringo, an outlaw close to Kilmer's Holliday. Kilmer, one of the big stars of that time, did not go out of his way to get to know his fellow co-stars. As Biehn tells it: "People ask me what it's like to work with Val Kilmer. I don't know. Never met him. Never shook his hand. I know Doc Holliday, but I don't know [Kilmer]."
Tombstone had a famously troubled shoot, with screenwriter-turned-director Kevin Jarre fired four weeks into the 12-week shoot and replaced by George P. Cosmatos. Producer James Jacks and star Russell took the reins, reshaping the story and leading to legends that Russell was the actual director of the film. (Biehn says Russell never directed him personally.)
"We only had 12 weeks to shoot it and Disney wasn't going to give us any more time. It was a 130-page script. From my understanding, Kurt Russell and Jim Jacks went into a room and started tearing out pages," says Biehn.
He recalls the original script this way: "It was a much grayer story. It wasn't so much good guys and bad guys."
Biehn went on to work with Michael Bay in The Rock (1996) and with Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino on Grindhouse (2007), but a lot of his credits over the past 20 years have been with lower-profile filmmakers — and he's fine with that. He has no desire to travel months out of the year.
But there's one major success Biehn may have missed out on.
In 1998, shortly after Cameron's Titanic won 11 Oscars and took the crown as the No. 1 film of all time, Biehn was on the Fox lot and stopped in on Cameron's office. His friend and director pulled out scripts for both Alita: Battle Angel and Avatar and said he just needed the technology to catch up with the ideas.
Alita finally opened earlier this year with Cameron as producer and Rodriguez as director. Avatar opened in 2009 and was the highest grossing movie of all time until being unseated by Avengers: Endgame in July. It was a movie Biehn believed he was going to have a role in.
"For nine months, I thought I was going to be playing the part Stephen Lang played in Avatar, and I ended up not getting it," says Biehn.
As Biehn recalls, Cameron called him to say he'd cast his Aliens co-star Sigourney Weaver in the film, and he didn't want to bring the association of the two of them together.
"I understood," says Biehn. "I'd been disappointed too many times to be depressed for more than 24 hours."
Cameron tells it a little differently, saying he never had a specific part in mind for Biehn, but he acknowledges the casting of Weaver "obviated bringing Michael into the cast on the first picture."
Cameron is currently working on four follow-ups to Avatar, the first of which hits theaters in 2021. Why not just put Biehn in a performance capture role for one of the sequels?
"It's a good idea to put him into a performance capture character in Avatar 4 or 5, I'll have to think about that," Cameron says. "But no promises. In any case, I do look forward to working with him again."
Weaver notes that reuniting with Biehn on a future Avatar sequel would provide a level of comfort and familiarity.
"When you've gone through a shoot like Aliens, the relationship is something really tried and true and knowing that Michael was in it would just be a joy," says Weaver.
Biehn lives a comfortable life today. He has a good SAG pension and enjoys spending every day with his 4-year-old son with his wife, actress Jennifer Blanc Biehn. His recent credits largely consist of VOD fare, including projects from Blanc Biehn Productions, which he runs with his wife. Among those he's most passionate about is the 2011 exploitation movie The Victim, which shot over 12 days and for which he collected $60,000 for the role of writer, director, producer and actor. He has no desire to go off on long shoots, leaving his son behind.
"The amount of movies Bruce Willis makes, I don't see how you can live a normal life where you see your kids all the time, you're taking them to school and baseball practice and you're coaching their teams. You're in their lives," says Biehn.
Biehn never has had a publicist and never really wanted the fame aspect of the business, even though his agent — and Cameron — both believed he had what it took to be a major star.
"Maybe what held Michael back was that he didn't like playing the Hollywood game — schmoozing people and all that. For him it was all about the work," notes Cameron. "And also the path to stardom is capricious, and can turn on a single choice. Every time you take a part the road forks. Major stardom passed him by, but that's not the point. He's done great work in many films over the years, and is well loved and respected for a few iconic characters. Who can forget Johnny Ringo in Tombstone?"
When Biehn reflects on his career, it's easy to pinpoint what led him to where he is today.
"People ask what's the biggest break you ever got? It wasn't that I got The Terminator, but that I met Jim Cameron," says Biehn.
— Mia Galuppo contributed reporting.
by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya
by Sharareh Drury, Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya