Movies that were supposed to launch franchises (but didn’t): Action Jackson
This week marks thirty years since Carl Weathers made his bid for leading man status with the blaxploitation flick, Action Jackson. Up until this point in his career, Weathers had played second banana to Sylvester Stallone (the Rocky movies) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Predator). Action Jackson was Weathers’ one real shot at being the hero rather than the side-kick. Unlike a lot of other movies we talk about in this series, Action Jackson was successful enough to warrant a sequel. But because of studio politics, that never happened. Let’s take a look at how Apollo Creed almost launched a movie franchise, but didn’t.
Before he took up acting, Weathers played football. In the late sixties, he played at San Diego State University. Weathers left college and joined the Oakland Raiders as a free agent. He only played seven games in the NFL from 1970-1971. Afterwards, he moved to the Canadian Football League and finished up his bachelor’s degree. While he was playing football, Weathers did side-jobs as a movie extra.
I was still looking to hop out of football as soon as I made some headway with acting. I forced the issue by exaggerating a little. In L.A. I lied about having acting credits up in San Francisco. How can they bother to verify your claim that you studied at ACT (the American Conservatory Theater) or worked as an extra in Dirty Harry?
By discreetly stretching things, I got an agent and then a dramatic coach and then the chance to audition for a real part. One thing led to another.
Weathers graduated from being an extra to appearing in commercials. His first acting roles were in blaxploitation movies like Friday Foster and Bucktown (both released in 1975 starring Pam Grier). By that point, the genre was already on its last legs. Weathers had arrived just in time to witness the end of blaxplotation movies.
Fortunately for him, Weathers found success in a different genre, sports movies. He was one of many unknown actors who read for the part of the flamboyant fighter, Apollo Creed. According to Weathers, the producers were hoping to cast a star as Rocky’s adversary. They were stuck with a writer as their leading man. Burgess Meredith was the best-known actor in the movie. But Weathers managed to win over Stallone by insulting him.
There was nobody to read with, and they said you’re going to read with the writer. And we read through the scene and at the end of it, I didn’t feel like it had really sailed, that the scene had sailed, and they were quiet and there was this moment of awkwardness, I felt, anyway. So I just blurted out, ‘I could do a lot better if you got me a real actor to work with.’
Stallone seemed to think that was exactly the sort of thing Apollo Creed might say. According to Weathers, his faux pas helped launch his career. “Sometimes the mistakes are the ones that get you the gig,”
The success of Rocky raised Weathers’ profile. He started getting parts in movies like Semi-Tough and Force 10 from Navarone. And of course, Weathers was featured prominently in the first three Rocky sequels which carried him through the mid-eighties. In 1987, Weathers appeared as part of a tough-guy ensemble in the sci-fi action movie, Predator. While filming that movie, the idea for Action Jackson was born.
Weathers bonded with producer Joel Silver over their mutual affection for the blaxploitation genre which had been dormant for roughly a decade. “Joel said, ‘Well, you know, why don’t you put something together?’ So during that time of shooting down in Puerto Vallarta, I created this story and came up with this guy—or at least this title—Action Jackson. And Joel found a writer [who] wrote the screenplay, and that was it. We got it made.”
Weathers starred as Sgt. Jericho “Action” Jackson, a disgraced hero cop looking to redeem himself. Craig T. Nelson played the successful businessman responsible for Jackson’s fall from grace. When Action Jackson won’t let the case go, Nelson’s character kills his own wife (played by a then-unknown Sharon Stone) and frames Weathers for the murder. Pop star-turned-actress, Vanity, played Nelson’s mistress who can’t resist Weathers’ charms. The supporting cast included Bill Duke as Action Jackson’s disapproving captain and Back to the Future‘s Thomas F. Wilson.
Critics complained that the movie was tonally inconsistent. It veered between jokey attempts at comedy and sadistic violence. Many, like Roger Ebert, didn’t think Weathers was up to the task of carrying the movie. “He was well-cast as Apollo Creed, who had essentially one note to play, and played it. But in this more ambitious role he doesn’t have the necessary charisma; he looks great, but lacks presence, especially against scene-stealers such as Nelson, Roger Aaron Brown and (especially) Vanity.” Ebert was one of many who considered Vanity to be one of the film’s high points. Ebert ended his review with the following advice:
Action Jackson looks like it was intended as the first in a possible series of movies starring the same character. If they’re going to make another one, I suggest they decide if it’s supposed to be a violent movie, or a comedy. It might also pick things up if they put Vanity in the lead.
For what it’s worth, Weathers agrees that the movie was uneven. “I still maintain today that it could’ve been a better movie had we taken a little bit longer to develop the screenplay, but a lot of people liked it.”
Released during the doldrums of February, Action Jackson opened in third place at the box office behind the thriller Shoot to Kill. It wasn’t an auspicious start, but the movie held on well enough to gross just over $20 million dollars barely cracking into the top 50 earners of the year. That was good enough that there were talks of sequels. However, Lorimar eventually became a subsidiary of Warner Brothers. The big studio had its own franchises and wasn’t interested in continuing the Action Jackson series.
But that’s not quite where the story ends. In 1990, Weathers starred in an unrelated action movie which was released in Germany as Action Jackson 2 despite the fact Weathers played a completely different character. In 2014, the Action Jackson name was recycled for an Indian action-comedy which is not technically a remake. Critics didn’t like that one either. Probably should have starred Vanity.