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For Lambert, Fame Is Overseas Kind of Thing

September 26, 1993|JOE RHODES

Here's the question. If they gave an award for Best Box Office Summer by a Heavily Accented Action-Adventure Superstar, who would be the winner for 1993?

Well, we all know it wouldn't be Arnold. Jean-Claude maybe? Oh sure, "Hard Target" did respectable business, but there are still some questions surrounding Van Damme, not the least of which is, "How'd he get that little bump on his forehead?" and "Would it help if he put some ice on it?"

And, of course, since the next "Ernest" picture isn't due until next year, Jim Varney is out of the running.

So, you might ask, who's left?

Christopher Lambert, that's who. You know, the guy who played Tarzan in "Greystoke," the one who spent two "Highlander" movies taking lessons from Sean Connery on how to chop people's heads off, the one who's married to actress Diane Lane (they had their first child, a daughter, Sept. 5).

Now, listen to this. "Fortress," Lambert's recently released exploding-stomach futuristic prison movie, was guaranteed to be a big summer hit before a single American moviegoer paid money to see it. Seriously. Even before the movie (shot in Australia on a relatively sparse $14-million budget) was released in the United States, it had already taken in more than $60 million in Europe and Australia, places where the 36-year-old Lambert, born in New York but raised in Switzerland, is a genuine hot-ticket movie star.

"Over there, he can be mobbed trying to walk down the street," says "Fortress" director Stuart Gordon, happy to report that the film--yet to open in England or Japan--has been No. 1 at the box office in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Korea. In Australia, "Fortress" opened at No. 1 several months ago and has already been released on videocassette.

"We were in profits before we opened here," Gordon says, confirming that work on "Fortress II" is well under way, with filming scheduled to begin next spring. "In a sense, whatever we make in the U.S. (an underwhelming $6.5 million through last weekend) is just gravy."

If Lambert can convert the overseas success of "Fortress" into a higher American profile, the irony will be that he has done it in a project originally developed for Schwarzenegger. Although a considerably less imposing physical specimen than Arnold, Gordon thinks, Lambert ended up as a better choice for the role of a former soldier trying to bust himself and his pregnant wife out of a high-tech underground prison.

"Very few leading men, particularly action stars, ever want to appear vulnerable or scared on screen," Gordon says. "They always want to be macho and tough, where nothing fazes them. And, to me, that makes them seem stupid. To me, a hero is not someone who is unafraid, it's someone who does things in spite of the fact that they are scared. And Christopher is not afraid to be afraid."

Told all this as he chain-smokes Marlboros in his publicist's Westwood office, Lambert simply shrugs and smiles. This is not a conversation topic that keeps him up at night. He's not really all that interested, he says, in becoming the new Euro Action Hunk du jour, nor does it bother him that he's a bigger star in Europe and Asia than he is in the land of his birth.

"I think there is a time for everything and when the time is right, it comes," Lambert says when asked if he longs for greater visibility in the United States. "So I'm not chasing anything. All that's important right now is for me to keep making movies and keep loving my job. I know how lucky I am to have a job like this. I could be working in a post office."

Lambert, a child of privilege, has not always felt so lucky. The son of a French diplomat (his father was stationed at the United Nations when Christopher was born), he spent his youth in exclusive Swiss boarding schools, living with his parents only a few months per year. The rest of the time they were traveling the world.

They sent him gifts. They sent him letters telling him how important it was for him to succeed at school, telling him how they only wanted the best for him. He didn't hate them for it. He didn't know them well enough to hate them. He simply accepted that he'd have to make do on his own.

"It was difficult," he says now, "but it gave me a power of adaptation that was unbelievable. When I go to a foreign place now, I adapt almost immediately. I don't miss anything and I don't get homesick, because I'm used to not having a home. For the business I'm in, I think that's a plus."

He was 12 when he decided to become an actor, on holiday with his family when he and his half-sisters, "bored to death," decided to put on a play for the grown-ups. "People applauded," he says. 'And I had a feeling that for the first time people were recognizing something in me, that I'd done something good."

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