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His War Stories Are Legion

Danish actor Sven-Ole Thorsen has long been a brute of choice for Hollywood directors. His latest effort is in 'Gladiator.'

May 28, 2000|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

Everyone has a dream, a vision of how they want to be remembered. Sven-Ole Thorsen had a dream back in his native Denmark when he was about 18 years old--it was to become the biggest, baddest man on Earth.

"My vision," recalled Thorsen, now 55, "was that one day, when I got buried, my friends would lift up the coffin and the bottom would go out and my body would fall to the ground and they would look at me and say, "He's a big guy."

So, Thorsen began working out, and in six years he had bulked up from 181 pounds to 320 pounds. He won the Strongest Man in the World contest--lifting 544 pounds when the record, at the time, was 524. He lifted cars, pulled trains, held airplanes and bent iron bars around his stump-sized neck.

Then he came to Hollywood and, for nearly two decades, has achieved an unusual but important niche in film, portraying big, bad dudes in a stream of action movies like "Conan the Barbarian," "The Running Man," "Lethal Weapon 3" and "Kull the Conqueror."

Whenever directors need a sweaty, snarling brute to swing a club, wield a broadsword or draw down on movie stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, Steven Seagal or even waif-like Leonardo DiCaprio, they don't have to look farther than the now-280-pound, 6-foot, 5-inch Dane with the graying, trim beard and arresting gaze.

"I'm an expert with axes, swords, knives, spears and bows and arrows," Thorsen said over lunch recently at Il Tiramisu in Sherman Oaks, leaving one to wonder where one learns to become an expert with an ax.

His one-page resume, with print as small as a phone book's, lists more than 40 feature films and 16 television shows in which he has appeared throughout his career--a list, it should be noted, that features a Who's Who of directors like John McTiernan, Paul Mazursky, John Woo, Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron, Walter Hill, Sam Raimi and Richard Donner.

His latest celluloid incarnation can be seen in Ridley Scott's blockbuster Roman epic "Gladiator," in which the burly Scandinavian, accompanied by four 500-pound Bengal tigers, goes up against leading man Russell Crowe in a climactic fight to the death inside the Colosseum as thousands of spectators roar their approval.

While filming that scene, Thorsen became so focused on his choreographed moves with Crowe that he didn't notice one of the tigers.

"The producer came up to me afterward and he's pale," Thorsen recalled. "He asks, 'Are you OK?' Then he says, 'Let me show you the video.' And, we see where the tiger hits my knee, hits my hip and claws my shoulder." Thorsen said only the 50 pounds of gladiator gear he was wearing for the scene prevented serious injury.

"They got really nervous and maybe were afraid I was going to sue them," Thorsen said with a smile, "but I just said, 'Montecristo No. 2' [referring to his favorite Cuban cigar]. Ten minutes later, they gave me a box of Montecristo No. 2s."

With the Hollywood action genre undergoing a historic metamorphosis as famous muscle boys like Arnold, Sly and Bruce slip into middle age, one might think that men of brawn like Thorsen would also be slipping into the twilight of their careers, replaced by jazzed-up digital effects.

Think again.

"They are never going to do away with human personality, and Sven has plenty of that," said director John Milius, whose bloody 1982 adventure epic "Conan the Barbarian" served as Thorsen's introduction to movies. "That is why he has been around so long. There are plenty of big guys--and there are always going to be--but very few have his kind of personality."

Thorsen believes that today it takes more than mere explosions, gunfights, car chases and karate kicks to keep audiences interested.

"I think that moviegoers are becoming smarter and people want a good story," Thorsen said in a deep-throated accent not unlike that of his longtime cinematic nemesis and good friend, Schwarzenegger.


Thorsen broke into movies when martial arts and bodybuilding were becoming popular and films about barbarians caught the public's fancy.

He met Schwarzenegger by judging bodybuilding events and, in 1978, while visiting Long Beach for a martial arts competition, Schwarzenegger introduced him to Milius.

"Based on my size in those days--I was 320 pounds--[Milius] got so excited he wrote a part for me in 'Conan the Barbarian,' " Thorsen said. "I played James Earl Jones' right-hand man. I take care of all the snakes in the picture. That was my first contact with the movie business."

The film was shot in Spain, Milius recalled, and he asked Thorsen to recruit some of his muscle-bound buddies to play combatants on screen.

"They were my personal bodyguards," Milius recalled with a laugh. "They were my men. They were the 'Great Danes!' I ate every meal with them and had the best time ever. It was total barbarity."

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