10 Biggest 1980s Action Stars, Ranked

By Stephen Holland Published 18 hours ago

The leading figures of action movies of the 1980s were larger-than-life icons. The biggest stars of the 1980s stand as some of cinemas’ greatest.

10 Biggest 1980s Action Stars, Ranked


  • Iconic action stars like Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone defined the high-octane 1980s era of movies.
  • Major action stars relied on their strength and combat skills to face all types of villains in a variety of genres like comedy, fantasy, and science-fiction.
  • Franchise success and iconic characters like Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones and Bruce Willis' John McClane dominated blockbuster movies.


The 1980s was a great time for over-the-top high-octane action movies that were categorized by some of that decade's biggest stars. From tough-guy renegade cops to traumatized Vietnam War veterans, the 1980s was a decade fuelled by high-adrenaline adventures, spectacular set pieces, and acted as the inception point for many beloved ongoing franchises. The success of action movies in the 1980s was intrinsically linked to their stars, as having a major name at top billing was a decisive factor in whether audiences would turn out at the theatre.

From martial arts experts like Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, to major movie rivals like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, the biggest action stars of the 1980s were always larger-than-life figures thrust into extraordinary circumstances. With major iconic catchy one-liners and an incredible mixture of genres like comedy, fantasy, and science-fiction, 1980s action stars relied on their strength and combat skills to overcome every type of villain imaginable. There were so many major action stars in the 1980s that it’s interesting to consider which one came out on top.

10 Chuck Norris

Chuck Norris led major action movies like Missing in Action, The Delta Force, and Firewalker

10 Biggest 1980s Action Stars, Ranked

While today, younger audiences may think of Chuck Norris as a hilarious meme, older viewers would recall him as one of the biggest action stars of the 1980s. A formidable martial artist, Norris got his start in Hollywood training celebrities before breaking into movies himself with a role opposite Bruce Lee in The Way of the Dragon in 1972. By the time the 1980s rolled around, Norris was firmly established as an action star with starring roles in action movies like Missing in Action, The Delta Force, and Firewalker.

9 Mel Gibson

Mel Gibson was known for the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon series

10 Biggest 1980s Action Stars, Ranked

Controversial Hollywood star Mel Gibson found major success as a director in 1990s for movies like Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, and Hacksaw Ridge, but before this was known as one of the biggest action stars of the 1980s. Gibson first came to prominence through his breakout role as Max Rockatansky in the Australian post-apocalyptic Mad Max and solidified his reputation as a star with the Lethal Weapon series. A major figure that decade, Gibson was even named the first-ever Sexiest Man Alive (via Today) by People Magazine in 1985.

8 Jean-Claude Van Damme

Jean-Claude Van Damme had his breakout role in Bloodsport


The Belgian actor Jean-Claude Van Damme studied martial arts from a young age and gained a black belt in karate when he was still a teenager before moving to the United States to pursue acting, Van Damme got his start as a stuntman in the Chuck Norris movie Missing in Action in 1984 before gaining his breakout role as the lead in the martial arts action film Bloodsport. This role established Van Damme as a major action star and he went on to in star the action movies Black Eagle, Cyborg, and Kickboxer, before continuing this success into the 1990s.

7 Kurt Russell

Kurt Russell was known for his work with director John Carpenter

10 Biggest 1980s Action Stars, Ranked

While Kurt Russell got his start in the 1960s as an unlikely co-star of Elvis Presley, it was not until the 1980s that he truly broke out and became known as a major action star. Through a strong collaboration with director John Carpenter, Russell starred in the horror movie The Thing before taking up the iconic action role of Snake Pilssken in Carpenter’s Escape from New York, which he would reprise in Escape from L.A. in 1996. Another major action role for Russell in the 1980s was as Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China, again with Carpenter.

6 Sigourney Weaver

Sigourney Weaver became an action star after Alien

10 Biggest 1980s Action Stars, Ranked

While action movies during the 1980s was a highly male-dominated industry, one woman, Sigourney Weaver, managed to break this mold and became a major action star. As Ellen Ripley in Ridley Scott’s 1979 movie Alien, Weaver entered the 1980s with major star potential and soon found herself with major roles in one of the biggest hits of the decades, Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II. Weaver would once again showcase her action skills when she reprised the role of Ripley for Aliens in 1986 and solidified the character as one of the best action heroes of all science fiction.

5 Steven Segal

Steven Segal made a name for himself in 1980s with Above the Law

10 Biggest 1980s Action Stars, Ranked

Action star and martial artist Steven Segal found success in the late 1980s and would use this newfound popularity to maintain an acclaimed action movie career through the 1990s. With his starring role in Above the Law in 1988, Segal proved he had what it took to stand against the best action stars of the 1980s as he portrayed Sergeant Nico Toscani, a special forces operations Vietnam veteran who uncovered a C.I.A. conspiracy. This standout role would lead Segal to star in major action films, such as Under Siege, in the 1990s.

4 Harrison Ford

Harrison Ford starred in Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Blade Runner

10 Biggest 1980s Action Stars, Ranked

In terms of franchise success and iconic characters in does not get any bigger than Harrison Ford during the 1980s. After Ford’s breakout success as Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope in 1977, he would return as the character for the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as portraying the iconic adventurer Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark and two sequels throughout the decade. To make things even more impressive, Ford also starred Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, meaning he absolutely dominated blockbuster movies as an action star in the 1980s.

3 Bruce Willis

Bruce Willis became a major star following Die Hard

10 Biggest 1980s Action Stars, Ranked

With just one role, Bruce Willis defined himself as one of the biggest action stars of the 1980s. As police detective John McClane in Die Hard, Willis starred in a surprise summer blockbuster hit that went on to be viewed as one of the greatest action movies ever. The inception of an entire franchise, Die Hard made a major star out of Willis, and McClane’s initial presentation of a vulnerable and imperfect hero was in stark contrast to the overloaded muscle-bound heroes of the time. Willis would continue this success and play McClane in many sequels in the coming decades.

2 Sylvester Stallone

Sylvester Stallone dominated the 1980s as Rocky and John Rambo


After already dominating the sports action genre in the 1980s as Rocky Balboa in the Rocky series, Sylvester Stallone starred as one of the most compelling action heroes of that decade, traumatized Vietnam War veteran, John Rambo in the Rambo franchise. An absolute juggernaut of the action genre throughout the entire 1980s, outside these series, Stallone also played the lead in Cobra, Over the Top, Lock Up, and Tango & Cash, acting as one of the most consistent names in action movies for that entire decade and beyond.

1 Arnold Schwarzenegger

Arnold Schwarzenegger was the definitive action movie star of the 1980s


While Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone had an ongoing rivalry that means viewers still argue about which one was the biggest action star of the 1980s, the winner must be the Austrian bodybuilder and former Mr. Universe, Schwarzenegger. While Schwarzenegger’s iconic title role in The Terminator was enough to cement Schwarzenegger’sstatus as an action legend, his filmography throughout the 1980s was so impressive that he was undeniably the champion of that era. With roles in Commando, The Running Man, and Predator, Schwarzenegger’s recognizable voice, plethora of memorable catchphrases, and brooding physique made him an unmatchable star.

Source: Today

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