HOLLYWOOD -- The great thing about making fun of big, dumb Hollywood action stars is that they're usually too dumb to know that you're making fun of them.
Don't try it with Dolph Lundgren.
The muscular, karate-trained, 6-foot-5-inch gladiator may have looked a little thick between the ears in "Rocky IV." And he probably didn't light up many circuit boards in "Masters of the Universe," either. But this guy is not as dumb as he has looked in some of his films.
In fact, the Swedish-born actor is a pretty smart guy. Mr. Lundgren co-stars with Jean-Claude Van Damme in "Universal Soldier," which opens Friday, was days away from entering the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a Fulbright Fellowship when he got sidetracked by the glitter of Hollywood.
Can you picture this hunk sitting in the library poring over engineering books? Well, neither could he.
"I enrolled at MIT and then had a few days off before classes began, so I went down to New York City to visit my girlfriend," he said recently during a break in filming his next picture, "Joshua Tree."
"It was during those few days in New York that I started to re-evaluate my life. I was about to embark on yet another phase of my academic life, and I needed a change. I wanted to do something different with my life. I wanted some excitement."
He never returned to Boston, although his parents didn't find out he had dropped out of school until months later, and began attending acting classes.
For the next year, he tried to pay the rent by modeling, but he was told he was too big for the clothes, so he was a bouncer at local nightclubs. He had a small part in the James Bond movie "A View to a Kill." Then he got the role of the invincible Russian boxer in "Rocky IV."
There is a scene in that movie when his character is raised on a platform through the middle of a Las Vegas stage. The character looks a bit dazed by all the hoopla, and the actor said that mirrored his own experience in his first major film role.
"One minute I was a kid trying to make some extra bucks at the door of a club, and the next minute I was known all over the world," he said. "It took all my energy just to stay afloat.
"I didn't know anything about acting or business at the time. I had planned to study acting for a long time and then gradually move into movies. 'Rocky IV' came so fast, but what could I do? A 'Rocky' picture is not something that an unemployed actor turns down.
"I look at it now philosophically," he added. "It was my destiny."
Dolph Lundgren, 34, was raised in the suburbs of Stockholm, but was not athletic as a child. He was asthmatic, and he spent most of his early years inside the house reading.
As he began to grow out of his allergic condition, he wanted to start playing sports but was too far behind the other kids, who had been playing team sports all their lives. So he took up karate.
He became captain of the Swedish national karate team and now holds a second-degree black belt in the sport. "I really wanted to find a sport that would make me feel special, and karate made me feel special," he said.
Still, it was academics that he excelled in, and after attending the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, he completed undergraduate work in the United States, at Washington State University and Clemson. He received his master's in chemical engineering at the University of Sydney in Australia.
In 1989, after he already had made a name for himself on the big screen, he returned to acting classes. Although he makes no excuses for the action roles he has played so far, he said he has bigger goals in mind.
The actor, who divides his time between Stockholm and Los Angeles, points to the careers of Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford and Sean Connery as his inspirations.
"They're all action heroes who also are considered great actors," he said. "I'd rather have that kind of career than the career of
simply an action hero."
He sees his role in "Universal Soldier" as a major step forward in his development as a Hollywood actor. In it, he plays a Vietnam soldier who goes over the edge before dying in combat. He and his platoon are later brought back to life -- actually, reconstructed -- and turned into a secretive super SWAT squad.
The film's director likens it to a retelling of the Frankenstein myth, but it seems to borrow more from "Robocop" and "The Terminator."
"Some big careers have come out of villain parts," Lundgren said. "I saw this as a chance to play someone who is more than a stereotype, and that's what my career needs right now. I need to show people that I can go beyond the action stuff."