How Billy Idol’s Motorcycle Crash Killed His Movie Career
Things were going so well for Billy Idol that he titled a recent album Charmed Life. In fact, he was feeling so charmed that he wasn't wearing a helmet or leathers when he hit the road on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle on the morning of Feb. 6, 1990.
Then the moment came to a literally screeching halt when Idol ran a stop sign in Hollywood, collided with a car and broke his leg and arm.
On the other hand, perhaps some charm was in play: The woman in the other vehicle wasn’t hurt, and a helmet wasn’t required. And despite seven hours of surgery, he didn’t suffer many long-term effects.
“The leg bone had gone straight through the jeans … and had ripped the muscle to shreds,” Idol told Q in 1990. “There was blood all over and everything, and I kept blacking out and I was in all this pain, and I came to on the operating table with somebody going up my shirt, cutting the clothes off me. All I could think about was thank the fuck I didn't wear one of my favorite leather jackets. I just had this denim jacket on. Thank you, God.”
Less charm, however, was in evidence over Idol’s prospective movie career. His schedule following the recording of Charmed Life was supposed to include two major roles – in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Doors.
The first, which would have played to his punk-icon style perfectly, was Terminator 2. Idol was slated to appear as a more advanced shape-changing cyborg villain called T-1000 opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger, who returned as an original-edition T-800 Terminator taking on a hero role. The film went on to gross $517 million worldwide and is generally hailed as the most successful of Schwarzenegger’s career. It was also the most expensive movie ever made and featured Guns N’ Roses on the soundtrack.
Terminator 2 would undoubtedly have been the perfect launchpad for Idol’s movie career, but director James Cameron signed up Robert Patrick after learning that Idol would still be recuperating by the time principal photography began in October 1990.
“Billy Idol was set to do the role of the T-1000, as I understand," Patrick told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017. "I can tell you that I saw Billy's image when I went to [effects specialist] Stan Winston, after I got the role. Unfortunately, he got into a motorcycle accident and busted up his leg, so he wasn't able to physically do what the role demanded.”
Watch Billy Idol's Video for 'Cradle of Love'
Patrick said he attempted to channel David Bowie and James Dean in his own approach. “It was just one of those moments when everything came together at the right time,” he noted. Charmed, indeed.
In the end, it might have been difficult for Idol to deliver what was needed: Patrick had to train four times a day in preparation for filming, and frequently had to give the impression of running at full speed then stopping with no evidence of exertion. “I did it like a sprinter would: I locked eyes on a target and focused so there was no wasted energy," Patrick said. "When done, I would clench my jaw, no mouth breathing, only through the nose and no expression because the character would not be straining.”
Idol recalled touring the special-effects studio and confirmed pictures on the wall suggested that the T-1000 was indeed based on him. “I even acted some of the part,” he told Rolling Stone in 2019. “I had to act that scene where he goes to the stepparents with the picture … but the trouble is that I had this terrible limp. And James Cameron said, ‘The only problem is, I really need you to be able to run’… and I’m just about walking, you know? It was going to take me a while to really get 100 percent back to normal. And [even] with the CGI thing, there was no way they could could really fake it right then, really.”
Some people don’t think it was a bad result; SlashFilm argued, “It sounds like we dodged a bullet there. … I can’t imagine Billy Idol being anywhere near as intimidating as Robert Patrick in that role. Even if Billy Idol is a good actor, he brings with him the weight of his onstage persona, something not easily shaken when you’re portraying a character like T-1000. It would have taken quite the spectacular performance for him to make us believe that Arnold Schwarzenegger should be running from him.”
As Idol learned to live with the metal rod in his leg, he managed to find a place in The Doors production – just not the original role. Director Oliver Stone intended for Idol to be far more prominent, but the truth was that Idol wasn’t up to it. He ultimately appeared as Cat, a member of Jim Morrison’s entourage, complete with crutches to help him walk when he had to. Mostly Idol was seated, or even lying down; truth told, it's hard to remember he was in the film at all.
Perhaps that’s another example of living a charmed life, because The Doors bombed on release in 1991 – grossing $34.4 million from a budget of $38 million. In general, blockbuster movies aren’t regarded as a business success until they’ve grossed double their budget, proving how far off the mark Stone’s work was. The film went on to enjoy cult success, maybe because of the fictional elements and loss of story momentum that made it a bomb upon its theatrical release.
Watch Billy Idol Cover the Doors' 'L.A. Woman'
From that perspective, Idol’s Cat was more successful than a larger role might have been. As Tom Cox observed in 2016, “The film could be best viewed as a surreal exploration of the little-known fact that dark mysterious people can simultaneously be very boring. Yet, for that, it is somehow no less watchable or quotable. ‘Yeah, fuck off, Ray,’ says Billy Idol, joining in with Morrison’s verbal attack on the long-suffering [Ray] Manzarek, while lying across a dining table with his shirt half off. Nothing in the preceding few moments has explained why Billy Idol should be lying across a dining table with his shirt half off, but on the other hand, why should anything make sense in the middle of a scene where famous rock stars and their wives argue to the brink of death over a duck.”
His injury provided the perfect explanation for why Idol was across the table – but, like Stone in this instance, let’s not let the facts get in the way. Idol achieved additional cult attraction for The Doors from an audience that otherwise might never have encountered him, and that could mean a lot to someone who later covered the Doors’ “L.A. Woman.” Idol was later the subject of a lighthearted conspiracy theory that he is, in fact, Morrison in disguise.
Idol's movie career basically ended. He was reportedly passed over for the part of villain Jacob Kell in Highlander: Endgame in 2000, following a memorable cameo portraying himself opposite Adam Sandler in 1998's The Wedding Singer. Idol has focused on music ever since.
"My son loved Adam Sandler, and I thought, 'I'm going to have to see it anyway, so why not be in it?'" Idol told Contact Music in 2005. "I gained a number of die-hard teenage fans through doing it who are adults now and are still turning up to my gigs."
Watch Billy Idol's Cameo in 'The Wedding Singer'
In this way, Idol’s charmed life would continue – and that was actually made clear early on: His clip for “Cradle of Love” (from Charmed Life) earned Best Video from a Film honors at the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards. Idol was shot from the waist up, however, to hide the effects of the crash.
“I was lucky to have a life that’s worth getting better for,” he told Arsenio Hall in 1990. “It was great fun to wake up in the hospital bed after the accident and realize that if I did get better, it was worth it.”