One of the few American actresses to enjoy stardom in action films, Cynthia Rothrock was a five-time undefeated World Karate Champion who parlayed her exceptional skills in martial arts into a career in direct-to-video features like "China O'Brien" (1988), "Martial Law" (1989) and "Fast Getaway" (1990). Though petite of stature and a somewhat wooden presence on screen, Rothrock was a formidable martial arts athlete, having proven herself in the Hong Kong action market for several years before returning to films in her native country. She soon became a highly marketable figure in B-action films, but found it harder to break into the sort of mainstream features that were dominated by her male counterparts like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Rothrock retired from acting in 2004 to open her own martial arts studio, but the enduring popularity of her '90s-era titles kept her in the public eye, prompting a comeback of sorts in 2011 and beyond. Though never a major Hollywood star, Cynthia Rothrock enjoyed a lengthy run as an action star, as well as the sole female actress to achieve that title.
Born Cynthia Ann Christine Rothrock on March 8, 1957 in Wilmington, DE, she began exploring the martial arts at a gym owned by parents of her friends when she was just 13 years old. Her teachers and parents alike both recognized her innate talents, and encouraged her to enter competitions. Rothrock quickly rose to the top of the sport, claiming five black belts in a variety of disciplines, including tae kwon do and classical and contemporary Chinese karate. By 1981, she was undefeated World Karate Champion in both martial arts forms and weapons, a title she would retain for the next five years, even in divisions not segregated into male and female categories. While working with a demonstration team in Northern California, Rothrock captured the attention of Golden Harvest, a veteran Chinese martial arts motion picture company. She was soon co-starring with Michelle Yeoh in her first feature, "Yes, Madam" (1985), which established her as a popular performer with Asian audiences.
In the late 1980s, Rothrock became the rare Caucasian performer to find stardom in Chinese martial arts features, co-starring with such established talents as actor-director Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and Andy Lau. Golden Harvest also saw in Rothrock an opportunity to break into the American market, and backed her first stateside features, "China O'Brien" (1988) and "China O'Brien II" (1991), both directed by "Enter the Dragon" helmer Robert Clouse. Both performed well enough on cable and home video to warrant more Rothrock features, which soon included such low-budget, action-driven titles as "Martial Law" (1991), with David Carradine and "Fast Getaway" opposite Corey Haim. These and other low-budget features that followed in their wake required Rothrock to display her physical skills and hard-edged appeal while keeping acting and dialogue to a minimum. The formula worked, and by the mid-1990s, she maintained a fan base on par with such male counterparts as Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris.
However, Rothrock's popularity did not translate into mainstream stardom. A 1990 project called "The Executioner" for producer Joel Silver would have teamed Rothrock with Sylvester Stallone, but the film stalled before cameras could begin rolling. Brief flirtations with television came via the syndicated series "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" (1995-99) and the TV movie "The Dukes of Hazzard: Reunion!" (CBS, 1997), but by the new millennium, Rothrock's film career had stalled in the same sort of B-movies with which she had launched her career in the late 1980s. Following the release of 2004's "Xtreme Fighter," Rothrock retired from screen acting to focus on teaching martial arts at her own studio in Southern California. However, with the success of Steven Soderbergh's "Haywire" (2011) and "The Expendables" (2010), Rothrock returned to motion pictures in 2011, quickly netting roles in three independent genre pictures.
By Paul Gaita