The worlds of elite gymnastics and cult film have lost one of their greatest stars. International Gymnast Media reports that Kurt Thomas, the world-champion gymnast turned hero of the beloved 1985 movie Gymkata, died on Friday after he suffered a “tear of the basilar artery in the brain stem” and a severe stroke in late May. Thomas was only 64 years old.

Thomas was one of the greatest gymnasts of his era. International Gymnast Media gives a brief rundown of his career highlights:

Thomas, known for his original and daring skills, including the “Thomas Flair” on pommel horse, and the “Thomas Salto” on floor exercise, won a total of eight world medals, three of them gold, at the 1978 and 1979 World Championships. It was at the 1978 World Championships in Strasbourg, France, where Thomas used his signature skills on the floor exercise to win the first world championship gold medal for the U.S. men’s gymnastics program.

By all accounts, Thomas would have been a front runner for numerous medals at the 1980 Summer Olympics, but the United States boycotted the games, held in Moscow, to protest the Soviet-Afghan War. Thomas turned pro — which then made him ineligible for the 1984 Olympics. Instead, Thomas accepted an offer to star in Gymkata, a low-budget action thriller from Robert Clouse, the director of Enter the Dragon. 

Thomas played Jonathan Cabot, a highly-skilled gymnast recruited by the U.S. government to compete in “The Game,” a deadly competition held in the mysterious (and extremely fictional) country of Parmistan. Winning this game could give the United States a leg-up in the Cold War — and explain what happened to Cabot’s father, a spy who went missing deep in Parmistanian territory. Cabot receives training in the martial arts, and combines it with his gymnastic talents, resulting in action scenes that merge the two disciplines in surreal ways.

Gymkata’s poster promises “the skill of gymnastics!” blended with “the kill of karate,” even if those are two things that are extremely difficult to blend together. Cabot’s adventures in Parmistan take him to such bizarre places as the “Village of the Crazies,” which lives up to its name — apparently everyone in this city is absolutely insane. (Who is the mayor? What does the local economy like? These questions are not answered.) The architecture is certainly insane; at the center of town sits a large well with pommel horse handles, allowing Thomas to show off his great gymnastic skills as he single-handedly holds the crazies at bay:

In a 2015 interview, Thomas said they originally “tried doing [the famous pommel horse scene] without pommels” but it was too painful, so they added the handles to complete the stunt. He also noted that the residents of the Village of the Crazies “were actually crazy people from a local insane asylum in Yugoslavia. We provided them with alcohol and a buffet for their time!” As that anecdote suggests, Gymkata possesses singular qualities that make it utterly unforgettable. And Thomas himself was a hugely likable star, not to mention an impressively athletic performer. He’d had no martial-arts training before the film, then wound up doing almost all of his own stunts.

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Thomas’ acting career basically ended with Gymkata. After a stint covering the Olympics for ABC and an attempted comeback, Thomas opened his own gymnastics school in Frisco, Texas. In the meantime, the legend of Gymkata grew, and the film now claims a legion of passionate fans — including this writer, whose been a member of the Gymkata cult ever since he discovered it at a “Bad Movie Night” with some high school friends over 20 years ago.

That wasn’t necessarily the wrong venue for Gymkata, but over the years I’ve come to realize that no film that has brought this much pleasure to so many people can really be categorized as “bad.” When people ask if my love for Gymkata is a gag, I always assure them it is not. However you might want to describe the film, it is truly one of my favorite movies. I love Gymkata

And I have Kurt Thomas to thank for it; literally, no one else on Earth could have played that character. In that same interview from 2015, Thomas said he was “very aware of the film’s cult following and love it!” I hope Kurt Thomas knew how much we loved him, too.

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