Vishnuvardhan was born Sampath Kumar on 18 September 1950 in Mysore to HL Narayana Rao, an artist, music composer and scriptwriter. Following in his father’s footsteps, Vishnuvardhan also ventured into the movies. He enjoyed a meteoric rise following the superlative hit of his second feature Nagarahavu (1972). During the making of this film, he was christened Vishnuvardhan by the director Puttana Kanagal. Described as the Phoenix of Indian cinema, following Nagarahavu, Vishnuvardhan became the angry young man of Sandalwood. Addressed by his fans as Sahasasimha (valiant lion) and Abhinava Bhargava (monarch of acting), he enjoyed great fame throughout his acting career.
One of seven siblings, Vishnuvardhan’s sister was a Kathak dancer and his brother the child actor Ravi. Vishnuvardhan completed his schooling at Mysore’s Gopalswamy School and Kannada Model High School in Bangalore. He obtained his degree from the National College in Basavanagudi in Bangalore.
Once he started his acting career, Vishnuvardhan aced in over 220 films in Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu, Tamil and Hindi. Of these, 200 were in Kannada, 5 in Hindi, 5 Telugu, 5 Malayalam and 6 Tamil. He also played a variety of roles in different genres as the times changed in Kannada cinema. Both Vishnuvardhan and his Tamil counterpart Kamal Haasan also learnt the martial arts, which came in handy during their participation in commercial thrillers of the times.
Vishnuvardhan married his fellow co-star actress Bharathi and the couple adopted two children Keerthi and Chandana. He was also very close to his fellow actor Ambareesh. The two remained inseparable to their death.
His association with director H R Bhargava is considered one of the best pairings of Kannada film industry with several of their films becoming hits. These included movies like Asaadhya Aliya (1979), Guru Sishyaru(1981),Jeevana Chakra (1985), Karunamayi (1987), Jana Nayaka (1988), Hrudaya Geethe (1989), Karna(1986), Mathe Haditu Kogile (1990), Onde Guri(1983) and Krishna Nee Begane Baro (1986) among others.
Vishnuvardhan succumbed to a cardiac arrest on December 30, 2009 at King’s Court Hotel in Mysore.