[2 June 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
A recent thread in a DVD site discussion board got me thinking about actors I’d like to see elevated to superstar status. You know the drill - beyond b-movie badass-dom or cult icon consideration. The names that come to mind are many - Bruce Campbell, Jeffrey Combs, Ted Levine - but none are as fascinating as Lance Henriksen. Known now for his dark, broody turns and his genre giant status, the 69 year old character actor has one of the more intriguing backstories in all of Tinsel Town. Born to a poor family, he dropped out of school when he was 12. He didn’t learn to read until he was 30 (that’s right - Henriksen was illiterate for most of his early adult life) and graduated from the prestigious Actor’s Studio in New York. Outside of work, he’s an accomplished artist and master potter, and some of us are lucky enough to own tea cups hand thrown by the man himself.
As for his work in films, fans who look carefully will see Henriksen as one of the technicians helping aliens make first contact in Steven Spielberg’s masterful Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and he turned up in other seminal post-modern efforts like Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and Prince of the City. By 1983, he found himself playing one of the fabled Mercury astronauts (Wally Schirra) in Phillip Kaufman’s excellent adaptation of Thomas Wolfe’s space race chronicle, The Right Stuff. But it was James Cameron who truly elevated Henriksen’s performer profile. Originally tagged as the cruel killing machine known as the Terminator in the 1984 hit, producers balked at letting the seemingly unknown thespian take on the lead. While a certain sitting Governor became the iconic villain, Henriksen was relegated to the role of wise cracking cop Hal Vukovich.
But Cameron didn’t forget his favorite passed-over player. Casting Henriksen as Bishop, the benevolent android in his sequel to Alien, Aliens, he found a unique way to make the man into an action hero after all. Yet something odd happened around 1986. Henriksen had been working steadily, taking on roles in such mainstream movies as Jagged Edge, but he suddenly started finding a kind of easy direct to video acceptability which gave him unlimited access to numerous below the radar projects. While he elevated independent horror gems like, The Horror Show, Near Dark, and Pumpkinhead, he was, by the ‘90s, turning into a solid schlock legend. Sure, he had a commercial cache that lead to work in Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead and Disney’s Tarzan, but it wasn’t until Chris Carter’s X-Files follow-up, TV’s Millennium, that Henriksen flirted with household name acknowledgment.
Sadly, after three seasons - two of which stand as some of the best television has/had to offer - the serial killer series was cancelled, and with it, the possibility of the actor making the leap back into the A-list. This isn’t to suggest that Henriksen has since found it difficult getting work. A look at his Wikipedia and IMDb pages proves the man can clearly get cast. But the titles he’s been associated with are inconsistent at best, from big budget bullcrap like Alien vs. Predator, to low budget nonentities like Sasquatch Mountain and Dark Reel. Even within the most miserable moviemaking dynamic, however, Henriksen soars. He’s the kind of reliable lynchpin that can turn your turgid tale of zombies/vampires/monsters/murders/insert supernatural threat here into something semi-cogent and coherent.
Oh, he still gets the callback to the big time now and then. Ed Harris, an old pal from way back when, offered Henriksen a juicy role in his old fashioned Western Appaloosa and the z-movie maverick more than held his own with celebrated co-stars Viggo Mortensen and Jeremy Irons. In fact, he was so good, that his return to tripe like Alone in the Dark II appeared counterproductive. Now there is nothing wrong with an actor working. Indeed, many in the peripheries of the profession would give their right arm, left leg, and first born child to have the kind of career Henriksen manages. But as he continues to cultivate a direct to digital film façade, it looks like standard Tinsel Town talents are merely overlooking this amazing man.
And that’s a shame, because if anyone can act rings around today’s so-called dramatic superstars, it’s Henricksen. He can out attitude DeNiro and put that showboating shill Pacino in his place. He’s got a classic old school façade that makes him perfect for paternal roles, and he is also equipped with enough late in life electricity to be an excellent over the hill rogue. In fact, when one looks at his overall oeuvre, when they see him effortlessly move between thrillers and juicy genre fare, evil incarnate to voice-over work for kiddie cartoons, it’s clear that Henriksen is our greatest living actor. The fact that no one wants to challenge him on said ability is sad. He is more than happy to elevate a first time filmmaker’s lousy goofball ghost story. He’ll gladly champion some no-name hack’s hideous scary movie mung. Imagine what he could do with someone like Christopher Nolan or David Fincher on his side. It boggles the mind.
So here is your challenge, so called smarter-than-us suits in Hollywood - give Lance a chance! That’s right, drop your agent-mandated list of go to guys and give this fright flick fixture a shot at the solid social superstardom he so richly deserves. Some would argue that he is already there, a recognizable name and famous face that few actually remember but most never forget. In a realm which can chew up and spit out a talented little twinkie, turning them from above the marquee to up the river in a single cinematic season, Henriksen has survived - struggled by survived. Now, as he enters his 70th year, he should become what he so richly deserves to be: an acknowledged master of his craft and a well-paid, well-placed personality. Again, he really is all of those things, just not to the oblivious free market moviegoer. It’s time to let the rest of the artform’s aficionados know we we’ve been saving for decades. Lance Henriksen is a giant and a true movie star. It’s time to start treating him like one.