I’m gonna send you up against the best. You two characters are going to Top Gun!” This line kick-starts the ’80s classic Top Gun (which celebrates its 25th anniversary this week with an updated Blu-ray release).Watching the film as a youngster, I knew that line meant we were gonna finally get to the exciting stuff. And it’s uttered by . . . that bald guy!You know, the one who’s in all the ‘80s movies!
Yeah, him! He’s an actor few people could cite by name but almost everyone would recognize. If you needed a hard-nosed, tough-talking authority figure in the Reagan/Bush I era, James Tolkan was always at the ready.Let’s salute the reliable character actor by counting down some of his most familiar (and not-so-familiar) roles.
Masters Of The Universe – This sorry live-action adaptation of the ’80s favorite has little to recommend other than a few spirited performances. The effects are shoddy, the story wafer thin, and the music must have morphed John Williams’ lawyer’s eyes into a pair of dollar signs. Tolkan and villain Frank Langella, clearly enjoying himself in one of his few popcorn roles, are the lone stand-outs.Tolkan doesn’t have to reach much as a rough-and-ready detective with little patience for those Eternia punks, but you’ll welcome his familiar gruffness as you await Langella’s next bit of scenery-chewing.
Dick Tracy- This is the “Oh, that was James Tolkan?Really?” entry in the list.Playing against type for once, Tolkan is almost unrecognizable as an accountant with hair, mustache, and milquetoast manner counter to all his best-known roles.A rather sympathetic “desk” villain, Tolkan gets a bit lost amidst the vamping of Al Pacino, William Forsythe, Paul Sorvino, et cetera.Perhaps he has a more substantial role in the original, longer cut of the film?One hopes so, because it’s one of the few roles where Tolkan is able to demonstrate his range.
Back To The Future Trilogy – Were I ever somehow to run into Tolkan on the street, I suspect the word “slacker” would pop out of my mouth randomly in the middle of a sentence, as if by some Pavlovian conditioning. No-nonsense Principal Strickland, nemesis to Marty McFly, is undoubtedly Tolkan’s signature role.He plays it broadly but effectively, projecting the remembered meanness of everyone’s principal (real or imagined). (The original script included a moment where Stickland cruelly crushes Marty’s Walkman with a vise . . . of all people, Strickland would have a vise sitting around in his office, wouldn’t he?) Strickland continued to have fun and interesting things to do in the sequels, including a tour of duty as Marshall of 1880s Hill Valley in Part III.
Tolkan pops up briefly as a coroner in the original Amityville Horror, plays Strickland-esque characters in Problem Child 2 and WarGames, and has guest shots on popular shows like The Wonder Years and The Equalizer. His most recent film to receive theatrical release was the race relations drama Heavens Fall in 2006.
Tolkan has been largely absent from the screen for the last decade or so, but IMDB reports he’ll make an appearance in an upcoming David Mamet telefilm about Phil Spector.I’ll be tuning in . . . after all, when it comes to James Tolkan, slacking is never a good idea.