The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Peter Weller

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The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Peter Weller

By Mother Brain

Every couple of weeks, I will be posting introspectives on some of the most underrated actors in film history. Having ranted on actors who have sabotaged their careers in the past, I think it’s time to look at those who had their one or two hits in the past only to fall into supporting roles in B-movies and television. My hope is that people will remember these icons and my first installment of this special piece is on Robocop star, Peter Weller.

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Born as an army brat in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Peter Weller had spent much of his youth traveling the world because of his father who was an Army helicopter pilot. He attended schools in Germany and Texas before enrolling at the University of North Texas. He was a major jazz enthusiast who idolized Miles Davis and took up the trumpet while attending the college.

Weller would start his acting career in the early 1970s, graduating from the Academy of Dramatic Arts and spending most of the decade in New York performing on various Broadway shows produced by the likes of Mike Nichols and David Mamet. He even became a member of the world renowned Actors’ Studio during this period. His film career would begin with 1979’s Butch and Sundance: The Early Years and he would soon become a favorite for character-driven supporting roles in movies and television.

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The breakthrough year for Weller was 1984 with two completely different roles: The title role in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension and the evil drug dealing boyfriend of Teri Garr in Firstborn (aka Moving In). Buckaroo Banzai was a cross between the action/adventure and science-fiction movie genres, and also includes elements of comedy, satire, and romance. It was inspired by 1970s kung fu movies with Weller playing an unconventional comic book-style hero who did everything from neurosurgeon, physician, race car driver, and even rock star! He along with his team called the Hong Kong Cavaliers battle a group of aliens called the Red Lectroids from Planet 10 who want to save their exiles from the 8th Dimension and take over Planet 10. At the time, the film was not a box office hit; however, the advent of home video in the early 1980s helped Buckaroo Banzai be rediscovered and become a cult classic that has spawned comic books and unproduced sequel screenplays. Weller’s mild-mannered approach to the role gave him the initial recognition he deserved. Firstborn would also underperform at the box office. But it showed Weller’s versatility in not only playing lovable heroes but also despicable villains who stop at nothing until they get what they want. He had the devious charm that controlled Garr’s character as well as being a credible threat to her character’s son who ultimately succeeds in getting him out of the house.

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Weller continued to play various characters in movies until he landed the title role in arguably one of the greatest sci-fi action films of all time: 1987’s Robocop. The film’s producers initially conflicted over the casting of slain Detroit cop Alex Murphy whose brain and face are donated to a powerful corporation in an effort to create the ultimate super cop. Director Paul Verhoeven wanted either Michael Ironside or Rutger Hauer for the role while Orion Pictures wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger. All these actors were too tall, bulky, and would look silly in the suit. Weller was suggested on the basis of his slender build and defined jawline. However he brought so much more to the character. Considering the months of mime training for the character’s robotic movements and the exhaustion of wearing the suit (sweated so much weight off that a fan had to be built into it), Weller was capable of making the character evolve from a computerized corporate product to a living person struggling to get his humanity back in a corrupt future. Roger Ebert said in his review that “considering that he spends much of the movie hidden behind one kind of makeup device or another, Weller does an impressive job of creating sympathy for his character. He is more “human,” indeed, when he is a robocop than earlier in the movie, when he’s an ordinary human being.”

While the success of Robocop lead to various incarnations in comics, toys, video games, and multiple cartoons, the character had also become a double-edged sword for Peter Weller’s film career. Although the film’s success got him offered leads in major studio films, Weller would also be stuck with the stigma of the Robocop character much like most actors who play superheroes (i.e. Christopher Reeve as Superman, Michael Keaton as Batman). His non-Robocop films including Shakedown, Leviathan, and Cat Chaser underperformed with critics and audiences. A 2nd Robocop movie was inevitable by 1990; however, it was an inferior follow-up to the original and did very little for Weller to develop the character further.

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Immediately after Robocop 2, it was expected for Peter Weller to reprise the role in Robocop 3. The script was downgraded to a family-friendly action movie which Weller didn’t like but almost accepted for the sake of satisfying the fans. Yet, as soon as The Fly director David Cronenberg offered him the lead role in the film adaptation of the William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch, Weller walked away from his most iconic role for good. Both films failed at the box office.

The rest of the 1990s and 2000s became an odd mixture of acting choices for Weller who was now trying to reemerge as a more of a character actor than a movie star. He went from major releases such as Screamers, The Order, and Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite to straight to cable fare like Sunset Grill. Interestingly enough, he turned down major film roles, most noticeably the Michael Douglas part in Basic Instinct which would have reunited him with the Robocop crew. By the time he reached his 50s, Weller chose to do guest spots on television shows such as Monk, 24, Fringe, and Star Trek: Enterprise.

Over the years, fans of the original Robocop would make various attempts to convince him to return to the part after the franchise was run to the ground by different film and television producers. But now in his early 60s, Weller chooses to put the part behind him, considering it his “contribution to cinema” and nothing more. He’s now a married man occasionally teaching ancient history at Syracuse University where he completed his Master’s Degree in 2004. He also does voiceover work for programs on the History Channel and will be seen this season as a dirty Miami cop on Showtime’s Dexter.

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To say that Peter Weller is an underrated actor is an understatement. His body of work shows a great deal of range that most A-list actors don’t have, playing a vast assortment of effective heros and villains. Unfortunately, that body of work has always been overshadowed by the massive popularity of both Robocop and Buckaroo Banzai. Let’s hope this piece may draw interest in some of his unsung performances.

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