The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Michael Ironside
By Mother Brain
This latest installment of my underrated actors special is perhaps a companion piece to my recent Michael Biehn article. The first time I ever saw Michael Ironside act was in Total Recall. When I first saw the movie on video, I must have worn out the tape because it was so entertaining from start to finish. But one of the many reasons of the filmâ€™s success was the intense feud between the filmâ€™s star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Ironside as the relentless secondary villain who would stop at nothing to kill him. If Schwarzenegger was the hero you loved to root for, Ironside was the badass you envied.
Ironside was born Frederick Reginald Ironside on February 12, 1950 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He had various interests from arm wrestling, roofing, and writing before attending Ontario College of Art where he started his acting career. A catalyst for his choice of acting in science fiction projects came from his grandfather who used to give him tons of short collections of writings. Adventure stories such as Frank Herbertâ€™s Dune appealed to Ironside early on.
Like most struggling actors at the beginning of their careers, Ironside was typically cast as either cops or criminals. Then came David Cronenbergâ€™s breakout film Scanners in 1981 where Ironside played a powerful renegade psychic hellbent on world domination. Despite the low budget and a difficult production, Scanners was an intense futuristic thriller that sent Cronenberg to Hollywood and Ironside gained notoriety for his performance. His frightening image on the movie poster (depicting the final scene where Ironsideâ€™s character has a mind control battle with the filmâ€™s hero, leading to a very â€˜explosiveâ€™ end) was appealing enough to lure in audiences.
Ironside made the jump to Hollywood in the early 80s. He took on small parts in films like The Falcon and the Snowman and tv shows like Hill Street Blues and The A-Team. But his most popular role after Scanners would be ex-CIA operative turned Resistance fighter Ham Tyler on NBCâ€™s popular sci-fi series V. A number of things stood out with the role including Ironsideâ€™s depiction of a strong but complicated good guy with an antagonistic edge that made him a good contrast to the series hero, Mike Donovan (Marc Singer). He would become one of the most popular characters on the show due to some intense action sequences like mowing down the lizard aliens with a MAC-10 uziÂ and Tyler also showing no mercy to a Visitor commander by pouring deadly red dust over his face. Unfortunately, the Ham Tyler character was written out midway through the regular series and the show was canceled before plans of his return could be put into fruition. Ironside moved on.
The next memorable Ironside performance was the 1986 classic, Top Gun, as the antagonistic naval flying instructor known as Jester. He would be an interesting rival of sorts to the star of the film, Tom Cruise, and Ironside would soon find himself typecast as villains opposite the likes of Nick Nolte in Extreme Prejudice, Christopher Lambert in Highlander II: The Quickening, and Corey Haim in Watchers. Total Recall, however, stood out the most.
Director Paul Verhoeven had been a fan of Ironside as early as Scanners. He even considered him for both the villain and the title role in Robocop before finally collaborating with him on Recall. As the evil Richter, Ironside proved to be an excellent physical match to a slimmed down Arnold Schwarzenegger. Also, the surprise reveal of Richterâ€™s relationship with Sharon Stone as Schwarzeneggerâ€™s phony wife added some humanity to the character, giving him more of a personal grudge with the hero. It was arguably Ironsideâ€™s most unique kind of villain role in his career.
The 90s were a busy time for Ironside but also a mixed bag. While roles in major Hollywood movies like Free Willy, The Next Karate Kid, and Starship Troopers kept him visible, Ironside was constantly being typecast as badass heros and villains in mostly Canadian B-movie fare. Very rarely did he take the chance to play anything different. Even as the voice of Darkseid on the animated Superman series proved that producers were more interested in having Ironside play dark, brooding types of characters.
Aside from small roles in The Perfect Storm and The Machinist, Ironsideâ€™s most recent role was the ignorant future resistance general in Terminator Salvation. While the film did not give Ironside a chance to have a reunion with Schwarzenegger (sort of), the film did represent Ironside as being part of an exclusive club of popular 80s sci-fi character actors like Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, and others who are all connected with the Terminator franchise and Schwarzeneggerâ€™s films. Todayâ€™s audiences would also know him best as the voice of Sam Fisher in the popular Splinter Cell video games as well as Lois Laneâ€™s father, General Sam Lane, on tvâ€™s Smallville. Letâ€™s hope Sly Stallone has him in mind as a bad guy for Expendables 2!