The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Judd Nelson

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The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Judd Nelson
By Mother Brain

When the term “brat pack” is used, you either think of the 80s teen films of writer/director John Hughes (Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club) or the non-Hughes movies with some of the same crop of actors (St. Elmo’s Fire, About Last Night, The Outsiders, etc). While some like Demi Moore broke out of the mold decades ago and others like Molly Ringwald would be stuck in it for the rest of their career, there were few actors who were caught in the middle. Considering his extensive resume, Judd Nelson fits somewhere in the middle: Played iconic film roles but never quite became a box office draw.

Born in Portland, Maine in 1959, Nelson had a relatively privileged upbringing. Both his parents were attorneys and he attended high class institutions (St. Paul’s preparatory school in Concord, New Hampshire and Haverford College where he majored in philosophy). Acting did not become a serious interest to Nelson until one day when he went to watch an acting buddy of his go to an audition for a play and was asked to stay. Surprisingly enough, he got the part and Nelson pursued acting full time.

Nelson left Haverford in his sophomore year moved to New York to study with the world renowned  Stella Adler Conservatory. He lucked out early on when he landed the lead role in his feature film debut, 1984’s Making the Grade. He won notable reviews for his performance as a streetwise teenager hired to finish school for a lazy prep student. Interestingly enough, Nelson won the role after an unknown stand up comic named Jim Carrey turned it down. It was the first of several roles in which Nelson played the kid from the wrong side of the tracks and while the film had little impact with audiences of the day, Nelson’s next major role (if you want to pass over the Kevin Costner indie flop, Fandango) would prove to be his signature and most enduring character for decades to come.

John Hughes’ sophomore directorial effort, 1985‘s The Breakfast Club, was more than just a launchpad for its up and coming cast. It was one of the few movies in cinema history that spoke to teenagers in the most honest and realistic way. In the film about five Shermer, Illinois teens reporting to detention on a Saturday morning, Judd Nelson played John Bender, the kid from the wrong side of the tracks. At first, the character appears to be the annoying bully with home troubles pressing the buttons of the other students. But he soon breaks the ice as he and the other characters soon learn that their personalities are much more deeper than they physically appear. Nelson, who beat out the likes of Nicholas Cage, John Cusack, and his co-star Emilio Estevez, threw himself into the performance by staying in character when the cameras were not rolling. The method style annoyed Hughes who threatened to fire Nelson especially when he would bully co-star Molly Ringwald off-screen. But the odd behavior paid off on-screen and both the movie and Nelson himself became 80s icons.

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Nelson’s next effort was the role of Georgetown yuppie, Alec Newbary, in his next effort with the brat pack, the Joel Schumacher drama, St. Elmo’s Fire. The role was another signature part for Nelson as the ambitious yuppie who changes political affiliation to make more money while also womanizing behind his girlfriend’s (Ally Sheedy) back. Although flawed in comparison to Breakfast Club, Nelson’s character was multidimensional in that despite his ruthless nature, he still cares for his friends no matter how troubled they are. Among one of those moments was where he attempts to rescue Demi Moore’s characters from Arabs when in reality she’s coked up and coming up with paranoid delusions.
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For a brief moment in the mid 80s, the success of Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire made Judd Nelson a hugely popular star. So popular that he appeared in anti-drug campaigns, a guest spot on the Bruce Willis series Moonlighting, and most famously the voice of Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime in 1986’s Transformers: The Movie. But as quick as his rise to fame was, so was his downfall. Nelson’s starring roles in the crime thriller, Blue City, and the courtroom comedy, From the Hip, failed to connect with audiences. Ironically enough, his next most significant role was the NBC made-for-TV movie, Billionaire Boys Club. Nelson won rave reviews for his performance as real life yuppie killer, Joe Hunt. It became another signature part for Nelson who was playing a more violent shade of his Alec Newbary character from St. Elmo’s Fire. Ironically enough, the film was said to have inspired the infamous brothers, Erik and Lyle Menendez, to murder their parents in 1989.

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As 90s came around, it looked like Nelson was going to fall victim to the brat pack curse. Then an acting classmate of his named Mario Van Peebles decided to cast him in an urban crime thriller called New Jack City. The film was made during the crack epidemic in America and would become one of two black studio films in 1991 that would start the hood movie genre of the decade. As one of the few white actors in the most black cast, Nelson held his own as the Italian-American undercover cop partner to a new jack-style cop (played by rapper Ice-T) and together they seek to takedown big time drug lord, Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes). While he shed his 80s looks in favor of a buzz-cut and a goatee, Nelson gave a highly underrated performance in the film and had strong chemistry with Ice-T. His speech to T’s character on a rooftop about how “death doesn’t give a shit about color” is one of the film’s most powerful moments.

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After New Jack City, Nelson began to fall downhill once again. He would get typecast as villains in one bad b-movie after another. Even his writing effort, Every Breath, did not reach a wide audience. Other times, he would luck out on a supporting role in a cult classic like 1994’s Airheads. Nonetheless, his career fell down so hard that he took the villain role in the film adaptation of DC Comics’ Steel just for a paycheck. That movie made less than $2 million at the box office. But his luck changed in the late 90s on television with his role as magazine owner Jack Richmond on the Brooke Shields sitcom, Suddenly Susan, and also took on the role of the Alan Freed, the Cleveland DJ who gave birth to the rock and roll craze of the 1950s, in the made-for-TV movie, Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll.

In 2001, Kevin Smith embarked on what was supposed to be the last of his viewaskhew universe projects which was entitled Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. As a major John Hughes fan, he cast Nelson in a brief cameo as a Sheriff. Although he continued to appear in bad movies like Cabin by the Lake and Light it Up, Nelson became a favorite for a new wave of directors who grew up with his 80s classics. Soon he found himself doing everything from guest spots on hit TV shows (CSI, Las Vegas, Family Guy, Two and a Half Men, and Psych), cinematic cult classics like Boondock Saints II, and even reprising the voice of Rodimus Prime on Transformers: Animated in 2009.

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For now, Nelson’s upcoming projects appear to be more of the same garbage for paychecks. But his star-making performances still hold up to this day and he symbolized  such appreciation for it when he appeared at the 2010 Academy Awards to reunite with members of his Breakfast Club cast and others to pay tribute to John Hughes who had passed away in 2009. Many have said that Nelson, now 51, has been difficult and misunderstood by critics and studio executives. But in a time when 80s movie remakes and appreciation have become the latest craze, perhaps there’s another John Bender-like performance waiting to come around to Judd Nelson.

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