Mother Brain’s Top 10 Underrated Actors Not Yet Covered
By Mother Brain
2015 is here and we have arrived to the five year mark since I started the Underrated Actors Special here on CosBlog. From Peter Weller to Ed Harris, I’ve covered so many of the stars that I grew up watching as a kid. I began this series not only to highlight their accomplishments in film, television, and the stage but to also reintroduce them to the millennials who are not aware of their impact on today’s stars.
Because there are so many actors I have yet to cover, I figured why not feature them in list form with a snippet of trivia for each one. Believe me when I say that this is not the end of the Underrated Actors Special. This is just a new way to talk about the actors I have yet to cover in full pieces as well as those you readers have previously requested. And so it goes:
10. Robert John Burke
I’ve mentioned Robocop on the blog many times in the past and my first piece on Peter Weller features the importance of his contribution to the role. After Weller quit the role following the second movie, this Washington Heights native strapped on the fiberglass suit for what would be the lackluster final entry in the Robocop cinematic franchise. I remember as a kid being discouraged by the difference in his voice from Weller’s in the first trailer. Then I saw the movie and was shocked by how much he looked like Weller when his helmet was off. Burke had his good moments in the film, but he lacked a sense of pain and anger compared to Weller. Through Robocop 3 did not make him into a star, Burke became a very popular character in many New York-based films. You normally see him playing square-jawed authority figures in movies such as Fled, Safe, 2 Guns, Copland as well as television shows like Law & Order, Oz, and CSI. His most notable film role outside of Robocop include Stephen King’s Thinner where he played the overweight lawyer cursed into losing weight to deathly levels by vengeful gypsies.
Trivia: He was a rescue worker during the events of 9/11. His efforts awarded him a NY State Certified Firefighter volunteer.
9. Patrick Bergin
You may have likely not heard his name, but you do know his face as the evil Kevin Kline-lookalike who stalks Julia Roberts in her 1991 hit, Sleeping with the Enemy. The Dublin-born actor started out as a teacher for juvenile delinquents before moving to London to pursue acting. Bergin became active in film and television in the late 80s with such movies as Robin Hood, Taffin opposite fellow Irishman Pierce Brosnan, and Mountains of the Moon where he plated Captain Richard Francis Burton, the man who sought the source of the Nile River for the British Empire. His role as Martin Burney in Sleeping with the Enemy should have been his breakthrough. His O.C.D. personality was well studied and he channeled Robert De Niro’s loner performance in Taxi Driver for inspiration. Perhaps he feared typecasting after its success. So when he played an I.R.A. terrorist in Patriot Games opposite Harrison Ford, he went completely unrecognizable by shaving his mustache. The rest of the 90s saw Bergin in mostly forgettable films such as Map of the Human Heart, Highway to Hell, and Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace. Today, Bergin mostly acts and plays music in Ireland.
Trivia: Bergin is the first Irish-born actor to headline a $100 million hit in the U.S. with Sleeping with the Enemy.
8. Steve Railsback
As a graduate of the Actors Studio, Railsback has made a name for himself by playing famous serial killers in movies. His breakout role came as Charles Manson in the Helter Skelter TV movie in 1965. He took a serious method approach to the role by reading Manson’s courtroom speech as well as locking himself in a closet two hours a day. The film was so controversial that some networks were afraid to air it since the Manson Family murders happened just a few years earlier. Railsback made many attempts to break typecasting by playing Private Pruitt in the TV adaptation of From Here to Eternity, a fugitive opposite Peter O’Toole in The Stunt Man, and the lead role of an American astronaut experiencing alien encounters in Lifeforce. Railsback would find himself in another serial killer role as cannibal Ed Gein. These days, you mostly see Railsback play villains on television including the pilot episode of Supernatural.
Trivia: Beat out Martin Scorsese for the role of Manson.
7. Joe Pantoliano
The Hoboken-born character actor had had over 100 film and television credits over the past 30 years. Many of us grew up with him playing a wide variety of unforgettable sleezeballs in the 80s: Guido the Killer Pimp in Risky Business, Snake in Running Scared, Eddie Moscone in Midnight Run, and who can possibly forget Francis Fratelli in The Goonies?! He has a natural way of leaving an impression no matter how big or small his role is and can generate chemistry with most actors he works with, especially Robert Davi in The Goonies as the pair really acted like bickering brothers off camera as well as on screen. But Joey Pants didn’t really break out until the 90s when he started playing authority figures in The Fugitive and Bad Boys franchises. Then 1999-2000 saw his stock in Hollywood soar following is memorable performance as Cypher in The Matrix and Ralph Cifaretto on The Sopranos which won him an Emmy. Through it all, he still remains humble no matter the size of his role.
Trivia: Turned down Joe Pesci’s role as Leo Getz in Lethal Weapon 2 due to scheduling conflicts.
6. Aidan Quinn
Younger audiences know him best today as Tommy Gregson on CBS’ Elementary. Yet, for a good part of the late 80s and 90s, this Chicago stage actor built an extremely underrated career in movies. His first real breakthrough role was Dez in Madonna’s first major film vehicle, Desperately Seeking Susan, in 1985. He beat out an unknown Bruce Willis for the part of Rosanna Arquette’s love interest and quickly became an 80s heartthrob. Quinn’s versatility as an actor helped him to avoid typecasting. After a brief role as an ill-faded lover in The Mission, he played the villainous Stick Montgomery in the hit comedy Stakeout. His menacing presence in the Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez film added a level of reality to an otherwise wacky action comedy. He became a popular character afterwords and he added credibility to such films as Avalon, Benny & Joon with Johnny Depp, Legends of the Fall with Brad Pitt, Michael Collins with Liam Neeson, and Evelyn with Pierce Brosnan. He even portrayed Paul McCartney in the VH1 TV movie Two of Us, the story about the period when McCartney and John Lennon had discussed reuniting The Beetles and Quinn got deep into the part by traveling Liverpool to see McCartney’s childhood home among other places.
Trivia: Was initially cast as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ until the film went into studio turnaround for four years and would lose the part to Willem Dafoe.
5. Bill Pullman
One could say this actor has made a career playing roles typically given to a star like Harrison Ford. He burst onto the scene in 1986 playing a wannabe Don Johnson con artist in the hit comedy Ruthless People. The following year, he spoofed Ford as the unforgettable Captain Lone Starr in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, a part he landed because Brooks couldn’t secure a bigger star and felt comfortable with an unknown since John Candy and Rick Moranis were in it. Pullman mostly bounced around in character parts for films such as Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Accidental Tourist, and A League of Their Own to name a few. But it was in 1995 when Pullman broke out into leading man status opposite Sandra Bullock in the romantic comedy While You Were Sleeping. Then came his role as the U.S. President in the blockbuster hit Independence Day in 1996. Although Will Smith came out the hottest star after its release, Pullman’s performance did not go unnoticed as he played the role with honesty and a toughness that made audiences want to vote for him for real. His monologue to the troops near the end the film still gets played at sports events and political rallies to this day. That same year, he gained serious praise for the lead role in David Lynch’s Lost Highway which made Pullman more of an indie scene performer. He played a similar part in Zero Effect opposite Ben Stiller and has since been reduced to character roles for film and television. Word on the street is that he may reprise his role as the President, now out of office, in the upcoming Independence Day sequel.
Trivia: Pullman played the president again in a short lived sitcom called 1600 Penn in 2012.
4. William Atherton
He is everybody’s favorite asshole. Not for real of course. But when you see William Atherton in a movie, you know he’s going to be trouble for the hero. Though in the beginning, he was playing more sympathetic characters such as the fugitive father in Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express and the 1930’s Hollywood movie artist in The Day of the Locust. Then in 1984, after years of playing character roles, Atherton was cast as the bureaucratic EPA worker Walter Peck in Ghostbusters. Though the ghosts were the bad guys, Atherton put a human face to the obstacles between Bill Murray’s crew and the villainous Gozer. His performance in some ways changed comedic films because of how serious he played a bad guy unlike earlier hits like Animal House where the bad guy frat brothers were played for laughs. One could say he helped Murray elevate his game through their undeniable disgust for one another; however, its success was a curse due to people on the street recognizing him and talking trash for all the trouble his fictional character put the Ghostbusters through and it also typecast Atherton into similar sleaze ball antagonists such as the asshole scientist in Real Genius, the asshole news reporter in Die Hard 1 and 2, and the asshole doctor in Bio-Dome. Arguably one of his best roles I’ve seen recently was that of a psychotic killer posing as a monk on an episode of the original Equalizer TV series. He played the perfect duality of a religious nut and a normal guy with a girlfriend. Check it out on DVD if you haven’t seen it.
Trivia: The part of Benedict in Last Action Hero was written with Atherton in mind. Though he turned down the role, the novelization of the film still has him described in the part as the young boy in the movie mentions to Arnold’s character how he once tried to kill Bill Murray and Bruce Willis.
3. William Sadler
Another fascinating character actor from Buffalo, NY mostly known for villain parts. Any movie he was in, he was totally unlikable whether it was the bad guy doctor in Project X, the corrupt senator who gets taken to the blood bank by Steven Seagal in Hard to Kill, and professional mercenary Colonel Stuart in Die Hard 2. Then he showed his more humorous side as the Grim Reaper in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey which shocked me as a kid because it was the complete opposite of what he played before and he absolutely stole the movie. He was so good as Death that he played it again on Tales from the Crypt. Then he played a firefighter looking for gold and battling street thugs in Trespass and later gained more recognition as Heywood in The Shawshank Redemption. Though he has a whole wide variety of credits in film and television to this day, I can say on a personal note that I saw him perform live as Julius Caesar opposite Denzel Washington in 2005. Let’s just say as good as he was in it, the image of his buttcrack in front of a live audience is an image I try to block out of my mind.
Trivia: Born on the exact same day as Ron Perlman who he worked with in theater
2. Ving Rhames
Of any actor on this list, Ving Rhames is one that I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time. His credits are overwhelming: Luther in the Mission: Impossible movies; Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction; Sonny Liston in Phantom Punch; Out of Sight; Rosewood; Baby Boy; Dawn of the Dead. He’s played everyone from Liston to Johnnie Cochran to Don King to an updated version of Kojak! Rhames is one underrated actor who is truly living his dream. Once he graduated from Juilliard in the early 80s, he went straight to work as an actor and never looked back since.
Trivia: Was considered for John Coffey in The Green Mile, but lost to the late Michael Clarke Duncan.
1. Harry Dean Stanton
Why is this 88 year old actor number one on my list? The simple answer is because to me, he’s an enigma of an underrated actor. Seven whole decades of memorable crusty supporting roles ranging from the Oklahoma Hitchhiker in Two-Lane Blacktop with James Taylor, the asshole country star in The Rose, the pothead engineer Brett in Alien (his most famous role), and Brain in Escape From New York. That’s just a small few of his nearly 200 credits. Stanton has been a favorite for many directors ranging from Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius, John Carpenter, David Lynch, and Martin Scorsese among others. What makes him unique is how he always brings some sense of American reality to his roles no matter what the film is. Something about the way he played father figures in movies like Red Dawn and Pretty in Pink where his characters believe the system is failing and yet he still holds out whatever little hope he has left. It’s that intellectual approach to films and well as to his music that makes him mythic to see. Stanton doesn’t mold himself into parts like most character actors do. He brings his personality to all his roles and yet he makes them work within the context of the story.
Trivia: Stanton is very close friends with Jack Nicholson and was his best man for his one and only wedding. After the divorce, however, Nicholson moved in with Stanton for a time.
There will be more Underrated Actors Specials to come and I may also one day revisit one of these ten actors I’ve mentioned in the near future. I welcome any and all suggestions!