The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Michael Biehn

The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Michael Biehn
By Mother Brain

I can’t remember what year it was but I know it was sometime in the late 1990s when Starlog Magazine wrote a piece about Terminator and Aliens star Michael Biehn in which he was called “the greatest action hero alive”. Although if you ask anyone who knows action and sci-fi movies, he may well be the greatest action hero that people forget. Although he has been a favorite for directors such as James Cameron and Michael Bay to cast, Biehn’s strong performances have often been overlooked due to the presence of bigger stars in his films who steal the show. I’d say now this generation needs to recognize who helped to make these films the classics that they are today.

Michael Biehn was born in 1956 in Anniston, Alabama. Biehn’s family moved to Arizona when he was 14 and it was in high school when he became a member of his school’s drama club. He then attended the drama program at the University of Arizona (where he joined Sigma Nu Fraternity) on a drama scholarship for two years before moving to Los Angeles to begin his professional career.

Early on, Biehn’s love for playing basketball would help him land roles in films such as Coach and the classic known as Grease where he played “J.D.” (also played basketball in Wesley Snipes’ The Art of War).  But the majority of his early roles were a range of villains from a psychotic fan stalking Lauren Bacall in 1981’s The Fan, to a racist navy cadet in 1983’s The Lords of Discipline, and a bad cop in a 3 episode arc on NBC’s Hill Street Blues. During the season of Blues when Biehn guest starred, another up and coming talent also appeared on the show: Linda Hamilton. They would soon work together on a low budget sci-fi thriller: The Terminator.

The role of Kyle Reese in James Cameron’s 1984 classic almost never came to Biehn. Cameron initially approached Arnold Schwarzenegger for the part due to the success of the Conan movies. Schwarzenegger, however, felt that someone more physically powerful would have to play against him, making Cameron place him in the title role instead. Biehn would audition for the part and he was initially turned down due to a Southern accent he adapted for a stage production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”. After losing the stage role, Biehn’s agents got him a 2nd audition for Reese and he nailed it.

Much of the credit to Terminator’s success has always been towards Schwarzenegger because of his charismatic presence on-screen as well as his small but memorable catch phrases, including the big “I’ll be back” line. But Biehn played an equally important protagonist who fought many wars in the future and despite his mission to preserve the human race, Reese himself is a cold warrior with not much humanity left in him. Yet Biehn is highly convincing by playing Reese with a great deal of courage that rubs off on Hamilton as Sarah Connor, helping to create her character development growth in the sequel.

Biehn’s next memorable role was another Cameron classic: Aliens. The 1986 sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic had Biehn play Corporal Hicks, the leader of the space marines sent to LV-426 to extract the creatures that Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley faced in the original film. Once again, Biehn is placed into the role of a courageous soldier whose strength rubs off on a troubled woman. Also like Terminator, his character is taken out of the ending in order to set the stage for the female protagonist to face the enemy head on without his help. It was another international hit for Biehn and fans of the franchise grew to adore his character; however, his performance was overlooked in favor of Weaver, the series star.

Biehn’s next collaboration with Cameron was 1989’s The Abyss. It was a change in pace for Biehn as he played an unstable Navy SEAL who meets his violent end in the midst of all the madness under water. The role was his most critically praised to date and 20th Century Fox pushed hard for an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Unfortunately it never came to be. It would be a first of many disappointments for Biehn in the 1990s: His T2 cameo as Reese was deleted from the theatrical release (but restored on video in later years); the Alien producers chose not to bring him back for Alien 3 (despite numerous scripts written where Hicks was slated to return); and would lose out on a key role in Cameron’s Titanic as well as the chance to play Spider-Man during the time Cameron was slated to direct.

His roles in the 1990s varied from big successes (Tombstone) to major disasters (Navy SEALS, K2, Jade). But Biehn garnered some attention in 1996 when Michael Bay cast him as a brave Navy Seal in The Rock. The part was small and served the purpose of creating greater jeopardy for the film’s stars, Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage; however, audiences wanted to root for Biehn’s character. There’s a key moment in the film where the bad guy mercenaries hold Biehn and his men at gun point. Rather than standing down, Biehn stands his ground against Ed Harris’ character. Even in the face of death, Michael Biehn’s performance made you feel like he was on your side to the very end.

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For some of today’s filmmakers, Biehn is constantly being hired in hopes of getting him the attention he greatly deserves. His casting as a sheriff in Robert Rodriguez’ Planet Terror proved that his contributions to the genre did not go unnoticed by movie lovers. Even Anton Yelchin’s performance as the young Reese in 2009‘s Terminator Salvation paid a great deal of respect and influence from Biehn. The video game world oddly enough embraced him early on when his likeness was used for the character of Solid Snake in Konami’s highly successful Metal Gear franchise. There’s even rumors of another Biehn/Cameron collaboration in the near future. Let’s hope the 4th time’s a charm.

3 thoughts on “The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Michael Biehn

  1. Virginia says:

    Thanks for your blog. Very informative. He will be known for The Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss. He did a great job in those three movies especially in The Terminator and The Abyss. After the Abyss he ‘ disappeared ‘ from Hollywood. I wondered what happened to his career. Shame he never made it to Hollywood A-list stardom. He has good acting chops. He is an underrated actor who has been overshadowed by his co-stars. It is a shame his contribution ( and Linda Hamilton’s ) to the success of the first Terminator has never been recognised. Arnie got the credit for it due to his onscreen presence in the movie. MB is much better actor than Arnie and should get the credit he deserves. He also steals the show in the Abyss. Great performance. He should have been nominated for an Oscar.
    He is not the only actor not to have made it big in Hollywood. There are many actors who have a career that never took off in Hollywood and ended up doing TV stuff and straight to DVD movies. I would very much like him to be cast in one of the next Avatar movies. It would great to see him work with James Cameron again. It seems very unlikely, but who knows?

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