The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Lance Henriksen

The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Lance Henriksen
By Mother Brain

Arguably the hardest working actor outside of Samuel L. Jackson, Lance Henriksen has been in nearly 200 films and dozens of television shows. Yet in spite of his hard work as a character actor, he never made it to the A-list level like Jackson. Instead, Henriksen has built a career on playing a wide array of roles from cops, killers, monsters, and even androids. On top of that, he became a favorite among many heavy hitting film directors in Hollywood.

Born in New York City in 1940, Henriksen had a very troubled childhood. His father, a Norwegian sailor and small time boxer, spent most of his time away from home while his mother, who would raise Henriksen alone following her divorce from his father, bounced around various jobs from dance instructor to waitress to model. Henriksen was trouble-prone as he grew older, causing problems in every school he attended before he decided to drop out all together and leave home, even served in the U.S. Navy. But even in his troubled youth, Henriksen had a desire to become a professional actor:

“I always wanted to be an actor, even when I was a little kid. When I used to run away from home, I’d go to movies and sit all night watching Kirk Douglas. When I was 16, I tried getting into the Actors Studio and they told me to get lost. I said ‘I’ll come back when I’m a man’, and I came back when I was 30. I went to sea, I traveled the world . . . I was waiting.”

It would ironically be at age 30 when Henriksen batted his illiteracy problems by reading movie scripts. His time at the Actor’s Studio ultimately paid off when Henriksen started appearing on off-Broadway shows and earned his first movie role in 1972’s It Ain’t Easy. Henriksen also became a frequent favorite of director Sidney Lumet who cast Henriksen as a cop in 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, a lawyer in 1976’s Network, and a district attorney in 1981’s Prince of the City. He also appeared in other box office hits of the decade such as Steven Spielberg’s classic sci-fi drama, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Damien: Omen II. But his first real notable role was the part of Mercury 7 astronaut Wally Schira in 1983’s The Right Stuff.

Henriksen would gain cult status (and nearly movie star status) when he started collaborating with an unknown filmmaker named James Cameron in Cameron’s debut film, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. Their friendly collaboration was set to carry on to Cameron’s next most ambitious project, The Terminator. Cameron’s original concept was much closer to the T-1000 idea in the sequel where the title role would be able to blend into crowds and he saw Henriksen as the perfect everyman type to play the role. Cameron’s initial artwork for the character was modeled off of Henriksen and he even went as far as having him dress up in character to violently barge into the studio pitch meeting for the film in an effort to set the tone and feel that the film would have. Unfortunately, the studio pushed Cameron into casting a movie star named Arnold Schwarzenegger into the title role and Henriksen would take the smaller role of ill-faded L.A. Detective Hal Vukovich.

Cameron, however, would cast Henriksen as a cyborg in his next film, Aliens. Playing the role of Bishop, Henriksen would play the complete opposite of Ian Holm’s flawed cyborg character from the original 1979 classic who nearly tried to kill the franchise heroine Ellen Ripley. But in this film, Bishop earns Ripley’s trust and for Henriksen, it was his first likable character to audiences. Even the comedic moment where he uses a table knife to playfully attack and miss at Bill Paxton’s hand was living proof that Bishop was Henriksen’s signature role. He would carry it onto Alien 3 and also Alien vs. Predator where he played the originator of the cyborg models that created Bishop.

Henriksen worked frequently in action and sci-fi movies for most of the 80s and 90s. From horror classics like Near Dark, Man’s Best Friend, and Pumpkinhead to action films like Stone Cold and No Escape. He even portrayed Charles Bronson in the TV movie, Reason for Living: The Jill Ireland Story. But Henriksen’s personal favorite was the villainous Emil Fouchon in 1993’s Hard Target starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. It marked the first Hollywood film by Hong Kong director John Woo who gave Henriksen a lot of freedom to create his character on the set. He also performed a good majority of his stunts including his death scene where he gets set on fire. Henriksen later remarked on this incident saying “My training makes me fight until the very last cell in my body collapses with exhaustion.”

Henriksen’s next signature role came in 1996 in the form of a new Fox sci-fi series from X-Files creator, Chris Carter. Millennium featured Henriksen as forensic profiler Frank Black, a man with the ability to see into criminal minds over the course of the years leading up to 2000. It showcased the best in Henriksen’s talent as his character’s abilities often times put him at the brink of insanity and his struggle to prevent the dark forces from destroying his family. The role which was written specifically for Henriksen made him a major television star, earning People’s Choice and Golden Globe nominations during the show’s three year run.

Today, Henriksen continues to work steadily in movies, television, and even video games.  There’s so much in his body of work that it would be like writing a 300 page biography. His voice is especially most notable as Brainiac in the 90s animated incarnation of Superman as well as the voice of Jedi Master Gnost-Dural in the video game, Star Wars: The Old Republic, which is set to be released next year. Although much like Eric Stoltz with Back to the Future, one has to wonder what his long career could have been if he played the original Terminator instead of Schwarzenegger.

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