The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: James Spader

The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: James Spader
By Mother Brain

When we look at method actors of the Generation X era, stars such as Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr., and Sean Penn come to mind immediately. They have the natural ability to get lost in their performances to become characters who are complete opposites of their personalities. While these actors have gone on to becoming box office draws and winning awards, there’s just one other actor who I believe rarely gets the attention he deserves and that’s James Spader.

Today’s audiences might know him best as attorney Alan Shore from Boston Legal as well as Dunder Mifflin Regional Manager Robert California from this past season’s The Office. But his body of work is far diverse from the roles he played on television. Born in Boston in 1960, Spader spent much of his youth bouncing from school to school while playing “cops, robbers, and pirates” with friends. He dropped out of Phillips Academy in 11th grade so he could pursue his dream of acting by attending the Michael Chekhov School in New York. During the course of his studies, Spader worked a serious of jobs including meat packing, horse manure shoveling, railroad-car loader, and even a yoga instructor just to name a few.


While working in a Times Square rehearsal studio as a janitor in 1980, Spader landed his first movie role as Brooke Shields’ angry brother in Endless Love. The critically panned romantic drama with the smash hit title theme also introduced other up and coming actors including Beverly Hills 90210’s Ian Ziering, Jami Gertz, and a little known actor named Tom Cruise. Spader acted in a number of made for TV films and an unsold pilot based on the 1982 hit Diner before landing his first starring role in 1985’s Tuff Turf. This typical overdramatic 80s drive-in flick starred Spader as a troubled upper-class teen who enrolls in a tough L.A. school while antagonizing a local street gang and falling for the gang leader’s girlfriend. The film also paired Spader with a then unknown Robert Downey Jr. as his classmate which resulted in a real life friendship between the two NY trained actors.

1986 would be the year when the industry took notice of Spader with his asshole teenager turn in the John Hughes production of Pretty in Pink. He played Steff, the rich close friend of good guy preppie Blane (Andrew McCarthy) who tries to manipulate him into breaking off his interest with the less popular Andie played by Molly Ringwald. Steff became the role most associated with Spader. Between his good looks and his air of arrogance, the iconic teen bad guy role got him typecast in similar antagonistic roles for years to come.

On Pretty in Pink, the actor sparked a friendship with McCarthy which led to not one but two more collaborations where they played rivals. The first was 1987’s Mannequin where Spader trashed his good looks to play a dastardly poindexter of a Vice-President of the clothing store where McCarthy finds love through a mannequin come to life. Personally, I find it to be one of his most unappreciated performances. The last collaboration with McCarthy was the adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero which also re-teamed him with Robert Downey Jr. Now Spader took on a darker extension of his Pretty in Pink character as a ruthless drug dealer who uses Downey as a prostitute to work off his drug money debts. He also found himself in another 1987 hit Wall Street.

Spader won critical acclaim in 1989 when he appeared in a small independent film by an unknown Steven Soderbergh called Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Spader played a sexual voyeur who complicates the lives of three Baton Rouge residents. The film opened doors for the indie scene of the 90s and raised Spader’s stock in the industry, earning him a Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival and proved he could play softer, more sympathetic characters than he had in the past.

The early 90s saw Spader play various types of successful young men: A man pushed into bad behavior with a new friend in Curtis Hanson’s Bad Influence, a widower who engages into an affair with an older woman in White Palace, the best friend of John Cusack whose friendship gets torn by political corruption in True Colors, and a poker-playing drifter in The Music of Chance. While dabbling in indie films, Spader still maintained his presence in mainstream Hollywood movies such as Mike Nichols’ Wolf where he played Jack Nicholson’s rival-turned-werewolf.

Spader made his nice guy turn in the role of Professor Daniel Jackson 1994’s Stargate. Spader accepted the part despite what he felt was an “awful” screenplay with a $1 million payday. But for an ambitious sci-fi fantasy adventure with a mix of Star Wars and Indiana Jones and Kurt Russell in the lead, Spader had fun and brought warmth to his role to contrast with Russell’s more hard-edged turn as the troubled soldier leading the mission into the Stargate. The film earned over $100 million, became the launchpad for director Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster Independence Day, and spawned several TV spin-offs for years to come.

Spader continued to challenge himself in the indie scene. He played a sociopathic hitman in 2 Days in the Valley and a car-accident fetishist in David Cronenberg’s Crash. The latter was extremely controversial due to its NC-17 rating and was barely released at the time. Overall, Spader found the film to be provocative. He even managed to dabble into sitcoms with a memorable guest spot on Seinfeld as an angry alcoholic who makes fun of George and refuses to apologize. But box office flops like The Watcher and Supernova marked a downturn in his film career. He did, however, earn critical acclaim once again as the ruthless and sadist boss of Maggie Gyllenhaal in 2002’s Secretary.

Spader’s television turn on Boston Legal earned him several Emmy Awards for the duration of the show’s run from 2004-2008. His role as Alan Shore had the same level of confidence as his Steff role from Pretty in Pink with the big exception that he’s serving the common good. Then his role on The Office was originally intended to replace departing star Steve Carell only to serve as the tormentor of the new office boss Andy played by Ed Helms.

Next for Spader is the role of William N. Biboe, an operative of the Democratic Party in Steven Spielberg’s biopic on Abraham Lincoln. While Spader may not have the same high level of success as his peers, he finds acting as more of a job compared to living life and is not ashamed of the fact that the majority of his roles were for paychecks. Yet, there’s no question that he brings his all into every role he plays.


2 thoughts on “The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: James Spader

  1. P.Louise says:

    Excellent overview of my favorite actor! Love love James Spader; I agree that he is an extremely talented, diverse actor, who has been very much underrated throughout his career. Recently he returned to the stage after nearly 30 years of absence and starred in David Mamet’s RACE on Broadway (Nov. 2009-June 2010). Spader got excellent reviews and proved to be an adept theatrical performer despite his long absence from live performances.

    It is a shame that he did not get the fame and fortune of some of his peers because he is equally talented, but I’m not sure that he really wanted that kind of success. James Spader is an extremely private person in a profession that requires its members to give up their privacy when successful. Perhaps underrated is just fine by him.

  2. Ann Plicque says:

    Spader is quite the brilliant actor and only longtime fans know this. Even in a bomb like Supernova, he and Bassett, bring their A game to the table. I don’t think he just works for a paycheck. He works because he likes to work, he chooses projects that work for his skills and he seems to like a challenge. Watching him is fascinating. How he uses his hands, eyes, voice modulation. How he moves through space. I hope he’s able to get himself fit again, cause regardless of all his superb acting, he is also magnetically sexy too. Without even trying. He’d hiding that now for some reason. Like to see him healthy again.

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