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Whether he’s battling aliens in space, teaching hot-headed rookies how to fly with the best, or being a good father figure on screen, Tom Skerritt always brings a calming quality to the roles he plays. With a great number of blockbuster hits under his belt, however, he never achieved movie star status despite having headlined some classic films. I believe my earliest recollection of him was watching Poltergeist III on cable as a kid. Even though the movie was not very good, I could not help but like the guy caught in a life and death struggle with the supernatural. I think it’s his natural calm demeanor that gives the audience a sense that everything will work out okay in the end.
Born in Detroit in 1933, Skerritt spent 25 of his early years in the US Air Force before an interest in the arts came his way. He initially saw theatre as an outlet to break out of his shyness. An interest in film directing led him to make the move to Los Angeles where he studied at the University of LA He soon landed his first acting role in the 1962 film War Hunt starring then unknowns Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack.
In the late 60s, the television business was booming and Skerritt landed guest spots on the biggest shows of the day: The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, My Three Sons, Wagon Train, and The Fugitive just to name a few. Each gig gave him not only a steady presence on the small screen but also the opportunities to learn the production process from many up and coming directors and writers. Among them were the legendary Robert Altman who would serve as a mentor to Skerritt’s career.
Altman would cast Skerritt in his first breakthrough film role in the 1970 classic M*A*S*H where he played Captain Duke Forrest. The role was a major part of the story as Capt. Forrest was the surgeon from a small southern town who goes through an arc involving his ability to overcome racial prejudice. As the film proved to be hugely successful, Skerritt declined the chance to reprise the role in the television adaption that would also become its own kind of classic.
Work in film and TV would be very steady for Skerritt throughout the 70s in various supporting roles. Among the highlights were a Boston detective in the Burt Reynolds action comedy Fuzz, a cameo as a motorcycle cop in Harold and Maude, the bank robbing love interest to Angie Dickinson in Big Bad Mama, and the role of Strawberry, the Vietnam Vet cousin of Cheech Marin in Up in Smoke. But his most memorable role came at the end of the decade with Ridley Scott’s Alien. The visual genius who later went on to direct films such as Blade Runner and The Martian wanted strong actors who were believable as everyday working astronauts. Skerritt accepted the role of Captain Dallas only after turning it down at the time when no director was attached. He brought his laid back, casual attitude to the role while asserting his leadership. Being that he was first billed in the credits, audiences had expected him to be the central hero and possible love interest for Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. That would not be the case, however, and his character’s fate was left ambiguous in Alien’s theatrical release (The deleted scene of Dallas’ death was later restored in the 2003 director’s cut).
3 years later, Skerritt would reunite with Alien co-star Yaphet Kotto in the cult vigilante thriller Fighting Back. In a very uncharacteristic turn in performance, Skerritt plays a gang victim who organizes his neighbors in the Philadelphia suburbs to form a citizen’s patrol group to stand up against gang violence. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Fighting Back was an attempt to turn Skerritt into the next Charles Bronson and ironically was played in double features with Death Wish II. The following year, Skerritt played a sheriff who receives help from a psychic Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone. He would also play a guest role in the television adaptation that starred Anthony Michael Hall.
In the later half of the 80s, Skerritt started taking on more mentor and father figure parts. His role as Viper in Top Gun was purely art imitating life. Yet, Skerritt still needed to learn from the real jet pilot who ran the Top Gun program to compliment his flying skills as well as to serve as the father figure who helps Tom Cruise back to his feet after tragedy. He also reunited with Alien co-star Veronica Cartwright as the parents of Emilio Estevez in Wisdom as well as Kate Capshaw’s husband in the cult classic SpaceCamp. While appearing in these high profile films, Skerritt was also playing the recurring role of Evan Drake on Cheers. Working with Kristie Alley as her boss on that show allowed him to be sexy and funny at the same time.
The hits kept on coming for Skerritt into the early 90s: Steel Magnolias, Clint Eastwood’s The Rookie, Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It, Singles, etc. His hard work was about to pay off when he was cast as Sheriff Jimmy Brock on the CBS drama Picket Fences in 1992. It was David E. Kelley’s first major series since leaving LA Law a year earlier as the story focused on the bizarre events around a small Wisconsin town. It tackled much of the issues of the 90s with Skerritt’s character dealing with the craziness of his town while raising his large family. The show was a perfect vehicle for Skerritt’s father figure persona for four seasons and it earned him an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. He still remains close to the cast and acts as a mentor to his former co-stars Lauren Holly and Holly Marie Combs.
Even today at age 82, Skerritt remains as active as he has been. Primarily working on television these days, he does stage work every now and then while also working as a film instructor at TheFilmSchool which he co-founded in 2003. Skerritt has directed a few times in his career with some Fences episodes and the TV movie Divided by Hate which he also starred in. In 2014, he reprised his role as Captain Dallas in voiceover form for the Alien: Isolation video game for the PS4 and X-Box One. Through it all, Skerritt was never into the movie business for the fame. He just wanted to be part of projects that he would pay to see as an audience member. A truly lucky man.