Cult Film Icon: Lance Henriksen

May 21, 2017
Let’s look back at one of the most fascinating acting careers in modern movies, Lance Henriksen.

With Alien: Covenant currently taking over cinemas, what better time to look back at the career of one of the very few actors outside of Sigourney Weaver to not only survive but appear in more than one of the Alien films, in fact the only actor outside of Weaver to make a return in the original series, before Ridley Scott ventured down his divisive prequel path. Of course, the actor is everyone’s favourite raspy voiced android, Lance Henriksen!

Henriksen is a perfect example of a character actor where the average viewer will know the face, will probably know the voice, but may not know his name. He’s had an enviable working actor’s career, featuring in supporting or bit parts in several classics, starring in countless B movies, and occupying regular gigs on TV.

After a handful of bit parts, Henriksen landed his first prominent role in a true bona fide classic, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975). A career highlight for all involved, Henriksen appears late in the piece as Murphy, the FBI agent selected by bank robber Sonny (Al Pacino) to drive him and his cohort Sal (John Cazale) to their getaway plane in the film’s tense finale. Henriksen is wonderfully calm in his scenes, even seemingly kind to the simple-minded Sal, before putting a bullet in his forehead with precision, bringing the siege (and the film itself) to a close. Obviously making an impression on Lumet, he’d go on to have small parts in Network (1976) and Prince of the City (1981), but Dog Day Afternoon was his most meaty appearance. He worked steadily in the late ;70s and early ‘80s, appearing in popular films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Damien: Omen II (1978). 1981 marked a milestone year, co-starring in Piranha II: The Spawning, the low budget sequel to the surprise Joe Dante directed hit, Piranha. Normally a film with such an inauspicious title wouldn’t rate a notable mention for any actor, but it happened to mark the feature directorial debut of future king of the world, James Cameron. The movie came and went, but Cameron was obviously taken with Henriksen, intending to cast him as the title character in his next project, sci-fi killer robot movie, The Terminator (1984). The story goes that, when attempting to convince financiers to back the film, Lance went full method and turned up early to the meeting in costume as The Terminator, complete with leather biker gear and foil teeth! Needless to say, his appearance left the waiting room nervous until Cameron turned up and calls to security were avoided. Of course, as history shows, Cameron later met Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Henriksen missed out on the opportunity to track down Sarah Connor. He did feature in a prominent supporting role as the cop Hal Vukovich (great name!), who was amongst those wiped out in the film’s famous police shootout sequence.

It was Cameron’s next film however, that remains Henriksen’s most loved role. Aliens (1986) is one of the greatest sequels of all-time, a perfectly paced roller-coaster of a thriller. Henriksen plays Bishop, the synthetic humanoid who aids Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the marines on the journey to discover what happened to the settlers of planet LV-426. He’s the perfect antithesis to Ian Holm’s android Ash from the original Alien. Whereas Ash was icy and ultimately deceptive, Bishop is calm, eager to please and likeable, thanks to Henriksen’s gentle, softly spoken performance. In a great ensemble cast, he’s one of its true unsung heroes.

Aliens set off a great few years for the actor. Juicy roles in vampire road movie Near Dark (1987), Stan Winston’s directorial debut Pumpkinhead (1988), and 1989’s Johnny Handsome and The Horror Show, only solidified his new-found cult actor status. The ‘90s were prolific, appearing in The Pit and the Pendulum (1991), Alien 3 and Jennifer 8 (both 1992), Super Mario Bros. and John Woo’s American debut, Hard Target (both 1993), Escape from Absolom (1994), and a 1995 triumvirate consisting of Dead Man, The Quick and the Dead, and Powder. In 1996, he secured the lead in Chris Carter’s follow-up series to the hugely popular The X-Files, Millennium. Debuting with strong ratings, the series ran for 3 years and provided Henriksen with 3 Golden Globe nominations and new-found recognition at a level that only the exposure of a weekly network series can provide. Declining ratings led to the show’s cancellation, but since then Henriksen has been busier than ever. Whilst a quick run through his filmography post-Millennium is filled with countless B movies you’ve never heard of (The Dog Who Saved Halloween is a particularly intriguing title), there’s still a few entries of interest including Disney’s animated Tarzan (1999), Scream 3 (2000), Appaloosa (2008), and Phantom (2013), as well as countless TV guest spots and voiceovers.

Now 77, it would be fair to assume that Henriksen would be slowing down, however according to IMDb, he has at least 6 films in the works. Looking back at the quality of directors he’s partnered with, including Lumet, Cameron, Woo, Steven Spielberg, Walter Hill, Ed Harris (his old co-star from 1983’s The Right Stuff), Philip Kaufman, David Fincher, Wes Craven, Kathryn Bigelow, Sam Raimi, and Jim Jarmusch, here’s hoping that there might be one last great, quality part waiting for this veteran who’s provided us with decades of fascinating performances.

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