Monday, May 02, 2011

Lance Henriksen Goes West

When I first approached Lance Henriksen about writing his biography in early 2010, I was halfway through writing a book on westerns. I had been working on it for about six months and in that time I'd watched and taken notes on more than 300 westerns - roughly two a day. When Lance expressed an interest in doing the biography, I put the western project on hold and started watching his films at roughly the same pace. I quickly realized that there was some overlap between the two projects.

Lance loves making westerns and, as filmmakers Philip Kaufman (who directed Lance in THE RIGHT STUFF) and Walter Hill (who directed Lance in JOHNNY HANDSOME) both attest, he's a natural for them. Kaufman says, "When I first met Lance, I knew. He had an intensity. I felt he was one of those real-life cowboys." Hill adds, “I think it might have been better if Lance had come along thirty years earlier – because he was born to do westerns. He looks so natural wearing the hat and riding the horse. When he walks into a bar, everybody looks up. He’s got that quality.”

When I started writing the biography, I mainly thought of Lance Henriksen as a horror movie icon - one of those rare character actors who can bring life to the darkest roles: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price. As I was writing, I began to see him in a very different light... as an actor with just as much in common with Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Lee Marvin or Charles Bronson. Much like director John Carpenter, Lance has spent a large part of his career making "hidden westerns." I count eighteen western-themed projects over the course of nearly three decades... which is not bad for a guy who got into film-making three years after the western genre effectively died at the box office. Here's the list:

It's a bit of a stretch to call the true story of the Mercury Seven a western, but I don't think it's a stretch to call Phil Kaufman's film a western. Kaufman chose to split the focus of the story between the seven astronauts ("the magnificent seven"?) and Chuck Yeager, the air force pilot who broke the sound barrier. In the film, the birth of the space program goes hand in hand with the death of an older type of hero. Think of it as a combination of "space western" and "elegiac western." Henriksen plays astronaut Wally Schirra.

The cowboy in this eco-thriller is Stephen Collins, who plays a research physicist fighting corporate raiders. Henriksen leads the opposition. Despite the beautiful Moab scenery, he doesn't look like he's having much fun playing the "suit." On the up side, he met one of his closest friends, stuntman Rex Rossi, on the set. Rex taught him knife-throwing and trick-riding, talents that Lance would put to good use in ALIENS and THE QUICK AND THE DEAD.

This nearly-forgotten biker movie, shot in the Alabama Hills, follows the classic western movie template to a T. A heroic loner rides into a town overrun by outlaws... Chaos ensues. In this case, the heroic loner is Lance Henriksen, and the outlaws include William Forsythe, Karen Black and Richard Lynch (as a nymphomaniac priest). The designation "so bad it's good" was invented for movies like this.

ALIENS (1986)
Almost nobody thinks of James Cameron's stellar sequel as a western... except for James Cameron himself, who has referred to it as a science fiction version of THE ALAMO.

NEAR DARK (1987)
This vampire version of THE WILD BUNCH is a sublime mix of beauty and savagery. Henriksen is unforgettable as anti-hero Jesse Hooker, the patriarch of a bloodsucking clan that also includes his ALIENS co-stars Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein.

"Reach" (1987)
After NEAR DARK, Bill Paxton assembled an all-star cast to make a western music video for his band Martini Ranch. Ranchers included director James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow (who plays "The Woman with No Name" in the video), Rex Rossi, Jenette Goldstein, Paul Reiser, Adrian Pasdar, Judge Reinhold, Brian Thompson and Lance Henriksen.

Director Craig R. Baxley describes this as a movie about "gasoline cowboys on steel horses." Henriksen, who plays the anti-hero biker Chains, also notes the western themes: "I love bikers. To me, they are Indians, not the cowboys, and people relate to them as such."

John Woo is a modern-day Sam Peckinpah. Similarities between the two filmmakers go beyond visual style (esp. the use of slow motion) to prevailing themes of spirituality and honor, as Woo explains: "I think any artist - especially a filmmaker - should have a moral responsibility. I'm not trying to glorify violence, because in every film of mine there's a moral standpoint behind the facade of the killings." HARD TARGET is a story of literal class warfare, with Lance Henriksen's high-octane capitalist pit against Jean-Claude Van Damme's blue collar rebel.

Sam Raimi's eccentric spaghetti western features Henriksen as slick and stylish gunfighter Ace Hanlon - the kind of guy who who pauses to wax his mustache before he kills someone. Ace is one of the actor's most accomplished comedic performances, illustrating his enthusiasm and affection for the western genre. Henriksen also does his riding, his own shooting (he trained with Thell Reed, reputedly the world's fastest gunman) and his own stunts - including a trick dismount that wowed Raimi during rehearsals.

DEAD MAN (1995)
Jim Jarmusch's acid western features Henriksen as one of three bounty hunters who are hired to kill Johnny Depp. Along the way, he cooks and eats the other two. This is possibly Henriksen's darkest character... a shocking counterpoint to his role in THE QUICK AND THE DEAD.

Henriksen's third western of 1995 is a more traditional one, owing much to classics like THE GUNFIGHTER, HIGH NOON and SHANE. This time, the actor gets to play the hero, Frank Morgan... and it's a role he was born to play. Gary Cooper couldn't have done it better. In a 1995 interview the film's writer/director Larry Ferguson conceded, "Lance brought aspects of Frank Morgan to the screen that I never knew were there."

"MILLENNIUM" (1996 - 1999)
Chris Carter describes his original concept for this series as a traditional hero's journey: "[Frank Black] was a hero I wanted to create who I think, if he embodies anything, embodies the appropriate response to the world we live in, to the newspaper headlines we read everyday. I wish there were more people like Frank Black and this is my way of addressing that." In other words, Frank Black embodies the best qualities of the laconic western hero. He says what he means and does what he says. He is an individualist and a bit of a loner, but he devotes his life to protecting his family and the community at large. He tries to restrain himself from acting hastily... and when he does strike out in violence, he does so at great cost to himself.

This family-friendly western features Henriksen as a stubbornly old-fashioned rancher at odds with Corporate America. He also steps into the familiar role of loving father... a role he knows by heart.

INTO THE WEST: "Hell on Wheels" (2005)
Once again, Henriksen plays a family man - the patriarch of the pioneering Wheeler family. As Daniel Wheeler, he puts his faith in the Puritan ethic and the frontier spirit. The simplicity of the character is what makes him shine.

"Gun" (2005) - video game
I'm not a gamer, but I imagine it must be amusing to hear Lance Henriksen's voice coming out of a fat, one-eyed railroad baron in this video game by Neversoft...

BONE DRY (2007)
At heart, this indie film is really a revenge western. Like Jimmy Stewart's character in THE NAKED SPUR, the main struggle in the film is not between two men but between the main character and himself. The film asks the question: How alive is a man who lives only for revenge?

This is a surprisingly good b-grade western, because it starts out like a simple revenge story and then develops into something a little more nuanced. The final act reveals the better angels of Henriksen's gunfighter persona, and the film serves as a great companion piece to BONE DRY.

This traditional western re-teamed Henriksen with THE RIGHT STUFF co-star Ed Harris, as well as Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons and Renee Zellweger. Henriksen is right at home among his peers in the Old West, playing a complex character with the potential to be good, bad or ugly in any given moment. Time and time again, it's that kind of human complexity that makes the his characters resonate.

Ride on.



  1. I love this retrospective post on Lance's work in the western vein (a genre that is long and dear to my heart, btw). Along with your keen insights, you've included some awesome publicity stills and screencaps, Joe. They really show off the looks this man takes on so effortlessly in his numerous screen personas. This was a great treat to read. Thanks for this.

    p.s., I'm a fan of "Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film". Did you attend the recent LAT Festival of Books?

  2. Thanks, Alison & Leopard.

    I've got a lot more publicity stills to share... some come from Lance's own collection and others come from his official facebook page (courtesy of a mysterious but generous contributor named Renaud).

    I really wanted to get NOT BAD FOR A HUMAN to the L.A. Times Festival of Books, but unfortunately Lance was at a convention in Germany this past weekend. Maybe next year...

  3. 30 years earlier and he might have been DeForest Kelly. Kelly was a go to western guy for quite some time before hitting Star Trek, yet he seems so perfect as Bones.

    In many ways, I'm glad Henriksen has mixed it up so well over his career. No small feat. Amazing really.

    Anyway Joe, a wonderful entry. I love it! I love the lay out and of course your rundown on some of his absolute best! I just received Bone Dry in the mail. I look forward to watching that one.


  4. ALso, I love the title of your book! Perfect!