5 Favorites Redux #66: Lance Henriksen

Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.

At 80, actor Lance Henriksen continues to churn out film after film hoping to leave behind an impressive legacy. While a lot of his films are forgettable flops and direct-to-video disasters, his early career was characterized by appearances in a handful of prominent film while his television career ultimately led him to headline a semi-popular sci-fi drama that lasted three seasons.

This weekend, he stars opposite Viggo Mortensen in a family drama where Henriksen plays an aged bigot who doesn’t respect his gay son (Mortensen). The film looks like a lot of similar family dramas and boasts a solid cast. Whether Henriksen is better here than he has been in the past remains to be seen, but he certainly has one of his juiciest roles in some time.

Henriksen began his big screen career in an uncredited role in the 1961 film The Outsider. It took him eleven years to get his next role in It Ain’t Easy. Another uncredited role followed, but in 1975 he landed his fifth role as an FBI agent in the Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon. It was a minor role, especially after he lost the role of Pacino’s boyfriend (which went to Chris Sarandon instead), but it was also one of the best movies he’s been in. From there, he picked up steam, landing small roles in several films with Aliens in 1986 as the picture most audiences will be familiar with him in.

Staring in the 1990s, as he landed the leading role in a hit Fox television series, he started appearing in numerous direct-to-video films, which would characterize the latter two-thirds of his career. When choosing between Dog Day Afternoon, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Network to fill in the final two spots on my list, I ultimately went with the roles that had named characters even though none of the roles were particular memorable.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Lumet’s career was at or near its peak when Dog Day Afternoon released in the early fall of 1975. In the film, a pair of first-time bank robbers (Al Pacino and John Cazale) end up in a deteriorating situation when their plans go awry. As the pair struggle to find a way out of their increasingly desperate situation, everything continues to degrade as the film progresses towards its expected, but heartbreaking conclusion. It was based on a real case.

A taut drama, Pacino had already become a big name in the wake of The Godfather films and was able to take a serious risk in taking on the role of Sonny Wortzik, a gay man who is attempting to steal the money to support his boyfriend’s gender-reassignment surgery. The film, based on a real life incident, was surprisingly popular, taking in $46 million at the U.S. box office, which would equate to around $205 million in 2020 dollars. While Henriksen is barely in the film in an incredibly tiny role, being present in such a popular film likely boosted his reputation enough to land him an unnamed role in Network as well as another named character in the next film on this list.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Having the unfortunate luck of releasing the same year as Star Wars, Steven Spielberg’s anticipated follow up to his massive success Jaws showed the director was more than capable of helming a compelling, cerebral sci-fi spectacle starring Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, and more.

Although it waited to reveal its alien creatures until the final reel, Close Encounters was a well crafted, exciting sci-fi adventure following Dreyfuss as a man obsessed with unidentified flying objects who has a brush with one and begins exhibiting strange behaviors in its wake, including crafting a sculpture out of mashed potatoes that ultimately leads him to a secret research facility near Devil’s Tower, Wyoming where first contact will be made.

While its box office would pale in comparison to that of Star Wars, it still managed to pull in a then-staggering $169 million, which now equates to roughly $685 million adjusted for inflation, making it one of the most successful films in screen history, currently ranked 17 on the all-time list of inflation-adjusted features. Star Wars almost tripled that tally. Henriksen’s role is almost non-existent in this film, making it hard to discuss Henrkisen’s myriad capabilities as an actor.

The Right Stuff (1983)

By 1983, Henriksen didn’t have much of a career in film, but managed to secure a prominent role in Philip Kaufman’s space history drama The Right Stuff. Henriksen played one of the Mercury Seven, Wally Schirra, making him an integral part of the cast even if he would be overshadowed by the likes of Sam Shepard, Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, and Scott Glenn.

The film follows the lead-up to the first manned spaceflight in world history and was based on a 1979 book of the same name. The film was a fascinating watch, especially for anyone interested in the American space program, but it was plagued by claims of historical inaccuracies, which might have hurt its box office potential as it drew in only $20 million, which is just over $55 million today, an uninspiring result. Yet, in spite of its dismal box office performance, the film was able to secure an impressive eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Of these nominations, it won four, all in technical categories.

Aliens (1986)

If for nothing else, Henriksen will be best remembered by audiences in this James Cameron follow up to Ridley Scott’s seminal space horror film, Alien. In Aliens, Henriksen plays a role similar to that originated by Ian Holm in the first film. As the android Bishop, he plays a central role in the film as Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley tries to protect the crew from aliens who seek to overrun the ship and kill its inhabitants.

One might imagine playing an android wouldn’t offer much opportunity in terms of performance, but Henriksen makes Bishop believable and delivers the most impactful performance of his film career to date. The film itself managed to make Cameron a major Hollywood name as the prior film did for Scott. Weaver had already bounced off her originating performance into broader cinematic adventures with her performance here earning her the first of her three Oscar nominations while the film itself earned seven total nominations, all in craft categories except Weaver’s. That was a better performance than its predecessor (which only received two nominations) or any of the subsequent features. It even supplanted the original in terms of Academy Award wins taking two prizes (Sound Effects Editing and Visual Effects) over Alien‘s one (Visual Effects).

Millennium (1996-1999)

To say that Henriksen didn’t have as much of a charmed life on the big screen as many other actors of his generation did is even more disappointing when you consider that of the five titles I referenced here, two featured him in incredibly minor roles, one as a minor supporting actor, and one of them isn’t even a film. Millennium was X-Files creator Chris Carter’s moderately successful follow up effort.

Henriksen plays former FBI Special Agent Frank Black, a now-freelance forensic profiler who has the ability to see through the eyes of serial killers and murderers. While it was in a similar vein as The X-Files, born from the seed of an idea planted in an early episode of that show, it explored the nefarious circumstances surrounding Black’s employer, the Millennium Group. As the program unfolds, we learn more about the mysterious consortium and its subversive aims, which puts Black in serious danger.

The series finally gave Henriksen a juicy role to play and he did so with great relish. Although he and the series never earned major Emmy recognition (Charles Nelson Reilly was nominated for a guest performance and the sound editing team was nominated for the episode “Owls”), Henricksen did receive three consecutive nominations for Best Actor in a Television Series Drama from the Golden Globes, yet never won. That Henriksen never found fame is a disappointment. As this series showed, he had tremendous talent. That his modestly praised performance in this weekend’s new release isn’t gaining him any traction is certainly a shame.

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