Welcome all and sundry!
It isn’t every day when one is given time to contemplate and compare the accumulated body of work of a hard and consistently working, yet sometimes forgotten purveyors of the thespian stock, trade and talent while being inundated with a tapering Tsunami of teasers, articles and messages orbiting around the just concluded Oscar Gala and Festivities.
With those gratefully in the rear view mirror. I’d like to take some time while donning fresh excavation coveralls. Gathering tools, gloves and a Miner’s Cap to wax nostalgic and poetic about a Character Actor who has always brought something unique and memorable to his many roles throughout the years as they blur into decades with…
A Character Actor Spotlight: Stephen Lang
Dating all the way back to 1985 and CBS’s last shot at culture with their just over two-hour, Made For Television masterpiece, Death Of A Salesman. Starring Dustin Hoffman under heavy makeup giving new life to aged traveling salesman, Willy Loman. Opposite Kate Reid as his wife, Linda.. John Malkovich as eldest and constantly bickering son, Biff. And Mr. Lang going out of his way to make his few scenes memorable and noteworthy as the laid back, muscled, kind of lackadaisical youngest son, Harold “Happy” Loman.
Not exactly going out of his way to make his scenes with Biff, father, Wily and his mother better. But seeming to make them happen without any wasted effort. And making the entire experience better with his worthwhile inclusion!
Then onto he watchful and discriminating eye of young director, Michal Mann. Fresh off his premiere, Made for Television. The Jericho Mile. And Chicago based film, Thief. Director Mann is given nearly Carte Blanche capabilities to assemble a cast of favorites, William Peterson, Dennis Farina, A far superior Brian Cox as Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecktor. Kim Griest, Joan Allen and Tom Noonan. To tell the tale of serial killer, “The Tooth Fairy” in Thomas Harris’ “Red Dragon”. Which Director Mann and the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DGA) wisely re-titled, Manhunter.
Where Mr. Lang, plus about an extra twenty pounds gives kind of slimy, creepy life to the pudgy, obnoxious and annoyingly arrogant Tabloid writer, Freddy Lounds in the employ of “The National Tattler’. And armed with tape recorder and long lens camera, Mr Lounds seems to revel in his easy ability to irritate, Will Graham (Mr, Petersen) in his hunt for this latest terror with the aid of Dr. Lecktor. Constantly over playing his hand until Mr. Graham decides to use Freddy as unknowing bait to draw out the connection between Lecktor and recent Tattler ad reader and pen pal, “Avid Fan”. Francis Dollarhyde. “The Tooth Fairy”.
Granted, Mr. Lang’s time on screen isn’t long. But he does make the most and more of each moment. Especially his bound and helpless Tete a Tete slideshow with Dollarhyde before becoming trapped in a fiery wheelchair response to Investigator Graham.
Then jump two years of returning to the stages of Chicago, Dallas and points west for some honing and polish. Before returning to Michael Mann for his appropriately gritty, early 1960s, Pre Miranda. Chicago based Crime Story for NBC Television.
Where Mr. Lang plays first a medium priced Defense Attorney. And later District Attorney, David Abrams; to aid Lt. Mike Torrello (Dennis Farina) and his assigned Detectives in The Major Case Squad. Whose newest target is up and coming criminal mastermind and eventual crime boss, Ray Luca (Tony Denison).
Though the series lasted for three seasons. From 1986 to 1988. Its pilot and first season was undoubtedly the best more most securely rooted in The Windy City. Before following Ray Luca to the untapped riches of Las Vegas.
Staying in television for a guest spot opposite Edward Woodward’s The Equalizer. And the Coach turning a blind eye to one of his track athlete’s use of steroids in a very early, 1989 Turner Network Television (TNT) offering, Finish Line. With James Brolin. A very young Josh Brolin and Mariska Hargity.
Before jumping back into film with both feet as a 1950s Brooklyn Union Shop Steward. closeted homosexual and wife beater, Harry Black in Hubert Selby’s Last Exit To Brooklyn. Where Mr. Lang starts developing some guns for this tortured individual whose vent is physical violence in denying his true desires….. Very brave and heady stuff indeed, for 1989. And a film which bounced between Bavaria in Germany and Brooklyn to film its enclosed four vignette involving Mr. Lang, Alexis Arquette as teenage transvestite, Burt Young, Stephen Baldwin, Sam Rockwell, Jerry Orbach and Ricki Lake. Whose tales which revolve around John rolling, teen prostitute, Tralala, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Then a bit more stage before working with director, Mark Tinker in NBC’s 1991 Made For Television film, Babe Ruth. Filmed on location in Cleveland, Ohio. With Mr. Lang in the lead. And with a surprisingly good cast. From Brian-Doyle-Murray to Donald Moffat and Bruce Weitz, Pete Rose as Ty Cobb. And a just starting out, Neal McDonough as Lou Gehrig.
Then onto joining just about everybody else in Hollywood for Ted Turner and Tri-Star Television’s 1993 step into the Big Leagues with Gettysburg. Where Mr. Lang plays Major General George Pickett. In a sedately paced, filmed on location to maximize the flat as a table. No cover. Miles long and wide futility of it all among superior Pyrotechnics and Special Effects. And hundreds of credited re-enactors.
Before taking a half step to the left to embody the cowardly, drunken and creepily slimy Ike Clanton in the sublimely compressed, George C. Cosmatos directed, Tombstone the same year. Opposite a Testosterone laden cast on both sides of the law. Including Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer. Sam Elliot, the late great, Bill Paxton. Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Charlton Heston, Jon Tenney, Billy Bob Thorton, Thomas Hayden Church and Dana Delany in this generation take on the Gunfight At The OK Corral and quintessential “Western Shoot ’em Up!”.
With Mr. Lang’s Ike Clanton being the unheralded driving force in the in town battle between retired Marshal and bar owner, Wyatt Earp and his brothers Virgil, (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) keeping the pease in Tombstone, Arizona. As red sash “Cowboys”, “Curly Bill” Brocius (Powers Boothe), Quick tempered Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) and Billy Clanton (Thomas Hayden Church) trying to stake their claim and make Tombstone their own.
Something got to give. And it does over a few nights of Val Kilmer’s “Doc” Holliday taunting Johnny Ringo in a bar full of people. And Ike getting angrily hammered and drunk before taking a swing at Virgil. Spending the night unconscious in jail. And setting the stage for retribution the next morning at the Corral.
Where Ike Clanton’s cowardly colors come out for all to see. The culmination of embodying a character more malevolent and creepy than Walter Brennan’s earlier take on the same character in “My Darling Clementine”. Begging for mercy one moment. Then stealing a pistol. Crashing into a shop and using a woman as a hostage before running off with his tail between his legs. Ambushing Morgan. And finally facing the wrath of Wyatt as the train station while attempting to shoot Virgil. And getting a deep spur scar for his filed efforts.
Then off to filling many guest spots in several television movies and series. From taking on Percy Bysshe Shelley in The Poetry Hall of Fame. To Great Performances and Paddy Chayefsky’s The Mother. With Anne Bancroft, Joan Cusack and Anne Meara, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
And a return to film in 1995 for Disney’s Tall Tale. A surprisingly good adaptation of an old 1950s Disney Story Book focusing on Pecos Bill (Patrick Swayze). Paul Bunyan (Patton Oswalt). John Henry (Roger Aaron Brown). A kid, Daniel Hackett (Nick Stahl) who decides to run away from family, farm and home. As his father, Jonas Hackett (Mr. Lang) fights off an evil Railroad Man and Conglomerate head, J.D. Stiles (Scott Glenn).
Then the lead in a Demonic Possession-Exorcism thriller The Possession of Michael D. with Phylicia Rashad, Shadow Conspiracy, Gang In Blue and an episode of The Outer Limits titled New Lease.
Before taking on the role and adding life to George Washington in PBS’s 1997 Liberty! The American Revolution. A six part Mini-series and Period Costume work that covers the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 to the ratification of The Bill of Rights and the Constitution in 1789.
Then onto guest appearance in all of the Dick Wolf “Law& Order” franchises. Always playing a well toned Bad Guy of US or foreign descent. And doing a damn good job of each character. Before taking on Inspector Dowd in the Television Mini Series, The Bronx is Burning.
Then returning to Michael Mann’s direction and guidance in Public Enemies. His updated take on John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) . “Baby Face” Nelson (Stephen Graham) and kidnapper, Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi) . Their multi state crime spree, fame, lore and glory before being rounded up by Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Or killed by Old school Chicago Detective Charles Winstead (Mr. Lang).
In a film that tries hard but still falls short of the more honest and superior 1973, John Milius written and directed Dillinger. With Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Dreyfuss, Michelle Phillips and Cloris Leachman as “The Lady In Red’.
Along with the 2009, off the wall. Hugely and Big Name cast. “One And Done” film, The Men Who Stare At Goats.
Then finding and creating his niche as Ramrod and Project Expediter, Colonel Miles Quantrich in James Cameron’s CGI laden and overwhelming Magnum Opus to Greedy American Military Oppressors Taking on the Next Generation of Blissful “Ferngully” utopia. Avatar. The film didn’t do much for me. Too many parts of earlier live action and animated films meshed in with CGI where the cast serviced it. Instead of The Other Way Around. But you couldn’t find a more driven, intimidating and ruthless leader than Mr. Lang’s toned, buff, frightening Colonel Quantrich!
Then losing himself in stage work and television. Before answering the call from FOX and their Australia grounded, Science Fiction, Prehistoric Earth Mini Series, Terra Nova. Where Mr. Lang play Commander Nathaniel Taylor. The protector and overseer of the Shannon family (Jason O’Mara, Shelly Conn, Landon Liborion, Naomi Scott, Alana Mansour). Assorted Scientists, Botanists and other Egg Heads. Keeping them alive while not becoming unexpected meals for the neighboring dinosaurs and other treacherous, unseen characters throughout 2011.
Tack on three episodes of being Federal Marshal, Mary Shannon’s dad, James Wiley Shannon in the USA Mary McCormack, Frederick Weller comedy/drama series, In Plain Sight. The highly acclaimed 2015 Mini Series, To Appomattox. Which covers the many cadets and officers of West Point who either stayed or split off to fight for the South through the Civil war to its Armistice at Appomattox. Where Mr. Lang plays John Brown and his abortive attack on the Armory at Harpers Ferry.
Add on ten episodes playing Increase Mather in WGN’s Shreveport, Louisiana based, Salem. Before taking on his ultimate role as “The Blind Man” in Fede Alvarez directed Don’t Breathe. Where Mr. Lang is the victim of young punks invading his modest, secluded home. Though, unknown to the thieves. “The Bind Man” knows every inch, step and quietest sound his home makes. As he quietly stalks his new found prey!
Overall Consensus: Being another of those actors whom I can’t remember not working. Mr. Lang has kept true to his talent, standards and ethics. As either the lead. Or willingly, elegantly making other cast members look and perform better. Willing to either gain or lose weight. As in Manhunter and Crime Story. Grow scraggy or full voluminous beads for Tombstone, Gettysburg, To Appomattox, and God And Generals. Build up and keep muscles for Finish Line, Last Exit To Brooklyn, Babe Ruth, Avatar, Terra Nova and Don’t Breathe. To be a very heavy present contender for a new Marvel “X-Men” Franchise character, Cable.
Though not a huge or noted award winner. Mr. Lang is constantly polishing his craft on stage. when not in front of television or film cameras. And has been lucky enough to attach his craft with well known and consummate directors throughout these many years.
“Utility Infielder”?…. Absolutely! Though always confident enough to move to the front of the pack and cast while delivering his Best Efforts!