Brion James was a character actor with a formidable presence both on-screen, and off. With his craggy, lived-in facial features, blonde hair and 6-foot, 3-inch frame, he was easily recognized by most genre cinema and television fans, usually as the villain in a number of westerns, science fiction and horror films. It was villains, which Brion James excelled at when performing, and often, he played them to the hilt. Born in February 1945 in Redlands, California. The James family moved to Beaumont, California, where his parents owned and operated a movie theater. Over the years, young Brion would spend many days and nights soaking up the imaginative world of the cinema. He enjoyed watching the movies, especially the westerns. James graduated from Beaumont High School in 1962, and then entered San Diego State University’s Theater Arts program. Journeying to New York, he renewed a childhood friendship with fellow actor, Tim Thomerson (TRANCERS), and after serving a brief period in the Armed Forces together, the two lived under the same roof as ‘assistants’ to the famed Acting coach Stella Adler. After years toiling as a stand-up comedian and performing ‘bit parts’ in small theater productions in New York, James began to be noticed for his ability to ‘inhabit’ the characters that he was assigned to portray. Important film roles soon followed. In his first year alone in Hollywood, Brion James was recognized as an actor with that ‘special something’, who excelled in character parts. In that first year, he appeared in the films NICKELODEON (1976), BLUE SUNSHINE (1976), and HARRY AND WALTER GO TO NEW YORK (1976).
In 1981 he began a working relationship with director Walter Hill that would turn into a friendship lasting for years, and gave James some of the best roles of his career. In SOUTHERN COMFORT (1981) his performance as a Cajun ‘Trapper’ gave his character equal amounts of pathos and menace. In 48 HOURS (1982), James would finally get a part equal to his talents and appear as ‘Kehoe’ one of the main supporting roles to stars Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. He would return as this character in the belated sequel, ANOTHER 48 HOURS in 1990. But it was in BLADE RUNNER (82), the Ridley Scott version of the Phillip K. Dick science fiction novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, that Brion James finally broke through the barrier of being a supporting player coloring the background, to a major supporting actor applying wide brush strokes of characterization to parts that, otherwise, would have seemed small, inconsequential, or otherwise moribund in the hands of lesser talented actors … ‘Leon’ the replicant who escaped from the ‘Off World’ to find a (substantially longer) life cycle for himself and his companions on Earth. During the course of the film, James’ character, a villainous foe of Harrison Ford’s heroic Blade Runner (a futuristic policeman) can be heard uttering several lines of dialogue that have become ingrained into the catchphrase-crazy subconscious that some science fiction fans thrive on. “I’ll tell you about my Mother!” and “Wake up. Time to die!” are just two of ‘Leon’s’ phrases that have become synonymous with Brion James’ interpretation of this role. Despite BLADE RUNNER’s dismal initial box-office performance, the film managed to gain an immeasurable reputation, and grew into one of the first cult classic films of the eighties. In time, it would be considered one of the ten greatest science fiction films ever made.
Brion James also became a recognizable fixture in a number of other cult, science fiction and western films like ENEMY MINE (85), SILVERADO (85), CRIMEWAVE (85), STEEL DAWN (87), and CHERRY 2000 (87). 1989, James finally was presented with a starring role in THE HORROR SHOW, an ill-fated attempt at a new horror film series franchise. As the supernatural serial killer ‘Max Jenke’, James elicited equal amounts of scares and sympathy from the audience. However, the film suffered from a confusing script and lackluster direction.
Over the course of the next few years, he would become an in-demand presence to even the most low budget exercises in genre entertainment (NIGHTMARE AT NOON (90), MUTATOR (91), AMERICAN STRAYS (96), and at the same time, continued to appear in more mainstream films, in better roles (RED SCORPION (89), TANGO AND CASH (89), ANOTHER 48 HOURS (90), and STRIKING DISTANCE (93). Robert Altman gave Brion James one of his most prestigious roles as a studio executive in the acclaimed 1992 film, THE PLAYER. It was this film, which James believed, became a career turning point for the actor, leading to a wider variety of roles. However, he was still in demand as a ‘guest’ villain for a number of low budget thrillers and science fiction films, many of which went straight to video.
1996, the French director Luc Beeson (maker of the cult favorite movies, THE PROFESSIONAL (94), and LA FEMME NIKITA (90) signed James to appear as ‘General Munro’, the military advisor to the President of the free world who assigns space jockey Bruce Willis to a special mission to save the universe, and once again, his career found itself revitalized. The blockbuster film found welcome audiences appreciating its hip humor and wild visual effects all over the world, and made the film a substantial box-office hit in several countries. A larger than life icon on the big screen, Brion James also found time to act on the small screen as well. His appearances on television, while far from being voluminous, are noteworthy, and some of his best TV roles were as a ‘guest’ or supporting actor on ChiPS (77), THE YOUNG RIDERS (89), M.A.N.T.I.S. (94), and appearing in a recurring role in several episodes of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (98).
James made his first East Coast appearance at a genre film convention in May of 1999. At the CHILLER THEATRE EXPO, he met with fans, and well-wishers alike, many of whom the tall man greeted with genuine warmth and honesty. I sat with Mr. James for over an hour while he was in town to appear at the convention and the resulting interview is filled with truth, honesty, and some shocking admissions that, heretofore, I had not known about. As we were ending our conversation, he told me of his upcoming projects which included a role in a Merchant Ivory production to be shot in South Africa, and a possible supporting role in another Luc Beeson film. James also made it quite clear that he felt that the time was at hand for him to be taken more seriously as an actor, and that the best parts were now coming his way. However, the cinematic world lost an entertaining presence when Brion James died on August 7th, 1999. He had been suffering chest pains the previous day at his home in Malibu, California and was under medical care at the UCLA Medical Center when he died of a heart attack. **
As long as a projector bulb burns somewhere, as long as a tape is popped into a VCR, a laser tracks a Disc or DVD image, as long as someone sits, watches, and enjoys one of his movies, Brion James will be remembered, for he entertained, shocked, and delighted innumerable audiences thoughout the world.