If you’re a real movie nerd, chances are you get as excited when you see a supporting character with a familiar face as you do when one of your faves is the star. Let’s celebrate these heroes!…
Back in the early World Wide Web days, defunct site Fametracker had an awesome column called “Hey, It’s That Guy!”, celebrating character actors and actresses from all your favorite things. So we’re showing our love for that idea every so often in our Friday Five by doing the same, and this week we’re dropping ship solo into the dangerous depths of New York City in 1997 (!!!!)… and celebrating some real heroes of the craft.
Escape From New York was released in 1981. Reagan was barely president, the O.G. Cold War was still raging, and the late 1990s were far off enough that dystopian futurescapes involving turning all of Manhattan into a giant prison still seemed plausible. The great maestro John Carpenter took that premise and ran with it, creating one of the all-time great futuristic thrillers… and we thought it would be fun to revisit most of the cast of the film, many of whom were huge movie stars in their day but let’s be honest, for most of the fans who grew up in decades that came after, they probably skew closer to character actors than the marquee names that they’re used to seeing time and again. So let’s rediscover the best and brightest that the adventures of Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell…. siiiiiigh) had to offer. Also, let’s establish right up front that the only reason we’re skipping Donald Pleasance (as the President of the United States) is because of his huge role in the Halloween films, and if you don’t remember him instantly from that series then you’re just not paying attention…
Lee Van Cleef (Bob Hauk)
As soon as the President’s plane crashes in Manhattan Island Prison, law enforcement goes ape crazy trying to figure out a solution. Their best option is to spring Snake Plissken out of prison (dangling a pardon as his reward) to run a guerilla mission to rescue POTUS, and the man who sets it all in motion is Commissioner Hauk… played by one of cinema’s great bad asses of all time, Mr. Lee Van Cleef. The actor made his film debut in the seminal 1952 Western High Noon, and was pretty much intrinsically linked to the Old West genre from that point on; though he appeared in many films in between, most notably the classic noir thriller The Big Combo and all-star Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he’s best known for starring opposite Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and For A Few Dollars More. Van Cleef died of a heart attack in 1989; his final role, in the action b-movie Thieves of Fortune, was released a year later. (Musical fun fact!: Ska legend King Stitt dedicated an entire song to “VAN CLEEF-AH!“, and man it’s a banger.)
Adrienne Barbeau (Maggie)
Ah, Adrienne… voluptous as anything, and tough as nails. She’s a force to be reckoned with in Escape From New York, loyal to the end to her beloved Brains (see below) even when the badguys are barrelling down a bridge in a Cadillac straight at her… and she’s not giving away her shot. Barbeau got her start on the stage, as the original Rizzo in Broadway’s first run of Grease; she later made her name on television as Bea Arthur’s daughter in the landmark 70’s sitcom, Maude. But it was in the next decade that her status as both a sex symbol and a genre legend reached its peak; then married to John Carpenter, she starred alongside Jamie Lee Curtis in his 1980 chiller The Fog before Escape From New York. Barbeau’s horror cred continued to rise in the 80’s with marquee roles in classics of the decade including Swamp Thing and Creepshow. Barbeau’s later fan fave was in animation, voicing Catwoman in Batman: The Animated Series, and she’s still a favorite on the convention circuit to this day.
Harry Dean Stanton (Harold “Brain” Hellman)
Literally, where do we start with this man? It feels a little disorienting to do a HITP! piece on an actor with as wide-reaching and highly regarded a CV as Harry Dean Stanton; terrific as Snake’s old crime partner in Escape, he’s probably one of the top three greatest character actors of all time. Early roles included Cool Hand Luke and The Godfather Part II, but Stanton never stopped working for about 40 years… Brett in Alien. Bud in Repo Man. Travis in Paris, Texas. Molly Ringwald’s downtrodden dad in Pretty In Pink! (Oh, man, that one’s still close to our hearts.) Stanton kept on going well into his sunset years, both as an actor and a highly regarded blues singer who regularly played gigs in Los Angeles in between films. One of his last great performances was reprising his role as kind-hearted trailer park owner Carl Rodd in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return; he passed away two weeks after that series finale aired, at the age of 91.
Ernest Borgnine (Cabbie)
“Are you kidding? Snake Plissken in my cab?!” And so, Ernest Borgnine joined the Carpenter stable for a great supporting turn as the happy go lucky taxi driver who just wants to make sure our hero completes his mission… but rest assured, he’s also one of the all-time character greats. Borgnine got his first big break in 1955’s Marty, as a badgered perpetual bachelor from the Bronx, winning the Oscar for Best Actor. He became a constant fixture in movies and TV for decades after, including (but by no means limited to) From Here to Eternity, The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch, The Black Hole, Small Soldiers... and on TV McHale’s Navy, Magnum P.I., The Love Boat, Airwolf... the man was a machine! And maybe his greatest final role? As the voice of Mermaid Man on Spongebob Squarepants, which he voiced until his death at the age of 95 in 2012. Bless.
Isaac Hayes (The Duke of New York City)
I mean, who the hell are you going to get to play the crime boss of all of incarcerated New York, a dude so fly he’s got crystal chandeliers mounted on the hood of his Cadillac… besides the man who wrote and performed “SHAFT”?! Isaac Hayes’ legacy is still most connected to the music world, where the funk legend cranked out hit after hit not just for himself (including that Oscar-winning theme song), but as a founding member of Stax Records, writing hits for Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas and many more. In the 70’s, Hayes made his first foray into acting, in the amazing 70’s blaxploitation flick Truck Turner. (You need to see this movie. Yaphet Kotto is the badguy, and Nichelle “Uhura” Nichols plays a lethal madame! Come on, this trailer is FIRE!) Hayes continued to dabble in films and TV for years, until he landed the role that millennials will forever know him for – as the voice of Chef in South Park. Hello there, children! Who wants a snack? (Hayes died of a stroke in 2008… and on a personal note, that was like 2 weeks before he was scheduled to perform at a festival in L.A. that I was so excited to see him perform at. Still sad about it, to be honest.)