An immediately recognizable if not always identifiable character actor for over a half-century, James Tolkan provided volume and venom as hot-wired authority figures in such popular films as "Serpico" (1973), "WarGames" (1983), "Top Gun" (1986) and the "Back to the Future" trilogy (1985, 1989, 1990). Though frequently billed far down on the cast list, Tolkan immediately captured audiences' attention through his fire-breathing delivery and demeanor; actors ranging from Al Pacino and Tom Cruise to Joe Mantegna and J.T. Walsh did their best to stand toe-to-toe with him in a scene and not get singed. The 1980s were Tolkan's most prolific period, with "Top Gun" and the first two "Future" films introducing him to the widest audience. In subsequent years, he worked largely in television, though the small screen did little to reduce his outsized energy. One of Hollywood's busiest supporting players, James Tolkan was also one of its most formidable, and in turn, one of its most memorable.
Born in Calumet, MI on June 20, 1931, James Tolkan's father, cattle dealer Ralph M. Tolkan, moved the family to Chicago in 1945 in hopes of increasing their depleted fortunes. There, his son worked as a railroad hand while in his teens before relocating to Arizona with his mother. He briefly attended Eastern Arizona College before joining the U.S. Navy; upon his return to civilian life, he worked as a cattle truck driver before completing his higher education at Iowa, Coe College and later the University of Iowa. After deciding to become an actor, he headed for New York City with just $75 in his pocket. There, he studied with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, and began landing roles on stage and in early television. A compact, wiry figure with an intense bark and presence, he was a natural for playing detectives, blue-collar types and the occasional criminal without conscience. Tolkan's television debut came in a 1960 episode of "The Naked City" (ABC, 1958-1963), and he worked infrequently on the small screen over the next few years while cultivating an impressive résumé on Broadway. He appeared in Lee Strasberg's production of Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" (1964) with Geraldine Page and Shirley Knight, and then replaced Robert Duvall as the malevolent Harry Roat, Jr., in Arthur Penn's production of "Wait Until Dark" (1966). That same year, he made his feature film debut in a 1966 screen version of "The Three Sisters" which featured most of his Broadway co-stars.
In the 1970s, Tolkan began landing on audience and critical radar in small but showy character parts that emphasized his bristling energy. He was a virulently homophobic police lieutenant in Sidney Lumet's "Serpico" (1973), and then showed impressive comic chops as both an egomaniacal Napoleon Bonaparte and a look-alike imposter in Woody Allen's "Love and Death" (1975). As his screen career gained momentum, Tolkan continued to return to the theater, most notably opposite Pacino in "The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel" (1977) and Bertold Brecht's "In the Jungle of Cities" (1979) on Broadway, as well as Arthur Kopit's "Wings" (1979) at the Kennedy Center. He then reunited with Lumet to play a double-dealing attorney in "Prince of the City" (1981) and again with Pacino in his underappreciated comedy, "Author! Author!" (1983). That same year, he reprised his turn in "Wings" for a 1983 TV movie adaptation on "American Playhouse" (PBS, 1982-1993).
The 1980s were a booming period for Tolkan's film and television career, thanks to a string of popular blockbuster movies. He was an irascible FBI agent in "WarGames" (1983), and then launched a recurring role as strict principal James Strickland in "Back to the Future" (1985), a role he would reprise, with various wrinkles, in the subsequent sequels. Tolkan also played the vociferous Naval commander nicknamed "Stinger" in the incredibly popular "Top Gun" (1986); his oft-quoted line, "Your ego's writing checks your body can't cash!" was later played for laughs in the spoof "Hot Shots!" (1991). Tolkan also turned up frequently on television, first as Carlene Watkins' mobster boyfriend in Mary Tyler Moore's short-lived sitcom "Mary" (CBS, 1985), and later in a recurring turn on "Remington Steele" (NBC, 1982-87) as an insurance investigator bent on exposing Pierce Brosnan's eponymous sleuth as a fraud. In 1989, he reprised his role as Strickland in "Back to the Future II," this time with a more paranoid bent to reflect the film's dystopian future storyline. During this busy period, Tolkan still maintained an active interest in theater, most notably in the original Broadway production of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" opposite Joe Mantegna, J.T. Walsh and Robert Prosky.
The 1990s saw Tolkan working with increased vigor, though in somewhat lower-profiled projects. There was a brief reunion with Pacino in Warren Beatty's colorful "Dick Tracy" (1990) as Numbers, accountant to Pacino's hammy villain, Big Boy Caprese, and a turn as Strickland's lawman ancestor in "Back to the Future Part III" (1990), but this decade was built largely on irritable lawmen, coaches and businessmen in small features, television movies and the occasional series, like Stephen J. Cannell's short-lived "Hat Squad" (CBS, 1992), with Tolkan as a policeman whose adopted sons form their own crime investigation team. A syndicated action series, "Cobra" (1993-94), with Tolkan as the director of a covert anti-crime agency, enjoyed a slightly longer shelf life.
As he entered his seventies in the early 2000s, Tolkan finally slowed his output, relegating his appearances largely to A&E's "Nero Wolfe Mystery" (2001-02), where he joined such equally esteemed character actors as Saul Rubinek, Ron Rifkin and Bill Smitrovich in the show's "repertory" company, which tackled a wide variety of non-recurring characters. Tolkan also made his directorial debut with a pair of "Wolfe" episodes in 2002. He reunited with "Wolfe" star Timothy Hutton in the independent drama "Heavens Fall" (2007), based on the true-life case of the Scottsboro Boys rape trial in 1931, and another hard-nosed turn in an episode of Hutton's popular crime series "Leverage" (TNT, 2008- ).