James Tolkan

Actor, Cattle truck driver, Railroad hand
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" ... Read more »
Born: 06/19/1931 in Calumet, Michigan, USA


Actor (56)

Phil Spector 2012 - 2013 (TV Show)


Leverage 2011 (Tv Show)


Heaven's Fall 2005 (Movie)

Thomas Knight, Sr. (Actor)

Seven Times Lucky 2003 (Movie)

Dutch (Actor)

Nero Wolfe 2000 - 2002 (TV Show)


Early Edition 1996 - 1997 (Tv Show)


River of Stone 1996 (Movie)


Sketch Artist II: Hands That See 1994 - 1995 (TV Show)


Cobra 1993 - 1994 (TV Show)


Boiling Point 1993 (Movie)

Levitt (Actor)

The Hat Squad 1992 - 1993 (TV Show)


Bloodfist IV: Die Trying 1992 (Movie)


The Sketch Artist 1991 - 1992 (TV Show)


Driving Me Crazy 1991 (Movie)

Vince (Actor)

Hangfire 1991 (Movie)

Patch (Actor)

Problem Child 2 1991 (Movie)

Mr Thorn (Actor)

Back to the Future III 1990 (Movie)

Marshal Strickland (Actor)

Convicts on the Street: One Year on Parole 1989 - 1990 (TV Show)


Dick Tracy 1990 (Movie)

Numbers (Actor)

Opportunity Knocks 1990 (Movie)

Sal (Actor)

Back to the Future II 1989 (Movie)

Strickland (Actor)

Leap of Faith 1988 - 1989 (TV Show)


Ministry of Vengeance 1989 (Movie)

Colonel Freeman (Actor)

Second Sight 1989 (Movie)

Captain Coolidge (Actor)

True Blood 1989 (Movie)

Lieutenant Joe Hanley (Actor)

Do the Guilty Go Free? 1987 - 1988 (TV Show)


Split Decisions 1988 (Movie)

Benny Pistone (Actor)

Viper 1988 (Movie)

Colonel Tanzer (Actor)

Made in Heaven 1987 (Movie)

Mr Bjornstead (Actor)

Masters of the Universe 1987 (Movie)

Detective Lubic (Actor)

Flanagan 1986 (Movie)

Turner (Actor)

Mary 1985 - 1986 (TV Show)


Off Beat 1986 (Movie)

Harry (Actor)

Top Gun 1986 (Movie)

Stinger (Actor)

Back to the Future 1985 (Movie)

Mr Strickland (Actor)

Turk 182 1985 (Movie)

Hanley (Actor)

Iceman 1984 (Movie)

Maynard (Actor)

Nightmares 1983 (Movie)

Bishop's Voice (Actor)

Wargames 1983 (Movie)

Wigan (Actor)

Wings 1982 - 1983 (TV Show)


Author! Author! 1982 (Movie)

St Glass (Actor)

Hanky Panky 1982 (Movie)

Conferee (Actor)

Prince of the City 1981 (Movie)

DA Polito (Actor)

Wolfen 1981 (Movie)

Baldy (Actor)

The Amityville Horror 1979 (Movie)

Coroner (Actor)

Love and Death 1975 (Movie)

Napoleon (Actor)

The Friends of Eddie Coyle 1973 (Movie)

Contact Man (Actor)

They Might Be Giants 1971 (Movie)

Mr Brown (Actor)

Stiletto 1969 (Movie)

Edwards (Actor)

Beyond Betrayal (TV Show)


Little Spies (TV Show)


Love in Ambush (TV Show)


Sunset Beat (TV Show)


Weekend War (TV Show)



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- ).


Parmelee Tolkan



Coe College

Cedar Rapids , Iowa
became interested in acting and transferred to the University of Iowa

Actors Studio

New York , New York
studied with Lee Strasberg for three years

studied with Stella Adler, first as a paying student, then on a two-year scholarship

Eastern Arizona College

Thatcher , Arizona
attended on a football scholarship; left to join the Navy

University of Iowa

Iowa City , Iowa



Portrayed Marshal Strickland in "Back to the Future III"


Cast as a regular on the short-lived (two episodes) series, "Sunset Beat", about a special team of cops who pose as bikers


Reprised the role of Strickland for Zemeckis's "Back to the Future II"


Widely seen as Stinger, a tough Naval commander who chastises Tom Cruise in "Top Gun"


Debut as a TV series regular, "Mary", a failed sitcom vehicle for Mary Tyler Moore (eliminated after three months when the show's format and time slot changed)


First played the role of Mr. Strickland in Robert Zemeckis' "Back to the Future"


Portrayed Dave Moss in the Broadway production of David Mamet's play, "Glengarry Glen Ross"


Recreated his role from the Broadway production of "Wings" for PBS's "American Playhouse" presentation


Feature debut, "Stiletto", a gangster drama


Replaced Robert Duvall in Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge" on the New York stage


Was working as a railroad hand by age 15 (date approximate)


Moved to Chicago with his family at age 14 (date approximate)


Born in near poverty in northern Michigan

Moved to NYC with $75 in his pocket after after graduating from the University of Iowa

Replaced Duvall in the Arthur Penn-directed Broadway production of "Wait Until Dark" when the actor broke his hip; continued in the role for two years

Acted on stage with Al Pacino in "The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel" and "Jungle in the Cities"

Left Eastern Arizona College to serve in the US Navy

Cast as a regular on "The Hat Squad", an eccentric crime series from executive producer/creator Stephen J Cannell

Played the recurring role of insurance investigator Norman Keyes, the nemesis of "Remington Steele", on the popular detective detective series

Provided narration for several installments of "America Undercover" documentary specials on HBO

Began studying with Stella Adler and won a two-year scholarship

Worked with the Actors Studio for three years

Worked as a cattle truck driver before deciding to continue his higher education

Moved with his mother to Tucson, Arizona