As was often the case with character actors who became closely identified with a type of role, actor Paul Gleason was far from the pompous, humor-deficient bullies he so convincingly portrayed in film and on television. At one time a promising athlete, he gained his theatrical training with famed acting coach Lee Strasberg while performing on the stages of New York. After more than 15 years of working steadily with small parts on television series and in movies, Gleason made a lasting impression as slimy "fixer" Clarence Beeks in the comedy "Trading Places" (1983). Two years later, he topped that villainous performance with his turn as the iron-fisted, utterly clueless and ultimately ineffectual Principal Vernon in the John Hughes classic "The Breakfast Club" (1985). Although he appeared in dozens of varying roles over the years, it would be Gleason's pitch-perfect portrayals of unrepentant jackasses in films such as the action-thriller "Die Hard" (1988) that would earn him lasting recognition. So ingrained in the pop culture of cinema were his characterizations, that Gleason eventually spoofed his own signature role in the lowbrow parody "Not Another Teen Movie" (2001), when he played a less-than-nurturing principal, coincidently named Vernon. By the time of his premature passing in 2006, Gleason had appeared in approximately 140 productions, and while his most memorable roles may have been as unrepentant jerks, those who knew him described a man with an unwavering work ethic, boundless energy, and a gregarious nature.
Born Paul Xavier Gleason on May 4, 1939 in Jersey City, NJ, he was the son of Eleanor, a registered nurse, and George, whose many vocations included restaurateur and construction worker. Not long after his birth, the Gleason family moved south to Uleta, FL, a small township that was later absorbed into the city of North Miami Beach. An outstanding athlete from an early age, Gleason attended Florida State University on a football scholarship, followed by a short stint playing minor league baseball for the Cleveland Indians and Washington Senators farm teams. Although he had initially thought his future was in sports, Gleason made the sudden decision to pursue acting one day after seeing the film "Splendor in the Grass" (1961) with his friend, novelist and "Beat" poet, Jack Kerouac. By the mid-1960s he had settled in New York City and began to study acting under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg at the famed Actors Studio. He made his uncredited film debut in the schlocky sci-fi movie "Panic in Year Zero!" (1962), followed by an official appearance in "Winter A-Go-Go" (1965), a low-budget teen ski comedy. Gleason also began picking up small guest turns on such popular television series as "The Green Hornet" (ABC, 1966-67), "Mission Impossible" (CBS, 1966-1973), and several episodes of "Adam-12" (NBC, 1968-1975).
Gleason also became involved in the growing off-Broadway theater scene as a writer, director and actor, ultimately working with such prestigious companies as New York's Cafe La Mama and the Ensemble Studio Theatre. After several smaller productions, he made his Broadway debut supporting Maureen Stapleton in Neil Simon's "The Gingerbread Lady" (1971). Gleason went on to appear in both the L.A. and NYC revival productions of "The Front Page" (1972) with John Lithgow and Richard Thomas, and won praise for his portrayal of R.P. McMurphy in the off-Broadway revival of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1973). His first film role of note was in George Pal's big screen adaptation of the pulp fiction adventure series "Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze" (1975). In a supporting role alongside Ron Ely as the super-heroic doctor, Gleason played Long Tom, one of Savage's trusted companions, known as the "The Fabulous Five." Following the dismal box office reception to the overly-campy "Doc Savage," he rebounded with the role of David Thornton on the daytime soap "All My Children" (ABC, 1970-2011). In his three seasons as hot-tempered and opinionated Dr. Thornton, Gleason would lay the foundation for what would become the trademarks of his more memorable characters in the years to come.
Gleason soon began making strides in both television and film projects. He landed his TV miniseries debut opposite Robert Duvall and Lee Remick in the biopic "Ike" (ABC, 1979), then teamed with Duvall again that same year on the big screen for the film adaptation of novelist Pat Conroy's family melodrama "The Great Santini" (1979). A steady stream of supporting roles followed in quick succession in high-profile projects that included the gritty Paul Newman police drama "Fort Apache the Bronx" (1981), the Dudley Moore classic comedy "Arthur" (1981), and "The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper" (1981), once again pairing him with the estimable Duvall. It was, however, as the humorless, amoral industrial spy Clarence Beeks in the hit John Landis-directed comedy "Trading Places" (1983), that the actor would finally make a splash. As the comic foil to Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Lee Curtis, Gleason played the villainous bully Beeks to such perfection, that he would be cast in similarly reprehensible roles for much of the remainder of his career. He spent the next season appearing in small guest spots on television series such as "Hill Street Blues" (NBC, 1981-87), and "Magnum, P.I." (CBS, 1980-88), before landing the iconic film role with which he would forever be associated.
Director John Hughes' seminal teenage comedy drama "The Breakfast Club" (1985) served as a filmic anthem for the MTV-generation of mid-1980s America, and made stars of Brat Packers Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy. As the hilariously pompous and antagonistic school principal, Richard Vernon, Gleason brilliantly personified the out-of-touch authority figures that the film's target audience held in such distain. For better or worse, Gleason's fate as a character actor in Hollywood was now sealed. The typecasting continued when he played a sleazy political campaign manager in "Morgan Stewart's Coming Home" (1987), a weak attempt at cashing in on the winning John Hughes formula that starred Brat Pack second-stringer, Jon Cryer. Nearly as memorable as his portrayal of Principal Vernon was Gleason's wincingly-on-target turn as the asinine Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson in the Bruce Willis blockbuster "Die Hard" (1988). Watching the film, it was easy to imagine the woefully inept and hilariously obtuse Robinson as the long-lost twin brother of Principal Vernon. Continuing to work steadily throughout the 1990s, he took on numerous supporting roles in films like the quirky Alec Baldwin crime drama "Miami Blues" (1990) and the pulpy Wesley Snipes thriller "Boiling Point" (1993).
Mid-decade, Gleason signed on for the first of only two stints as a regular cast member on the short-lived "One West Waikiki" (CBS, 1993-94), a Hawaiian-set crime drama co-starring Cheryl Ladd. He took another, even less successful stab at regular TV work on the critically-reviled sitcom "Lost on Earth" (USA, 1997), which lasted less than a season. Later, Gleason parodied himself when he played Principal Richard "Dick" Vernon in the raunchy spoof "Not Another Teen Movie" (2001), followed by a turn as a similarly disagreeable academic in the lackluster "National Lampoon's Van Wilder" (2002). In the final film released before his surprising death, Gleason was a welcome presence as a skeptical sheriff tracking down a blood-thirsty Bigfoot in the low-budget monster movie "Abominable" (2006). In May of that year, the 67-year-old passed away from mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer linked to asbestos, which Gleason was most likely exposed to while assisting his father on construction jobs as a teenager. He appeared posthumously in the digitally-released independent comedy "The Book of Caleb" (2008), for which the venerable character actor received his first and only producer's credit.