Steve Railsback emerged in the 1970s as an actor with an almost eerie capacity to essay characters with weird energy and a quirky, naturalistic menace. Railsback left his native Texas in the late 1960s to immerse himself in the New York theater scene, where he met accomplished director Elia Kazan, who gave the young actor his first film role, prophetically enough as a vengeful Vietnam vet in "The Visitors" (1972). After Railsback delivered a show-stopping performance as psychopathic cult leader Charles Manson in the high-profile television movie "Helter Skelter "(CBS, 1976), he took more square-jawed leads in the ABC miniseries "From Here to Eternity" (1979) and what would be tabbed as his above-the-credits breakthrough, the inside-Hollywood comedy "The Stunt Man" (1980). But bigger roles did not pan out, and his ensuing work was largely relegated to B-movies, a majority of them science fiction or horror - most notably "Escape 2000" (1982), "Lifeforce" (1985) and the right-wing fantasy "The Survivalist" (1987). He sealed his genre bona fides with a two-episode turn as disturbed abductee Duane Barry on Fox's sci-fi phenomenon "The X-Files" (1993-2002). Railsback bankrolled his next turn as a dangerous psycho, taking the title role in the indie flick, "Ed Gein" (2000). Regardless of budget or profile, Railsback remained a textbook case of Hollywood's sometimes confounding indifference to mesmerizing talents should they fail to fit neatly into a prepackaged box.
He was born Stephen Hall Railsback on Nov. 16, 1948 in Dallas, TX, the second of what would eventually be six sons of Emerett and Clyde Railsback, the latter an oil industry executive. The family settled in Wichita Falls, where Railsback grew up as quiet child fascinated with movies. He found an outlet when he discovered an ability to easily don other personas as early as a part in a regional theater production of "Cinderella" when he was only seven. At age 13, he read Method acting pioneer Constantin Stanislavski's An Actor Prepares. His youthful daydreams would be of journeying to New York to immerse himself in the craft. After graduating S.H. Rider High School in 1966, he matriculated at the local Midwestern University, taking side jobs to save money. A year later, with an amassed $600 and a plane ticket spotted him by his parents, he made the journey to the Big Apple. By his later telling, he found an acting school in the local Yellow Pages and enrolled, only to discover it neighbored a more impressive school, the famed intensive Method cauldron, the Actors Studio. He was accepted to study there, taking classes with renowned instructor Lee Strasberg, and fell under the mentorship of Strasberg's Actors Studio co-founder, Elia Kazan.
Kazan would provide Railsback with one of the leads in his penultimate film, "The Visitors" (1972). The director's strange excursion into stark New Wave filmmaking saw Railsback playing one of a pair of seething Vietnam veterans who show up at the rural home of a former squad member (James Woods, also in his first film role) who testified against them in a trial for their rape of a Vietnamese girl. Critics were impressed, and Railsback appeared to be on his way. Off-screen, he married briefly, but the union only lasted a year and half. He would spend much of his early career on the stage, appearing in a string of high-profile off-Broadway plays, among them revivals of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," Robert E. Sherwood's "The Petrified Forest" and Tennessee Williams' "This Property Is Condemned" and "Orpheus Descending." In 1975, he won his first Broadway job in a revival of Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth," but the show proved a brief engagement. In 1976, director Tom Gries cast Railsback as the pivotal role in the miniseries adaptation of prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's book about the infamous, grisly Tate-LaBianca murders in Los Angeles in August 1969, "Helter Skelter" (CBS, 1976). Railsback veritably morphed into the homicidal cabal's charismatic leader, Charles Manson, mirroring Manson's unblinking Mad Prophet's gaze as the would-be countercultural messiah delivered impassioned testimony taken straight from court transcripts.
His profile rising, he was cast in "Angela" (1978), playing a young man who begins a May-December romance with a ravishing Sophia Loren, only to discover she is the mother he never met. The disjointed end-product was shelved and eventually only released for home-video. He then took on the pivotal role made famous by Montgomery Clift, that of the persecuted Pvt. Prewitt in NBC's ambitious miniseries adaptation of James Jones' Pearl Harbor-centric novel and its subsequent 1954 film classic, "From Here to Eternity" (1979). Next up, he graduated to a kind of action star in Richard Rush's brilliantly post-structural comedy "The Stunt Man." Railsback was at his enigmatic best playing a hardened but stoic criminal on the run from the law, who happens onto a location movie shoot and winds up inadvertently charming its daffy director (Peter O'Toole) into hiring him onto the production where he wins the heart of its starlet (Barbara Hershey). The movie bounced seamlessly from real-life narrative to the film-within-the-film in a rapier send-up of Hollywood's gleeful disregard of real life, but its layers seemingly confounded major studio executives. Though completed in 1978, "The Stunt Man" would languish on the shelves until 20th Century Fox took a chance on it in 1980. The film became a minor sleeper hit, drew generally positive reviews, three Oscar nominations (including for O'Toole and Rush) and would go on to be considered one of the last gasps of innovative American New Wave.
Despite being tagged by industry watchers for bigger and better things, Railsback failed to see superstardom materialize. He took the lead in the slasher film "Deadly Games" (1982), as well as in the Australian film "Escape 2000." Originally titled "Turkey Shoot" internationally, the latter film was a Marxian take on The Most Dangerous Game and saw Railsback essay one of a group of prisoners of a fascist government who are given a chance to win their freedom by confounding the attempts of wealthy weekend warriors to gun them down. A genre-project theme to his career began as Railsback went on to play a possibly compromised American astronaut called to fight a deadly invasion of soul-vampires he may have helped usher to Earth in Tobe Hooper's U.K.-shot B-picture extraordinaire "Lifeforce" (1985); and an ammo-hording man traversing a post-nuclear U.S. in the paranoiac Cold War trope "The Survivalist" (1987). Railsback took some shots at straight drama, including as a father of an isolated boy who befriends a magical family of seals in the family drama "The Golden Seal," a cocaine-addicted yuppie in the soapy spiral "Torchlight" (1985), and later as a concerned brother of a no-class rock-n-roller in the Angelino subculture tale "Scenes from the Goldmine" (1987).
The B-thriller "Distortions" (1987) reteamed him with "Escape 2000" co-star Olivia Hussey, and he returned ably to wigged-out menace in a dual role as twins opposite Sharon Stone in "Scissors" (1991). His turn as a Secret Service agent in the low-rent tale of international intrigue, "The Assassin" (1990), began a parallel niche of Z-grade shoot-em-up vehicles such as "Private Wars" (1993), "Final Mission" (1994), "Street Corner Justice" (1996), "Pressure Point" (1997) and "Termination Man" (1998). He continued to carve his horror niche in flicks such as "Blue Monkey" (1987), the direct-to-video "Deadly Intent" (1988), "Alligator II: The Mutation" (1990) and "Forever" (1993), which co-starred his daughter Lalesha. Railsback's genre imprimatur would see him join a string of high-profile guest-stars to buoy Fox's nascent sci-fi show "The X-Files." Early in the show's 1994-95 season, Railsback played Duane Barry, a dangerous mental patient who initiates a hostage standoff, drawing the interest of the central FBI agents, Mulder and Scully. They learn that Barry is a former FBI man and multiple abductee who is implanted with strange technology. The second episode of Railsback's two-part arc would see Barry kidnap Scully, leading to her ostensible alien abduction in Barry's place, and setting in motion a long-term story-arc for the series.
In 1997, Railsback took a bigger leap into episodic television, playing a gung-ho military officer looking to capture a peaceful, super-powered mystery man (John Corbett) on Fox's "The Visitor." Though much-hyped, the show only lasted a season. Railsback took up producer duties in a return engagement as an infamous real-life ghoul, starring as the title character of the 2000 release, "Ed Gein," a small indie film that recounted the weird dissolution of the rural Wisconsin murderer. Railsback began to increasingly pop up in featured primetime guest-shots, as well as what were basically glorified cameos winking at his horror bona fides in such films as "Disturbing Behavior" (1998), "The Hitcher II: I've Been Waiting" (2003), "The Devi's Rejects" (2005) and "Rest Stop: Don't Look Back" (2008). He occasionally cropped up in straight dramas, as with his turns as an abusive husband in the indie neo-noir thriller "The Box" (2003) and as a U.S. senator in the telefilm about a Mormon Fundamentalist cult in "Follow the Prophet" (2008). But genre fare would always call him back, as per his turns in the horror outings "Slash" (2002), "Intermedio" (2005), "King of the Lost World" (2005) and "Plaguers" (2008).
By Matthew Grimm