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"It's Miller Time!"


Character Actor Tom Atkins

By Jeremiah Kipp

What do you mean you don't know who the hell this guy is? With his boxer's face and a tough guy's voice that sounds like cigarettes and a bad hangover, Tom Atkins had been a familiar face throughout the '80s, often popping up as hard-boiled cops in horror movies such as Maniac Cop and Night of the Creeps (where he got all the best lines in the picture, including the classic: "I got good news and bad news, girls! The good news is, yer dates are here! The bad news is they're dead.") He's appeared in several films by noted genre directors John Carpenter and, more recently, with George A. Romero on the upcoming fright-flick Bruiser.

This charismatic man's man has paid the bills playing Lucy Lawless' dad, Atreus, on Xena: Warrior Princess and a recurring role on the seemingly endless Rockford Files TV movies, but he's best remembered for grabbing his 12-gauge shotgun and bravely charging into the old dark houses and haunted villages where evil dwells. Here are some of the career highlights of Tom Atkins, a hero Vin Diesel could take lessons from.

The Fog (1980) John Carpenter's moody, atmospheric follow-up to Halloween was this underappreciated tale of ghostly pirates descending upon a small seaside town. The heroes are mostly strong, independent women (played by scream queens Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, and the great Janet Leigh), but Atkins manages to make an impression as stoic fisherman Nick Castle. He gets to score with Jamie Lee, save a little kid from the fog creatures, and tell a terrific ghost story monologue about a supernatural encounter he once had at sea. In his horror debut, Atkins manages to take care of business -- though who could blame him for getting freaked out when his truck won't start as the monsters are closing in? B

Escape From New York (1981) In the near future, New York City is a maximum-security prison. When the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) has the misfortune of having his plane crash on the island, the police send in amoral convict and former soldier of fortune Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) on a rescue mission. The epitome of supercool, Escape From New York is your favorite graphic novel come to life on-screen. The cast of character actors would comprise a who's who of filmcritic.com heroes, including Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, and Isaac Hayes. Atkins co-stars as exposition man Rehme, a cigarette-chompin' cop who gets to explain to Russell all the different gadgets and weapons. He also provides a description of the dangerous New York crazies that have taken complete control of the underground. Sounds like a typical day in the Big Apple. A-

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) This is the much maligned sequel which has nothing to do with slasher Michael Myers, dealing instead with a fanatical maskmaker playing an elaborate grand guignol prank on the children on, of course, Halloween night. Atkins gets his first top-billed role as Dr. Dan Challis, a cranky bastard who takes it upon himself to investigate a recent murder connected to these masks. The plot is ludicrous, the love-story laughable (the chick is half Atkins' age), the "twists" have to be seen to be believed -- but there are some kick-ass chase scenes where the baddies pursue our hero through an abandoned factory town and a climax that hits the perfect note of dread. (Best line: "Stop it! Stop it, please! Stop it! Stop it! StopitstopitstopitstopitSTOPIT! STOP IIIIIIIIIIIITTTTTTT!" Hey, Atkins truly sells it. You may be saying the same thing when you watch Halloween III, but it's fun in a trashy sorta way.) C

Creepshow (1982) Atkins has an uncredited role as the mean-spirited daddy who takes away his kid's comic books. This leads into the series of E.C. Horror-style stories from director George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) and Stephen King. Atkins makes his reappearance at the end, when his kid makes splendid use of a voodoo doll to show him who's boss. Atkins, you did not know who you was fuckin' with! B

Night of the Creeps (1986) "Is this a homicide, or a bad B-movie?" If you know Atkins from anything, you know him as Detective Roy Cameron in this wonderful tribute to "zombies, creepy-crawlies, missing corpses, and a date to the prom." This is classic, Spanky! On a college campus, alien brain parasites wreak havoc. Atkins is truly in top form here, wearing his Sam Spade trenchcoat and effortlessly tossing out so many great one-liners it's become an institution. My personal favorite is when he torches a zombie with an aerosol can and a cigarette lighter -- "It's Miller Time!" (Note: avoid the version shown on TV, which has a different, stupider ending than the video release.) B+

Lethal Weapon (1987) Atkins plays the affluent businessman who orders Danny Glover to avenge the death of his daughter. KILL THEM! JUST KILL THEM! Of course, minutes later Atkins gets blown away by a sniper rifle. The bullet goes right through his carton of orange juice. What a way to go! C

Maniac Cop (1988) Who's the coolest man that goes mano-a-mano with the title villain here? Is it Richard Roundtree (Shaft), Bruce Campbell (The Evil Dead) or Atkins? This fairly routine slasher film benefits from a terrific cast, and grey-haired Atkins gets to be top dog for the first half of the picture teetering on the brink of his own madness. When he takes the fall in a fistfight with the titular zombie psychopath, he goes down like a champ. B-

Striking Distance (1993) It's a Bruce Willis thriller, and one where this megastar obviously had far too much creative control. Atkins only shows up for one scene as Bruce's cheerful Uncle Fred, a tough old Irish cop who gives Bruce some useful advice about his neurotic date (Sarah Jessica Parker): "Don't fuck her." The movie stinks, but Atkins is pure class all the way. D

Article published 09.09.2001.

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