I distinctly remember the first time Paul Gleason made me laugh out loud. It was in John Landis' 1983 classic Trading Places, and the surly character actor was playing a mysterious corporate spy called Clarence Beeks. In one particularly memorable scene, Beeks is trying to make a private call on a public phone, so he turns to the person standing in line behind him and says, in a humorously venomous tone: "F*** off." Later in the comedy he got to utter a line I've always adored: "Back off or I'll rip out your eyes and piss on your brain!"

And just like that I was a Paul Gleason fan.

Although he'd appeared in bit parts in The Great Santini (1979), Fort Apache the Bronx (1981), Arthur (1981), and Tender Mercies (1983), it was Trading Places that turned Mr. Gleason from just another stern-faced character actor into one of my generation's most beloved bastards. So while Mr. Gleason was obviously a very talented and multi-faceted actor, his face, his tone, his demeanor, and (especially) his voice seemed to indicate "smug bully," and that's where he buttered his bread.

Trading Places led to The Breakfast Club ("I'm crackin' skulls!"), which led to Die Hard ("We're gonna need some more FBI guys..."), which led to a movie/TV career that most character players would kill for. He had a presence that simply screamed "officious blowhard jerk," and very few performers used that vibe as well as Gleason did. (His Die Hard co-star, Bill Atherton, certainly came close.) Mr. Gleason obviously had a solid sense of humor regarding his image, evidence of which can be found in comedies like Loaded Weapon 1, Van Wilder, and especially Not Another Teen Movie, in which he expertly lampooned his immortal Breakfast Club performance. Like most working actors, Paul Gleason also appeared in his fair share of lame-o movies and forgettable TV shows, but he always brought a tongue-in-cheek intensity to his every project.

Mr. Gleason died Sunday of a rare case of asbestos-related lung cancer, and the news just sucked the fun out of my holiday weekend. Movie fans have lost a brilliant bastard this weekend, and I plan to hold my own private Paul Gleason festival in the man's honor. Rest in peace, Principal Vernon. You will be missed.
categories Cinematical