Missing From Movies: William Atherton’s Dick

By  · Published on July 14th, 2016

Some actors were just born to be typecast.

“This man has no dick.” And neither do the movies anymore.

If you’re going to write a part specifically for William Atherton, it’s probably going to be inspired by his three most famous roles. That was clearly the case when he was cast for an episode of the TV series Lost, in which he plays a slimy high school principal character who was conceived with him in mind. It was a throwback to the assholes he embodied in Ghostbusters, Real Genius, and the first two Die Hard movies. Another one of his dicks.

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough people writing dick parts specifically for Atherton to play on the big screen. It’s been 20 years since his last (slightly) memorable movie continuation of the type, in Bio-Dome, and many of his fans probably aren’t even aware that he’s still alive and working regularly. Mostly he can be found on TV, including a role in the 2012 Syfy feature Jersey Shore Shark Attack. It’s just not the kind of stuff he’s best at.

Actually, he’s great at other things. He’s a well-trained stage actor first and had some interesting film work in the 1970s, particularly with his starring roles in Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express and the Hollywood-set drama The Day of the Locust plus a different kind of villain part in the disaster flick The Hindenburg. Maybe he’s fine in some of his more recent gigs, too, but very few of them seem worthy of such investigation.

Where are the deserved roles in films by great young directors who grew up on his 1980s jerks? And why doesn’t he have a cameo in the Ghostbusters reboot? His character from the original, Walter Peck, has an equivalent in the new movie, but it’s not done very well. He’s just a bland piece of shit. Atherton’s dicks go deeper. He played Peck as “a male Margaret Dumont,” referencing the humorless foil of the Marx Brothers (interestingly, Sigourney Weaver also apparently thought of herself as the Dumont of the movie).

“It can be a lot more fun in movies to be a little baroque,” he told the A.V. Club in 2010. “You can just kind of riff on stuff, and it’s a lot more fun. I always found it more fun. Oftentimes, the protagonist roles aren’t as interestingly written as the antagonists are. People can say, ‘Well, you’re playing the jerk,’ and I don’t mind. It’s just that I don’t really approach it that way. I approach it as a comedy part. I approach it as somebody who has an agenda and go on from there.”

After Peck, and because of the character, came his role as Professor Jerry Hathaway in Real Genius. Of his three most notable pricks, this one is unique in being the movie’s primary antagonist. His smug scientist is not really a “big bad” role, but for the kind of comedy it is, he’s more directly the villain, whereas in Ghostbusters and Die Hard he’s off to the side as an extra obstacle for the heroes. But he’s never a guy worthy of death, only ridicule, a literal just desserts of marshmallow or popcorn, or maybe a punch to the face.

For the Die Hard franchise, he plays a guy actually named Dick. What’s interesting about his character is he has nothing to do with the main protagonist at all. He’s specifically the adversary of John McClane’s wife, Holly. That’s why he hasn’t been in any of the sequels since Die Hard 2, because neither has she. “I would not particularly want to return,” he told I Am Rogue in 2012 about the series going forward without him. “That was a singular character that had a singular purpose there.”

There is a risk in resurrecting his trademark character type. It’s not as interesting if it’s too much of an acknowledgement of the past parts. And the worst is full-on parody, as seen with Paul Gleeson’s own Dick from The Breakfast Club appearing in Not Another Teen Movie. Atherton’s Lost role is a perfect example where homage is involved but not blatantly. It’s no different than Real Genius casting him as a dick because of his Ghostbusters part.

Yes, it’s just typecasting, and a lot of actors aren’t into playing the same kind of character over and over. Atherton, however, enjoyed the financial success that came with it 30 years ago. Plus, especially for comedic actors, typecasting goes along with signature shtick and doing what one is good at. Dumont played the same role over and over in the Marx Brothers movies, and she’s considered a legend. Same with the Marx Brothers themselves.

One problem for Atherton is that Hollywood doesn’t seem to be as interested in his kind of asshole as they used to be. They either go too far to the side of evil, such as Cutler Beckett in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, or they’re too wimpy like David in Shaun of the Dead. They’re also all too sizable as characters. Others, seen mostly in the 1990s, are too active in their turpitude like FBI Director Womack in The Rock and DEA Agent Malloy in Con Air.

When screenwriters have the right sort of dick for Atherton to play again, hopefully he can continue a more prominent career. He’d be great in a superhero movie as a supplemental annoyance, like a J. Jonah Jameson – though not him specifically. For now, it’s nice to occasionally see him pop up in, say, an episode of Workaholics, where he’s not just a jerk but also there’s some reference to his actual dick, as in Ghostbusters. It’s just not enough.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.