From gangs to the Navy and then to the theater, James Tolkan has seen it all
Veteran stage, film and television actor and former US Navy sailor James Tolkan has spent a career playing the tough man. He is known to audiences around the world for his performances in Back to the future, Top Gun and Problem child 2, and many more movies and TV shows for playing out his no-frills character style, which seems to come from an organic place in his soul. The characters are tough but fair and have a sense of dignity in them. Tolkan spent a lot of time on stage in New York City before moving to Hollywood. Most recently, Tolkan worked on the Discovery Channel show Back to the future shipping. WATM caught up with Tolkan to find out more about his life, his time in service, and what drove him to become an actor.
Tolkan’s youth was “very difficult” with his father having spent a lot of time in prison. Tolkan lived in Michigan before his family moved to Chicago. After his parents separated when he was 14, Tolkan lived alone in a basement. “I got up at 5 am to clean a restaurant,” he explained. “I was very unhappy. I was running with a gang and left school when I was 15. I lied about my age and got a job at the Chicago Northwestern Railroad with a pick and shovel, which I hated. Her family moved to Tucson the following year and her whole life changed for the better.
Tolkan as “Mr. Strickland” with Michael J. Fox and Claudia Wells in Back to the future. Photo courtesy of necomicons.com.
Tolkan had a football scholarship to Eastern Arizona College and played a lot of football. He put his name on a list to join the Navy – that was during the Korean War – and Tolkan was competing as an undefeated boxer in the Golden Gloves when he got the call. Tolkan completed training camp in San Diego. He recalls: “When I joined the Navy, I was in better shape for training camp than at the end.” He volunteered for boxing while in the Navy and after his fellow sailors saw him in the ring, he never held a “midwatch” again (from midnight to 4 a.m. ). Tolkan laughed, “I was treated royally.”
Tolkan enlisted for four years in the Navy and he led a food line in San Diego for the troops in formation, then was put to sail with the USS Sandoval APA-194. He was sent to Oakland to prepare for ship service. Tolkan fell with a serious and unknown illness and was sent to Oakland Naval Hospital. The Navy found a problem with his heart and a year later he was medically dismissed from his post. He shared: “I could have seen the Navy as a career until I got sick… anyway, everything went well.”
Tolkan (center) with Anthony Edwards (left) and Tom Cruise (right) in Top Gun. Photo courtesy of necomiccons.com.
Tolkan sticks to his experiences in the Navy and he felt like a “very special individual” who had just gone to training camp. He takes pride in his service overall.
Tolkan as “Stinger” in Top Gun. Photo courtesy of Amazon.com.
After his stint in the Navy, Tolkan said he was floundering. He reconnected with his father, having not seen him for seven years. Tolkan spent time in Iowa driving a cattle truck and moving cows across the country. He shared, “I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was very lost. He returned to school on the GI Bill at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, IA. In Coe, he majored in art and minor in music, it was at this point that he became interested in comedy. He spent two years at Coe, then transferred to the University of Iowa for its major theater department. Tolkan was the big man in the drama department there.
After six years in college, Tolkan got on a Greyhound bus with $ 75 in his pocket to go to New York to become an actor. He said, “I was scared to death and didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I did. It was really great. You have to learn to really go there. ”
Tolkan at Sidney Lumet Prince of the city. Photo courtesy of TJ Breathon.
Tolkan shared: “I am very happy to work at the theatre. This is where I am most comfortable. The last play I played on Broadway was by David Mamet Glengarry Glen Ross. “The first play he performed on Broadway was a play called Wait for the night. Tolkan played a psychotic killer in the play opposite actress Lee Remick and the play ran for two years.
Tolkan with Val Avery in Amityville Horror. Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.
“As a New York actor, I said, ‘I’m never going to Hollywood until they send for me. And when Robert Zemeckis called me to do Back to the future I said, ‘Okay, this is my chance to go out there and see what happens.’ So I went out and I did Back to the future and Top Gun and I stayed there for 10 years.
He didn’t like working in “wholesale” movies. He shared his highlights in the film, “… with Back to the future, it was a very small movie – no one knew it was going to be a huge thing, but with Top Gun we all knew it was going to be huge all along. So I was very confident in Top Gun or Back to the future was a huge surprise. He shared about the movies: “My favorites are with Sidney Lumet. The great director Sidney Lumet. I made three films with him, Serpico, Prince of the city and Family affair. “Tolkan recalled his work with Lumet and reflected on the leadership the award-winning director has shown.” I think of Sidney Lumet, he was so disciplined, so brilliant … you would like to emulate him … working with him was a privilege, he made it a pleasure. “
He describes his experience with director Tony Scott on Top Gun also loose in relation to working with Lumet. Scott wanted them to do improv scenes, not on the board for the day. He loved working with Scott, it was just different from what Tolkan had been through. He said: “Tom Cruise was the most impressive. I knew he was going to be awesome from the start. Tolkan talks about his time on Back to the future – “Michael J. Fox is the easiest actor I’ve ever worked with. He is so talented and cowardly. This movie is still going strong (and that was 35 years ago). He enjoyed his experience on War games and he joked, “… it was very early in my career … I wasn’t even paid very well, but things changed a bit later.”
Tolkan’s filmography is impressive and his prowess has made him a household name. But when asked what he’s most proud of, his answer is quite simple: “The fact that I was successful.” That I’m here living the good life and survived. This is what I am most proud of. It’s not easy… I thank every day.
Tolkan in Woody Allen’s Love and death like Napoleon Bonaparte. Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.
Tolkan with Dolph Lundgren (right) and Chelsea Field (left) in Masters of the Universe. Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.
Tolkan with Diane Keaton in Love and death. Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.
Tolkan with Crispin Glover in Back to the future. Photo courtesy of IMD