In praise of Terry O’Quinn
Perhaps best known as John Locke in the hit series Lost, we salute the sterling work of actor Terry O’Quinn...
Before Lost, actor Terry O’Quinn was perhaps most famous for his central role in 1987’s The Stepfather. One of several ‘killer in the home’ thrillers from the late 80s and 90s - others include Black Widow, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Single White Female and Pacific Heights - The Stepfather may have been an entirely forgettable film were it not for O’Quinn’s mesmerising performance.
O’Quinn plays an apparently mild-mannered man whose only goal in life is to enjoy all the trappings of the perfect family - a big house with a picket fence, obedient children, and a loving wife who bakes cookies, perhaps. Unfortunately, O’Quinn’s character is a sociopath, and so intolerant of the realities of parenting that he has a habit of killing his family, changing his identity and moving to another town to embark on a new relationship.
If the film is painfully daft at times, O’Quinn’s performance is not - few actors could pull off the feat of appearing beguiling enough to attract the attention of widows or divorcees, yet menacing enough to convince the audience that beneath that sweet exterior lurks the cold heart of a killer.
O’Quinn managed to bring all of this to the fore in his performance, which is far more nuanced and subtle than the movie perhaps deserved - his character desperately wants to be the chipper, can-do father of 50 television, but something ferocious is always stirring just beneath the surface. Critic Roger Ebert noted this in his contemporary review, where he stated that "The Stepfather has one wonderful element: Terry O’Quinn’s performance."
The Stepfather was a comparatively high-profile point in a career that stretched back to the 1980s; O'Quinn first appeared in the TV movie FDR: The Last Year, before playing Captain Minardi in Michael Cimino’s ill-fated epic, Heaven’s Gate. O’Quinn continued to work steadily in film and TV through the rest of the decade, landing roles in Miami Vice, The Twilight Zone and Remington Steele.
After The Stepfather became a sleeper hit, O’Quinn appeared as Alex McSween in Young Guns, supported Rutger Hauer in the cult action flick Blind Fury, and in 1990, reprised his role as the chipper madman Jerry Blake for the less-than-great Stepfather II. Numerous TV roles followed, but O’Quinn’s most memorable performance of the early 90s came in Joe Johnston’s The Roceteer, in which he played a fictionalised version of the eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes.
Whether his roles were large or small, on TV or on the big screen, O’Quinn brought the same steely-eyed charisma, and always adept at introducing both cheery affability and vague undercurrent of menace into his characters. It was his regular appearances in shows such as JAG and Alias that earned him the role that would make him famous: John Locke in the ABC series, Lost.
Although O’Quinn was initially skeptical about the series’ chances - “The Mysterious Gilligan’s Island of Doctor Moreau” was how he once described it - Lost was a huge hit. And while Lost was an ensemble effort, nominally led by dashing doctor Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox), it was Locke’s character, written specifically for O’Quinn, who was perhaps the most immediately engaging - and by episode three, Locke had emerged as one of its most sympathetic.
Having survived, along with the rest of Lost’s main cast, a plane crash on a mysterious island, the once wheelchair-bound Locke wakes to discover that he can walk. So began the character’s seemingly mystical connection with the island, where Locke’s avuncular personality carried with it an unnerving hint of secretiveness - and an unnerving ability to throw knives.
As Lost’s plot meandered for season after season, it was O’Quinn’s performance, perhaps more than any other, that carried the show through its less captivating episodes, and illuminated its best written. It’s no coincidence that the episodes that focused exclusively on his character were often the most compelling and numerous - there were more centric episodes for Locke than almost any other character.
Lost’s sixth and final season may have divided some viewers, but it’s surely a showcase for O’Quinn’s skills as an actor. Here, he plays a version of Locke in a ‘sideways’ universe where flight 815 never crashed. Still a quadriplegic, he works as a supply teacher at a local highschool. Meanwhile, in the central storyline back on the island, O’Quinn plays the Man in Black - the Smoke Monster in human form - who’s taken on the form of Locke.
Insanely convoluted though this must all sound to someone who’s never seen Lost, O’Quinn’s performance in these two roles is a revelation. The off-island, ‘sideways’ version of Locke is a man who’s quiet, dignified and sympathetic. The one on the island is robust, fearless, and faintly terrifying. O’Quinn’s ability to make these two characters recognisably similar yet entirely different - often with little more than the tilt of the head or the twinkle of an eye - is a captivating feat.
Since Lost ended in 2010, O’Quinn’s continued to work in television, appearing in several episodes of Hawaii Five-O and about to work on a TV movie called 666 Parve Ave. Will he land another role as worthy of his talents as John Locke or even the titular psycho in The Stepfather? We certainly hope so. As one of the finest character actors currently working, the large and small screen would be dull places without him.