The top 10 roles of Kurtwood Smith

Feature Ron Hogan Simon Brew 13 Nov 2012 - 07:00

From his outstanding TV work to RoboCop, we salute the 10 finest roles of Kurtwood Smith...

If it wasn't for That 70's Show, Kurtwood Smith would be known primarily for his work in the realm of science fiction.  When you need a general, an authority figure, or a hard case with a sick sense of humour, Kurtwood Smith fits that bill. He's just tall enough to be intimidating at 6'1, and his bald head and craggy features give him a unique look in today's Hollywood.  Onscreen, he's not the sort of guy you want to cross, and when he shows up in a movie role, you know you're in for a brilliant performance. Here are ten of his finest (appreciating that there are some of his smaller, impactful roles that we've left out)...

10. Broken Arrow

In a couple of roles, when he’s not playing outright villains, Kurtwood Smith gets given the part of a government official, or a military figure. Someone who can be authoritative in a crisis, and about the last person on the planet to give you a hug when you need one.

Take Broken Arrow, a solid John Travolta/Christian Slater vehicle that was far less than the talented John Woo was capable of making. It gives Kurtwood Smith the kind of role where he has to make something out of not very much (Broken Arrow being a film, after all, after slo-mo stunts and John Travolta holding cigarettes in seemingly impractical ways).

Kurtwood Smith gets the odd line at best as Secretary of Defense Baird, but he knows how to pitch it. After an elongated explanation from Frank Whaley’s Giles Prentice as to why they should tell the truth about, er, a missing nuclear weapon, Smith’s character has a two-line, deadpan reply: “The truth? How did you get this job?” Boom.

9. Deep Impact

There's not much he gets to do here, but Kurtwood Smith adds suitable gravitas to the role of one of the powerful suits behind the scenes. It'd be nice to think that, were the world really coming to an end, we'd have him making decisions on what to do next. He looks good in a suit, too, which helps. Most importantly, even when the world is on the cusp of disaster, the man is unflappable. Just look at the way he sports a headset.

As we’ve mentioned, Kurtwood Smith’s CV clearly has him as a go-to guy for high-ranking government officialdom. His brief turn in 24 (cut short, despite showing lots of promise) and his role in Broken Arrow are just two examples. And here’s another…

8. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Weighed down by what looks like a metric ton of make-up, Mr Smith this time steps into the costume of the president of the Federation. No pressure.

It’s not a big role, but it’s a conflicted man that’s he’s playing here, who has to balance whether to go for all-out war or basically sacrifice Kirk and McCoy. He’s no villain, just put in an impossible situation, which he effectively conveys.

He chooses the safe option, of course, and Smith uses what screen time he has to get that across. As it turns out, he’s no stranger to Star Trek, either, having appeared in both Deep Space Nine and Voyager across his career. What's the chance that he gets a lead in a science fiction series at some point?

7. Boxing Helena

There’s an old theory that it’s easy to be good in something when surrounded by a high quality production. It’s far trickier to stand out in something, er, ‘less impressive’. It’s not a rule that’s strictly true, but it stands for Boxing Helena. It remains a mess of a film, but at least Kurtwood Smith is trying here. He must have had a quiet moment where he sat in the corner of his trailer, softly sobbing to himself and wondering why, but the professionalism of the man was such that he dried his eyes and made the role of Doctor Alan Palmer credible. That, friends, is no small achievement.

He would go on to play a doctor again, just as well, in Girl Interrupted, and briefly in House. But medicine is not the reason we celebrate, as a rule, the screen work of the mighty Kurtwood.

6. The Crush

Kurtwood Smith plays a protective father here, as he’s about to again when we come to talk about his number five role. In the case here, though, he’s the dad to Alicia Silverstone's ingenue/temptress/psychopath.

The Crush is a weird potboiler mash-up of Fatal Attraction and Lolita. Silverstone steals the movie this time, that much is a given, but Kurtwood has a great, generous supporting role and a surprisingly intense fight scene with Cary Elwes. He doesn't have a ton to work with, but when he shows up, he makes an impression.

5. Dead Poets Society

The classic overprotective father, this is the rare Kurtwood Smith role in which he doesn't fire any weapons or make a lot of threats. Instead, he simply domineers his son Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) and, in his grief, gets Welton Academy to throw renegade, inspiring professor John Keating (Robin Williams) out on his ear.

Somehow, Kurtwood is able to play a fairly villainous role without becoming an outright villian. Sure, he's not the nicest guy, but it's clear he means well and that he loves his son and wants the best for him, despite not being able to communicate it well. At no stage do you doubt that his motivation is anything but pure. Granted, it's not a sympathetic role, but Kurtwood handles it in a sympathetic manner.

4.  Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids may be a film that bobs up and down a little, but it’s worth watching for Kurtwood Smith’s performance, where he goes off in a different direction from usual. To say he bares a lot of himself for the role would be no inaccuracy. Er, just look at the picture.

Again, though, his performance is about tightly pitched control. Cedar Rapids is a mix of comedy and drama, and Smith walks that line well. He gives us some memorable moments, too, not least one of the most uncomfortable hugs in the history of uncomfortable hugs. He and Ed Helms may have needed a drink or two before going into work that day.

It's a brilliant performance from Smith, though, and not for the first time, you wonder if awards attention would have headed his way had the profile of the film been a little different.

3. That 70’s Show

A TV role that’s brought Kurtwood Smith to another new audience. He’s the only member of the show's cast to be from the state of Wisconsin, and as it turns out, he only won the part in That 70’s Show because Chuck Norris - the first choice - was not available due to his commitment to Walker, Texas Ranger. That seems about right. If you can't get Chuck Norris, Kurtwood Smith is the only guy awesome enough to serve as a replacement. He's arguably the superior choice.

While the show isn't great (feel free to debate that), the character of Red Foreman is the best part, and that's all thanks to Kurtwood's gruff delivery and incredible comic timing. Mixing those two is no easy skill, either. If you wanted proof of the man's range, here it is...

2. Fortress

Inevitably, as we edge to the top of the list, it’s the villains that Kurtwood Smith has portrayed that make it to the top. And here’s an underrated one: we’ve a lot of time for the underappreciated Christopher Lambert vehicle Fortress. Any scenes where Kurtwood Smith comes on as Prison Director Poe, even more so.

Here, he’s a villain without a gun in his hands, yet no less evil. As the old saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Poe has absolute power over every single prisoner within the Fortress, a subterranean prison controlled panopticon-style by Zed and a nasty little implant called the intestinator.  It's a great role for someone who oozes authority and nastiness, so it's the perfect role for Kurtwood.  It's one of the most popular movies at Den Of Geek for a good reason, and it's not all Christopher Lambert.

Plus: it’s the only movie, to date that includes the quite phenomenal phrase “random intestinations”.

1. RoboCop

Somewhat inevitably, we end up here.

To have a great hero, you need a great villain.  As bad as Dick Jones and OCP are in Paul Verhoeven’s rightly-lauded RoboCop, nobody menaces the people of Detroit quite like the evil Clarence J Boddicker. It’s more than just this one film, though: there’s a sporting argument that Kurtwood Smith’s portrayal of Boddicker gives cinema one of its best ever outright nasty villains.

From his gleeful execution of young Officer Alex Murphy to the many, many awesome lines given by Boddicker, Kurtwood Smith is the star of this show from his very introduction. He's evil, he's slimy, and he loves it. He works on logic, though. Boddicker is the antidote to the movie villain who refuses to shoot the good guy when he gets the chance. The man never blinks. He knows what he needs to do, and there’s never an ounce of moral conflict over whether he’s going to do it. He’s a terrifying creation, one that is overlooked too much because he happens to be a villain in a science fiction movie.

Kurtwood Smith has played some great villains and hard men, but this is the hardest and most villainous, and he's pure brilliance from the word go. 

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