The many underappreciated film roles of James Woods

Odd List Simon Brew 26 Mar 2013 - 06:44

A superb character actor James Woods has turned in some remarkable performances. Here are a few of his underappreciated roles...

If you're looking for an actor who's far more interested in being a character than a hero, then surely James Woods is your man. He's built up a body of work over several decades that has rightly brought him a degree of acclaim - Videodrome, the brilliant Cop, Ghosts Of Mississippi, Contact, Salvador, and his growing collection of excellent TV roles - but in the 80s and 90s, he popped up in lots of films that are rarely talked about now.

There are so many seemingly lost great James Woods roles, that it seemed long overdue we try and right that particular wrong. So here's a collection of perhaps the lower profile, yet brilliant, performances from his career. And this is just a few of them...

Straight Talk

There aren't too many mentions of Dolly Parton to be found at Den Of Geek, and that 5000 word retrospective look at The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas is still a long way from happening. But Straight Talk was and still is a decent little comedy, designed as a star vehicle for Parton, as she plays the radio therapist who tells it very much as it is.

However, she's not quite who she appears to be, and that's where Woods' character comes in, as the reporter who tries to get to the bottom of just what's happened. A not always convincing romance ensues, but there's still more here than the generally downbeat reviews the film got may lead you to believe. Woods is good value, although Straight Talk, for better or worse, is very much Parton's show. Don't write it off though...

The Specialist

Don't worry. We're not going to make a case for The Specialist being some kind of lost action classic. It very firmly is what it is, namely a perfectly entertaining Sylvester Stallone vehicle, with an hilariously ropey special effect of the top storey of a building falling to the floor.

Director Luis Llosa's biggest success at the time had been the solid Tom Berenger adventure Sniper (he'd gone on to direct Jon Voight sneer-fest, Anaconda). And while most of the attention come The Specialist's release was on Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone's dubious on-screen union, naturally enough it was James Woods' villain who promptly stole the show at every turn. Even when spewing out dialogue like "You're the rigger, I'm the trigger", Woods' Ned Trent is a foe worth spending time with.

Can Woods be a villain in the next Die Hard movie please?

Diggstown/Midnight Sting

A film that changed names on its journey across the Atlantic, not that it reversed its box office fortunes. Known as Diggstown in the US, and Midnight Sting in the UK, the film's a boxing comedy from the late director Michael Ritchie, whose varied work covers The Candidate, The Golden Child, Fletch and the original version of The Bad News Bears.

Here, he pairs Woods with Louis Gossett Jr, with the former taking on the role of a recently-released-from-prison conman, who takes on a bet that he can find a boxer who can knock out ten contenders from the town of Diggstown in just one day. That is, as you've probably guessed, where Gossett Jr comes in.

That said, the pair of them practically have the film stolen from underneath them by a wonderfully villainous Bruce Dern. Coupled with the wonderfully sparky dialogue, and Ritchie's ability to keep things pacey, in spite of needing to join together many of the familiar ingredients of the boxing movie, and Diggstown/Midnight Sting remains a hugely underappreciated gem.

Naturally, given that it's funny and boasts great performances, it bombed.

Animated Work

Woods is no stranger to voicing animated films. His turn as Hades in Disney's Hercules was a highlight of a fun movie, and more recently, his tones could be heard in Surf's Up. In both features, there's a real distinction and control to his voice, and he's on excellent form. He'd reprise the role of Hades several times in an assortment of Disney spin-offs from Hercules, incidentally.

Woods also was on voicing duties for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the arguably ahead of its time box office disappointment based on the videogame franchise of the same name.


Oliver Stone, to date, has made three films centred around US presidents, and two of them are utterly essential viewing. The continual headline grabber is his massively ambitious, and wonderful JFK, a dense, intelligent look at the assassination of John F Kennedy. W, meanwhile, is far less successful, a surprisingly compassionate look at George W Bush and some of his antics in the Oval Office.

The almost forgotten gem? That'd be Nixon, comfortably the least accessible of the three films, yet also one of Stone's very best. One of his many successes here is the cast that Stone gathers together, and Woods is a key part of that ensemble. He's a generous actor in his better-known ensemble work already - Casino and Once Upon A Time In America for instance - and the story goes with Nixon that he persuaded Stone to give him the role, over preferred choice Ed Harris. We're glad he did. His performance as Harry Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, is nuanced and complex, and deserves not to be lost in the shadow of Anthony Hopkins' superb turn in the title role.

Stone also gave Woods another cherishable supporting role, in Any Given Sunday too. His sleazy team doctor is yet another excellent piece of work.

The Hard Way

We've written about The Hard Way more extensively on Den Of Geek before, and no doubt will again. It's a harder-edged mismatched buddy comedy, released in the very early 90s but still feeling like an 80s film in many respects.

The gold here is in the casting. Woods is the chiselled, hardened cop. Michael J Fox is the movie star looking for a grittier role, who accompanies Woods in his work as he undertakes research for his next movie. Willing to make the two ultimately interdependent on each other without anything close to them becoming good friends, The Hard Way is at its very best when Woods and Fox are sparking. And spark they do. Fox's scene where he tries to school Woods in the art of treating women properly is one of the many classic scenes packed into The Hard Way's running time.

Our full lookback can be read here. The Hard Way remains one of Woods' funniest roles, in one of his best films.

Cat's Eye

If there's one Woods movie that seems to have been particularly looked over in recent times, it's the Stephen King adaptation, Cat's Eye. It's a horror anthology piece, effectively, centred around three different stories, of which Woods' is the first.

His segment is called Quitters Inc, and it's a really sinister tale of a man - Woods - who's desperate to give up smoking. As such, he calls in Quitters Inc, and they prove to be an organisation with some effect. Basically, every time Woods lights up a cigarette from that point onwards, something bad happens, and to say much more would be to spoil things. The last moment of Quitters Inc is particularly brilliant, though.

Inevitably, it's Woods three dimensional work at the heart that turns what could have been a daft tale into a really unsettling one. Lewis Teague's direction here is good, but for the project to really click, you have to buy that the central character is covered in shades of grey. Bluntly, you do.

Incidentally, the rest of Cat's Eye is worth a spin too. The last chapter in particular, General, is a whole lot of fun, with a young Drew Barrymore being protected from a troll by the moggy that links all three stories in the film together. Quitters Inc is the undoubted highlight, though.

Best Seller

If you take one film away with you after reading this piece, let it be this one.

It was after we posted our piece on the aforementioned The Hard Way that several readers got in touch with us and suggested we give Best Seller a try. Every single one of those readers has our thanks. It pairs Woods with the equally wonderful Brian Dennehy, with the latter being a cop who ultimately rises to prominence courtesy of the books he's written about some of his work.

This brings him to the attention of Woods' hitman, who is looking for someone to tell his story, just the way he wants it told. With Dennehy suffering from writer's block and under pressure from his publishers, an uneasy union forms. And it's the uneasiness that makes Best Seller so compelling. Neither Dennehy or Woods is a heroic figure here (and neither do they try to be, creating far more interesting characters as a consequence, as boith have built a career on doing), and they spark just as much as they get along. There's a dark core at the heart of both characters, and it's as far removed from a stereotypical buddy movie as you can realistically get.

Director John Flynn would go on to direct the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Lock Up, which could use some of the character ambiguity that Best Seller trades in. Disappointingly, Best Seller seems to have disappeared without much trace, though, and that's a massive, massive pity. An excellent piece of work, powered by two dark, excellent performances. If it had been made with movie stars rather than actors, the ambiguity and areas of grey at the heart of the film would have been lost. As it was, Woods and Dennehy are surely the next candidates should a far more daring remake of The Fugitive ever be on the cards...


It's fascinating to see just what films James Woods came close to doing, but either turned down or the role ultimately went to someone else. Sam Hamm has revealed, for instance, that Woods was a close run for The Joker in Tim Burton's Batman, while infamously, Quentin Tarantino penned a role for the actor in Reservoir Dogs. Woods' agent passed on the role without informing his client. Just imagine what could have been in both cases...

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.

Disqus - noscript

What a brilliant list, Nixon, Midnight Sting and Best Seller being real highlights.

perhaps i am missing the point of this article - but considering how big some of the films listed are(nixon hercules ) - i would put forward -Salvador - but perhaps too obvious?

Fantastic list for a great man. I gotta say his more recent TV work has been stirling. 'Shark' was great but I to give him props for his work on Family Guy .......... he plays himself to such a dickish degree it verges on the wonderful.

Salvador's mentioned in the intro at the top. Hercules and Nixon, I thought, had been lost a little in the midst of other Disney animated features and presidential biopics respectively.

love this dude and also good in john carpenters vampires

Hades is a great villain, Wood's voice is the perfect combo of funny and menacing. I liked the Quitter's Inc. story a lot upon my first time reading, I'd like to see how much of the story's nervous energy they got across. Great list! Thanks DoG for paying attention to all great artists

Absolutely love James Woods. Season 1 of Shark is a gem.

He's great as the shady doctor in Any Given Sunday

Considering some of the other acting names in AGS, it's a testament to Woods that he really stands out, instead of getting lost in the ensemble

Doesn't this site have any copy editors? Every time I come here, I see headlines, such as this one, containing punctuation and/or grammar mistakes--and the articles themselves are always error-filled. How incredibly unprofessional.

I just watched Cats Eye over this past weekend. I haven't seen it in over 25 years. Yes it does hold up. Good stuff.

It seems like for each role in which he plays the tough guy, there is a role like Ronald Lisbon in The Virgin Suicides, which is by far my favorite James Woods performance because it is so different and shows perfectly that he can play fragile characters as well.

I haven't watched the Hard Way for such a long time, I'll have to dig it out now

The episode of The Simpsons with him researching the role of a tightly wound convineince store clerk must be up there surely (even if he is playing James Woods)?

Crook: Hey, you're James Woods.

Woods: Well, yes.

Crook: Well Mr. Woods, you're next song is going to be number six with a bullet!
Woods: I'm not a singer.
Crook: Shut up!

Are you asking for a job or just being an ass?

I liked him in Eastwood's True Crime. Small role, but he made it fleshy. As usual, it seems... Lovely article.

I'm hoping after passing on the Tarentiino offer Woods immediately fired his agent.

He did... unsurprisingly!

Yes! I thought he was the best thing about The Virgin Suicides. He was also very good in Pretty Persuasion...

I'm genuinely not making this up, but I've got a message for those of you who commented from James Woods:

"Thanks so much for thinking of me. I love what I do and so appreciate film
'geeks' like yourselves and my terrific fans who posted such nice comments on
your blog."

He sent us a longer mail, which we're hoping to incorporate into a follow-up piece.

Not on the list, but definitely should be is True Believer, in which he stars with a ridiculously young Robert Downey Jr and old 'Clarence Boddicker' himself Kurtwood Smith. He's brilliant as a burnt our defence lawyer, who was a firebrand 60's activist and is given a chance at redeeming himself. It's part thriller/part courtroom drama with some nice twists and turns, but just watching Woods work in it is a masterclass.

James Woods is the man and will always be the man.

to be fair, James Wood took the character from the great book Vampire$ Jack Crow, and was brilliant, I refuse to fault him for the movie sucking by being so far removed from the book, he still did a great job.

fairplay missed that in the intro

Cheers darkbill, I've just been wracking my brain to think of this film's title and you supplied it. Its a great film and a shame its not on the list. It saved me from being sucked into IMDb for an hour!

Any film with a character named Chucky Loader was always going to be winner in my book. If you have never seen it or not seen it in awhile I recommend tracking it down.

Totally love The Boost.

I loved James Woods in many of these films. I remember sitting down to watch Best Seller in my teenage years and being blown away by how good Woods and Dennehy were together. Two great roles not mentioned here were in Cop and Citizen Cohn. Neither are the greatest movies, but Woods dominates both films, making them all the better for him being cast (particularly Cop, which is a tour de force!).

Sponsored Links