Lance Henriksen: Not Bad For A Human book review

Legend of TV and cinema Lance Henriksen gets his own biography, detailing his life and work to date. Phil enjoys a moving and entertaining read…

Two of the most abiding (and perhaps contradictory) aspects of Lance Henriksen’s character are his capacity for deep thought and his tendency to act on impulse. Again and again in the quite marvellous Lance Henriksen: Not Bad for A Human, the emotional intelligence of the man shines through, while at the same time he regales the reader with a host of anecdotes that tend to finish with the rhetorical flourish  “What the fuck was I thinking?”. Or words to that effect.

Take the following example. While he was working on The Pit And The Pendulum (1991), Henriksen, method actor that he is, immersed himself completely in the character of Torquemada. He studied many of his writings, adopted his lifestyle (consuming only bread and water throughout the shoot and wearing a shirt of coarse cloth and animal hair), and remained in character on set the whole time.

Not surprisingly, given the nature of the atrocities Torquemada perpetrated as head of the Spanish Inquisition, Henriksen began to feel the weight of the role he was playing, and became deeply troubled that the man had committed these crimes in the name of the Catholic Church.

So, on the day that a Dominican monk visited the set, Henriksen took the opportunity to ask him why the church hadn’t excommunicated Torquemada. The monk dismissively dealt with his question by claiming that Torquemada was a great theologian before turning his back on the actor.

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Days later and still brooding over the incident, he got out of a taxi in Rome and saw a priest leaving the Vatican. “Hey motherfucker! Come here!” he yelled, before pursuing the terrified clergyman through the streets of Rome. The recollection ends “I thought about it later, I thought: What the fuck is wrong with me?”

Although his book explains how this spontaneity is vital to his work as an actor, it also demonstrates an insatiable desire on his part for self-knowledge and understanding, something he admits has only been possible by attempting to come to terms with a fairly traumatic childhood through his acting and art.

Not that this is a book concerned with artsy introspection, it’s just that Henriksen speaks about his work and life with an engaging openness, while at the same time eschewing the slightest hint of pretention. Every word has the ring of authenticity.

Written in collaboration with Joseph Maddrey, the book concentrates mostly on Henriksen’s film work, Maddrey employing a brisk and punchy overview with excerpts from interviews he has conducted with Henriksen and others. The early chapters explain without sentiment or self-pity an upbringing that did much to instil in the actor a deep sense of personal shame for much of his adult life.

These years are returned to repeatedly in later chapters, where he explains how he deals with his past in some of the roles he has taken on. He talks with candour about a childhood spent in and out of foster care, a largely absent father and a mother who struggled to care for him.

There is also a tragic reminiscence concerning two uncles who wanted him to take Methadrine and then tried to persuade him to get hit by a car so they could claim on the insurance. He was also illiterate until the age of 30, and his accounts of how he negotiated this handicap when doing script readings demonstrate the ingenuity of a born survivor.

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Any fan of Henriksen’s would expect his autobiography to focus on some of the film roles for which he is most famous, and although he doesn’t disappoint, he gives equal weight to some of his lesser-known roles. So in amongst accounts of working on films and TV such as Aliens, Near Dark, Pumpkinhead and Millennium, there are equally enthralling stories of time spent making straight to DVD fare such as Delta Heat, Deadly Intent, Savage Dawn and Stone Cold.

In this respect, the book is a treasure trove for anyone who has yet to discover some of the cult gems he has appeared in. I spent a good deal of time pausing in my reading just so I could look up a succession of his films on Amazon, my interest piqued by the obvious pride and enthusiasm he has for them as he waxes lyrical.

For instance, in talking about Stone Cold, a film ostensibly designed as a vehicle for former NFL star Brian Bosworth, Henriksen explains how he became the character of Chains Cooper by improvising all of his lines. Chains, the psychopathic leader of a gang of bikers, is therefore blessed with such choice dialogue as, “If these colours hit the ground then I will peel your skin off with a knife dipped in shit” and “In moments like this I think of my father’s dying words: ‘Don’t son, that gun is loaded.’”

Now tell me you don’t want to see that.

Alongside his thoughts on the films themselves, we get some entertaining anecdotes about other film stars, including the time he got paralytic with Oliver Reed, and how he unintentionally snubbed Clint Eastwood after being congratulated on his performance in Dog Day Afternoon. The book also throws up some intriguing information regarding the roles that he didn’t play, including Uncle Frank from Hellraiser, and the titular character in The Terminator.

What’s remarkable is that the man in the book comes across as powerfully as the man on the screen, revealing aspects about him that are surprising, funny and sad, while at the same time confirming that he is in some way all of the characters with which fans will be so familiar.

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I finished the book with the impression of a genuinely humble man, but also a quite remarkable one, and although the emphasis is mostly focused on his films, his life and personality are so inextricably bound up with his work that in talking about one, he cannot avoid talking about the other.

Fans will revel in both the familiar and the new, while those less acquainted with his work will find it a fascinating account of the life of a genuine method actor, a man who would find it impossible to approach his work in any other way. As for me, I found it as moving, amusing and thought provoking as any movie star confessional I’ve read.

One final thought. Since the idea of The Expendables 2 was first mooted, I’ve been convinced that Stallone really needs to come up with an adversary worthy of the action hero ensemble he no doubt intends to recruit. If Sly has the balls, he’ll realise there’s only one man for the job.

Lance Henriksen (perhaps backed up by Michael Ironside and William Fichtner) is one of the few actors possessing the graft and the grizzle required to put those muscle bound muppets in their place.

Now tell me you don’t want to see that.

Lance Henriksen: Not Bad For A Human is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.

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5 out of 5