Tom Atkins: The Man, Not A Myth, A Fucking Legend

Every movie lover has one of these people. That one human, whose appearance in the movie you are watching, just simply elevates the entire experience before a word is uttered. I’ve always had that feeling the minute Kurt Russell graced the screen, whether he was a homicidal madman in the Death Proof segment of Grindhouse, or witnessing his reveal as one of the greatest characters ever, Snake Plissken, in Escape from New York. However, in the realm of the horror genre, despite my love for the Kurt, there is only one true choice for someone who makes a movie just THAT much better when they saunter on. Women love him, Men want to be him (and shit, in my case, love him too). There is literally not a cooler cat on the block. I speak of none other than Mr. Tom Atkins. A legend in the movie and television business, with over 80+ credits to his name, Tom Atkins is a pillar of the horror community and has had some great character work done outside the genre, whether it be TV or film. He literally exudes cool, calm and collected every time he makes his presence known. Today, I wanted to share with you a few of his films that have had a great effect on shaping my current opinion of the man. Now, there are going to be movies I won’t mention, so don’t get all caught up in that. These are just the four movies that come to mind immediately for ME that exemplify Tom Atkins as I know him. Without further ado, I will start off with a film most people will immediately think of when his name is uttered, and that is of course: Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) as Dr. Daniel Challis.

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This is the film that I refer to immediately when I think of what makes Tom Atkins….Tom Atkins. Atkins plays Daniel Challis, an ER doctor who is suddenly thrust into the worldwide conspiracy to destroy the children of the world involving a sinister halloween mask company called Silver Shamrock, hits all the notes you expect from vintage Atkins. He’s completely calm and collected throughout most of the movie (except for the obvious in peril shot used above) and exhibits the nerves and will to find out the truth behind the murder that took place at his hospital and the seemingly malevolent mask company. He is one to always have a drink being consumed or readily available in the most suave way possible, and, as expected, he is quite the ladies man. Whether it be flirting with the pretty pathologist working at the morgue, or bedding the young Ellie Grimbridge, the daughter of the ER victim, with whom he is tagging along with on this investigation, no woman is immune to the charms of the Atkins. Nothing about Tom Atkins’ performance feels forced, unbelievable or disingenuous. He is able to have us fully committed to rooting for him, despite clearly being a womanizer an absent father to his daughter (check out the cameo by Nancy Loomis (Kyes) as the ex-wife of Atkins’ character). Yet, despite these obvious character flaws, we want him to defeat the evil corporation, and get the girl at the end. That is the power of a great character actor, and that is what Tom bring to the table every time.

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For the sake of transparency, I will admit that I wasn’t THAT familiar or in love with Tom Atkins when I watched him stroll across the screen in My Bloody Valentine 3D, the gory awesome remake from Patrick Lussier in 2009. I knew who he was, and remembered him in the movie we love him for today, but this was the film that drew me to him and made me revisit his entire horror legacy, to brush up on my Atkins’ and acquire a whole new appreciation for him. He only appears in a few scenes, playing Burke, the retired sheriff of the small town of Harmony, which experienced the mass murders at the hands of insane miner Harry Warden ten years earlier and now appears to have a copycat on its hands. Even in this small role with a handful of scenes, Atkins is able to command your complete attention every time he is present. He just doesn’t know how to not be cool. In the opening prologue, as he surveys the bloody massacre at the hospital after Harry Warden awaken from his coma, he utters “Happy fucking Valentine’s Day”. Who else can say that line, with all the innocent blood shed around him, and still come off as funny and charming? The trademark Atkins intensity also comes out in a short scene at a local bar during the present day. Burke’s character is trying to break up a fight between disgruntled mine workers and the estranged son of the mine owner, Tom Hanniger (Jensen Ackles…so dreamy), who is back in town to sell the mines and get out of there ASAP. As he gets in between everyone, Tom just blows up with intensity and yells, quite loudly, “Everybody stand down GOD DAMN IT!”. The room settles, the viewer can only just stare at him, and that was the moment I started to fucking love Tom Atkins. Of course, getting a pickaxe through his jaw later in the movie was a kick ass moment as well, but that was also when Atkins bit the dust, and that always sucks too.

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Let’s be honest folks, if this is NOT your favorite Atkins performance, you are looking in the wrong place. I know that, technically, EVERY Atkins performance is your favorite, but in my mind, this is the one that is the perfect personification of Tom Atkins, the man. In 1986’s Night of the Creeps, Atkins playes Ray Cameron, a detective investigating the stranger murders of medical personnel in a secret chamber on a college campus, which once contained an alien parasite, in the form of slugs, that can inhabit a human and turn them into zombies. Armed with a classic six shooter, smoking a cigarette or downing a brew at any moment, and covered in a classic brown trench coat, Atkins appears to be having the most fun he has ever displayed in a movie, relishing every classic scene he is a part of and turning his charisma up to 11 at every turn. While there are many classic scenes in this movie, Atkins or not, the best for me is when a zombie decides to burst into a sorority house on the campus while he is present and a young woman is in immediate danger. Atkins turns to the camera, points his trusty revolver at the screen, and decides to utter, with a certain gleam in his eye and charm at max, one of the of the most badass lines in cinema “It’s Miller Time!”. He turned a friggin beer slogan into the best fucking stand up and cheer moment in this flick (and in a movie that is actually littered with them, no small feat…I LOVE this movie) and no amount of practice can make that happen. It’s just a bonus that this flick, from writer/director Fred Dekker (of The Monster Squad fame), delivers a truly classic 50’s throwback horror film with a nice sheen of pure 80’s madness and gore.  

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Wait a minute Mr. Mayo, Lethal Weapon is NOT a horror movie, get this out of here! I want to bring up this movie for a few reasons. Tom Atkins is a man who is revered in the horror genre for his multiple great performances, but he also had a career outside the genre, and has made his way into some quite high profile movies, none more so than this action great. It makes me happy that Richard Donner, the director of Lethal Weapon and other great films such as Superman and The Goonies (there are too many to list now), recognized what a great character actor that Tom was, and hired him for a major studio film. On top of that, Atkins got to share the screen with high profile actors such as Danny Glover and Mel Gibson. I am not saying Atkins is not high profile, because he is, but to be recognized as a great performer and to get the chance to show audiences who might not be familiar with his horror work, what a great actor he is. Atkins played Michael Hunsaker, an old war buddy of Danny Glover’s Murtaugh, who’s daughter apparent suicide at the beginning of the movie, is the catalyst for the main storyline of this movie. Tom only has two scenes in the film, but they truly do have a lasting impression, none more so than the 1st one set at a bank. Atkins is able to truly eat the scenery, starting off as a grieving father and then ending in a fit or rage, angrily shouting and accosting Murtaugh (not in a hostile way) to find who did this to his daughter and kill them. The rage and hurt in his eyes as he utters “You find them, and you kill them! You’re a cop, you can do that, you owe me!” is simply what makes movies wonderful, and Tom shows in these few brief minutes that he deserves the accolades as an incredible performer and someone who should be recognized by all, not just among the horror faithful.

In summary, Tom Atkins is, to me at least, a great example of an expert character actor who knows how to command a scene and draw all focus into the nuances of his performance and the joy you get from watching him, all without much effort needed on his part. If you aren’t familiar with Tom Atkins, or just don’t get the love that he gets from the horror community at large, I can only hope that you check out these movies, whether for the first time or revisit once again, to try to view him with a new set of eyes. Feel the movie around him, and then watch as he strolls in and takes charge of the flick, demanding you stay with him, whether he is the main actor or just in a few scenes. Like other greats such as Christopher Walken and Dick Miller, Tom is the quintessential exemplary character actor who has the ability to carry a movie if tasked to do so, and no one does it with more pure fucking charisma than the legend known as Atkins.