I love Tom Atkins. I don't mean I love anyone who happens to be called Tom Atkins. I'm talking about the Tom Atkins. Tom is a seasoned character actor who has proved it to us time and time again that he can deliver the goods in a direct, no-nonsense kind of way. Whether playing an alcoholic doctor on the trail of some fishy Halloween mask business, or a burnt-out, suicidal cop on a space slug trail, he's the man. Not just a man, but a hard-drinking man's man. The kind of man John Ford or indeed Howard Hawks would have cast in most of their pictures - a steadfast anchor keeping the ship in place. Just look at him here, from his dream sequence in Night of the Creeps - he is clearly The Man.
Now, lets talk criteria. Some of you might think Tom has only made ten movies, making such a list easier to compile. But that isn’t the case. Tom has actually made approximately 64 appearances in TV and film, and I for one jumped for joy the day he appeared in The Rockford Files, alongside, of all people, our beloved John of the Saxon. Tom also has a significant role in Tim Robbins’ movie Bob Roberts (1992), but that’s not in the Top Toms. Not sure why. I can tell you that the reason William Peter Blatty’s magnificent The Ninth Configuration (1980) didn’t make it to the list is because Tom simply does not get enough lines or screen time. Shame. Great movie though.
Well, it’s quite obvious that I could go on and on. So I’ll leave my excessive rantings to the entries below. Accompanying each entry is a screenshot of Tom from the movie in question. Long Live Tom!
10 .Tarantulas - the Deadly Cargo (1977)
Buddy: Pilot Tom. Can't find Tom? Heck, that's easy. Just look for the guy who appears to be toking on a fat cigar whilst also necking that dame by the car. When he's done playing tonsil hockey with that sweet bit of stuff he's going to climb into that bird and fly out of Ecuador, loaded with a cargo of fine local coffee beans (Tom calls it "brown gold"), illegal immigrants, cigars for the journey, and a shitload of angry tarantulas. Not long after taking off however, an engine fails and they are forced to emergency land in a small township, the inhabitants of which love to grow oranges aplenty. Tom gets bitten by one of the hairy fiends (the spiders that is, not the immigrants) which travels right up the inside of his trouser leg before he gets a chance to touch down the big bird. Nasty. It's great to see Tom not being a cop in this surprisingly decent little TV movie from the 70's that managed to get a video release here in the UK. In this screenshot, Tom is looking at us through his aeroplane window in a friendly, yet confident manner.
9 .Two Evil Eyes (1990)
Detective Grogan: Cop Tom. Although this is a small part for Tom, he gets himself noticed by introducing to us his clichéd detective, complete with cigar in mouth, moustache and rather fetching hat. Romero's retelling of Poe's The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar is, truth be told, only a mildly engaging and quite talky affair which also features Carpenter woman Adrienne Barbeau (who somehow manages to look better now than she did here - blame the 80's), and our old friend E. G. Marshall, the bug-loathing megalomaniac from Romero's Creepshow. The more astute among you will notice Romero's little joke in naming the bank manager Mr. Pratt, which was E.G's name in 'They're Creeping up on You'. Here, Tom plays a hard-working detective with great 'wise old cop' lines like, "This sick stuff always turns out to be rich people", and you can tell it's sick because he pulls a face like the pic here shows. Go on Tom, pull that trigger. And don’t say, “Yes”, when George Romero asks you to be in Bruiser.
8 .Lethal Weapon (1987)
Michael Hunsaker: Dodgy banker Tom. In this slice of 80's slick, Tom plays a successful banker with a dead daughter and a dodgy past. His present isn't so squeaky clean either, as he's involved in bringing heroin in from Vietnam and up to his knees in very bad company indeed. “You don't know these people...I ended up working with a group called Air America...ex CIA, soldiers, mercs...bringing in two major shipments a year...This is big business, Roger." "Not any more", retorts Glover, before Tom is machine-gunned from behind by Gary Busey in a helicopter (see pic). The bullets rip through Tom, piercing the carton of egg nog he's drinking at the time. Brilliant. This is a big movie for Tom; it’s great to see him land a role that exists beyond his Carpenter / Romero / Cop-with-a-past vacuum, and he clearly has no trouble in holding his own against the big boys. I bet that deep down, Mel Gibson was a bit scared of Tom.
7 .Bruiser (2000)
Detective McCleary: Cop Tom.Bruiser has to included here for a few different reasons. Firstly, it's a George Romero movie. Secondly, Tom is in it a lot, reprising his clichéd smart-ass cop character. Thirdly, at one point he reads rights to a horrible little dog. That's what swung it for me, actually. See the pic here? Well, that's him saying, "You have the right to remain silent", to the dog. This disappointment from Romero is peppered with some great humourous touches and displays a range of intriguing ideas but the overall result is overwhelmingly average. Perhaps the movie's main weakness is a miscast lead actor who, even with a white mask face, fails to cut it as a leading man, even if he is doing very nasty things to people. Here, Tom is on fine form however, his sarcastic streak at the fore, and ready for whatever Romero's strange mind can throw at him. Tom seems to have eased-off on the smoking and drinking at this point. Let’s hope he had a drink while watching Bruiser though. I know I needed one.
6 .Escape from New York (1981)
Rehme: Future Cop Tom. Ok, so Tom's character, Rehme, isn't in Escape from New York very much, but because the film is what it is, Rehme gets in the list. Carpenter actually named Tom's character after Bob Rehme, the President of Avco-Embassy Films, who produced the film. I'll bet Bob was pleased when he saw that Tom was playing him in JC's snappy comic strip; he may be a cop but you get the impression that he's one of the good guys. He has minimal interplay with Snake Plisskin, and I'll wager that's because he's too smart to mess with Old One Eye. Tom's the man. Here, he's parading 80's future chic, with an all-black look, complimented with his well-maintained moustache, freshly trimmed for when he meets the President later in the film. Tom is pretty much the first character we see in Carpenter's cult legend, just after Carpenter blows the would-be escapees out of the water from his helicopter. That's when Tom says, "Gotham Four, confirm the kill." Then he puffs on his cigar before going to meet Lee Van Cleef, who he promptly informs about the "...small jet in trouble over restricted airspace." The pic here shows Tom's startled reaction when they realise the jet in question is Airforce One. Cigars, helicopters, Lee Van Cleef, Tom Atkins, synthesisers - you can tell Carpenter is having the time of his life here. I love this movie so much that it feels like JC made it just for me.
5 .Creepshow (1982)
Stan: Nasty Dad-with-Secret-Porno-Collection Tom. This is what happens when you’re in a film called Creepshow and you don’t allow your son, played by Stephen King’s kid, to read his beloved comic books. He might not want his son reading “that crap”, proceeding to throw them all in the trash, but even Atkins can’t see what’s around the corner for him. This might only be the wraparound story, but sinister goings-on are afoot in Jodie’s bedroom. From the pages of his comics he has mail-ordered a voodoo doll and proceeds to spoil Atkins’ breakfast by relentlessly jabbing at it with a needle in ‘evil kiddie mode’ until his unreasonable dad collapses in painful death on the kitchen floor while a different Tom – the legendary latexmeister Tom Savini – collects the trash outside. Atkins’ voice is the first voice you hear in Creepshow, and with lines like, “That’s why God made fathers, babe. That’s why God made fathers”, that can only be a good thing.
4 .Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
Dan Challis: Alcoholic Doctor Tom. Wow! A starring role for Tom! Here, Tom plays Dr Dan Challis, alcoholic and estranged father whose ex-wife (Nancy Loomis) is a nagging bitch from hell who buys the kids Silver Shamrock Halloween masks before Tom can get the chance, hence failing to win the brats’ favour yet again. But this is Atkins. He’s made of strong stuff, and before we know it he’s in a little town called Santa Mira with a hot young thing called Ellie Grimbridge, a six pack under his arm, and about to get mixed up in some very messy (and, let's be honest, quite ridiculous) business involving an evil Irish toy maker, Stonehenge infused Halloween masks, creepy looking suited robot slaves with yellow gloop for blood and a plan to make America’s children discover the real nature of Halloween by turning their brains into a mass of huge insects and snakes. How that will teach them anything at all is beyond me, but it does look quite cool. Nigel Kneale wrote Halloween III. He also wrote and created Quatermass, which is a lot better than Halloween III. This film however remains one of my most guilty pleasures, partly because Carpenter supplied the pounding score, making it feel like one of his films. This pic is from the end of the flick, as Tom relentlessly shouts, "Stop it!", down the phone to the television stations. Then the movie ends, so we have no idea what the hell happens.
3 .Maniac Cop (1988)
Detective Lieutenant Frank McCrae: Good Cop Tom. Tom knows how to play a cop with a dark past. He does it with his customary skill here, as he also would before in Night of the Creeps. In Bill Lustig's tight, underrated little movie from 1986 (which Larry Cohen scripted), Tom has a background suggestive of suicide attempts and when Police Commissioner Richard Roundtree remarks, "You don't smile very much", the result is what you see in the picture here. Pure genius. This is one of those little b-movies that is better than it has any right to be and is, arguably, the most enjoyable of Lustig's directorial output, showcasing Tom's aptitude for sitting at a bar, feeling sorry for himself while knocking back whiskey. But don't let that alarm you - he gets the job done and will be there for you when it really counts. He's a good cop. One of the best. But then again, I would say that. Look out for his then-fashionable ‘speckled effect’ sports jacket that makes him look like he has a dandruff problem. I’ll bet Tom Atkins has never had dandruff.
2 .The Fog (1980)
Nick Castle: Heroic Tom. Atkins secured a key role as Nick Castle (that's also the name of the guy who strutted his 'walk very slowly-but- menacingly-with-knife-to-JC's plinkety-plonk music' stuff as 'The Shape' in Halloween) in Carpenter’s big advertisement for 'Fogalot Smoke Machines', but only managed to get his name quite far down the credits, past the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh and Hal Holbrook. This is a real curio because I consider it to be one of JC’s very best, with a truly mesmerizing score and the delectable Adrienne Barbeau looking mighty fine in a nice red jumper. Here, Tom not only beds Jamie Lee (see pic) before they know each other’s names, but cuts a fine figure of a no-nonsense, truck-driving fisherman with a weakness for drink-driving and telling spooky stories with an intimate, convincing tone. This doesn’t stop his efforts in taking proactive measures in making some sense of the strange goings-on in Antonio Bay, selflessly helping others to survive Blake’s foggy wrath before the bar closes. In this pic, Jamie Lee is looking at him with her come-to-bed eyes, which would normally work, but as you can see, they're already in bed.
1 .Night of the Creeps (1986)
Detective Ray Cameron: Cop-with-a-dark-past Tom. This is as good as it gets for Tom, and I’m sure if you were to talk to him, he would tell you the same thing. Here, he plays Detective Ray Cameron - a man on the edge, and a man who gets out of bed every day just to be able to say "Thrill me", as often as he can. Tom is on fire in this role, more than ever previously or indeed since. In perhaps his finest moment in the movie - and, trust me, there are many - he explains his back-story where we realise he is that young rookie back in 1959, who sees his childhood sweetheart get chopped up by a local asylum escapee. He then goes on to tell our uncomfortable young hero about his vigilante tendencies, before necking more whiskey and wondering when he's going to get another chance to say, "Thrill me". Tom has more classic lines here than in the rest of his career put together, and they range from the poetry of, "Zombies…exploding heads…creepy crawlies? This is classic spanking", to the cryptic, man-on-a-mission delivery of, "Get the 12 gauge from my car. Now!", it's all top quality, memorable stuff, demonstrating why Night of the Creeps gets to be numero uno 'Top Tom'. Someday, this movie will make it on to DVD. Until then, track it down on VHS to see Tom at his very best.
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