My Five Favorite Movies with John Heard (1945-2017)
Once again this month, we have lost another great light. John Heard was one of those character actors who made it seem like he was never incorrectly cast. He always came across as being infinitely comfortable in front of the camera and inside whatever bizarre situation his character was in.
The life of the character actor (as opposed to the “leading man”) is to be a driving piston of the plot, to be an agent for change and development of the world. (For more on character acting, see the excellent documentary That Guy…Who Was in That Thing.) Character actors have the unique luxury of being unnoticed when they are bad (or worse, boring) but a surprising joy when they are good.
John Heard was the unusual case of a character actor whose name was kind of known. (Quick: who was the actor that played John’s foster father in Terminator 2)? But apart from large (but still shared) starring roles in Cutter’s Way (which I admit I have not yet seen) and Mindwalk (which isn’t really an actual movie), Heard’s 179-credits-long career is characterized by being the perfect choice for a small role that needs to be made more interesting than it is on the page.
Here are my five favorite films of John Heard’s, a true yeoman of the industry who made it his job to make everything he was a part of a little bit funnier and a lot more fun.
Global ranking: 3430
Wins 29% of its matchups
6304 users have ranked it 40,394 times
1 have it at #1
28 have it in their top 20
Heard plays a lawyer working for the FBI with the unlikely name of Gavin Verheek. He has the perfect face (and the perfect talent) to play a believable government lawyer who you nevertheless have sympathy for. His role is that of a wildcard lifeline for Julia Roberts, who is desperate enough for help, as those close to her start dying, to put her trust in a warm voice on the phone.
And his voice is so warm and trustworthy (maybe a little flirtatious?) that we are soothed along with Julia Roberts when we realize he might actually have our back. But we are just being set up for heartbreak, because Stanley Tucci (another astonishing dose of Movie Helper) is on his way.
Global ranking: 4481
Wins 34% of its matchups
1046 users have ranked it 7320 times
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15 have it in their top 20
This is a tiny, tiny role, only one scene, a bit of expository dialog with Manny Jacobs which helps to contextualize the apocalyptic omens in a more modern religious interpretation.
But this is actually my favorite John Heard role, perhaps because of its huge value-to-time ratio. As with his lawyer role in Pelican Brief (and, actually, a lot of the roles in this list, now I think about it), he takes a character which could become victimized by the audience’s stereotypes of his profession, and through charm and good, honest character work, he makes us able to see them as fully rounded people.
I have known several priests in my life, and of all the professions that we see depicted to varying degrees of faithfulness in the movies, they are among the most cheapened and maligned. But Heard brings to his brief performance in The Seventh Sign the characteristic intelligence and sense of humor which, instead of “priestliness” (whatever that is), are actually the hallmarks of most people in religious professions. By making the gentlest and most easygoing choices he could make with the character, he ends up making the boldest and most sympathetic impact.
Global ranking: 5524
Wins 31% of its matchups
1023 users have ranked it 10,732 times
0 have it at #1
3 have it in their top 20
America has a…complicated relationship with its vice presidents. In comedies like My Fellow Americans, they tend to be the butts of jokes, and for most of the film that is Heard’s role. He plays “deadpan idiot” brilliantly, and we are lulled into a false sense of security that we are getting a chance to see Heard in a purely comedic role.
But then the third act twist happens (and happens hard; this film, for seeming like simply an old-folks road movie, has fucking serrated edges on its plot), and we get the even further pleasure of trying to decode how much of what we’ve seen has been a put-on. Heard does the absolute minimum to take us right to the point of ambiguity.
2. Home Alone
Global ranking: 790
Wins 42% of its matchups
90,461 users have ranked it 641,869 times
507 have it at #1
10,204 have it in their top 20
I always hate it when an actor that I know to be broadly accomplished gets tarred with being “that guy from that one crappy movie that everyone saw”. My wife, also an actor and ever-practical, is quick to point out that it’s because of the exposure obtained through such mass consumption that allows the actors that we love, to keep working. Lord knows I’m in favor of that.
But it nevertheless bugs me to see, throughout the research for this article, “Home Alone Actor John Heard Dies At 72″. Because this was not “his” movie, or even really his kind of movie. This was a Macaulay Culkin movie that John Heard played a big role in.
I’m not going to denigrate this connection too much, though, because John Heard’s performance, and his chemistry with Catherine O’Hara, is really off the chain. As with the roles above, it would have been so easy to make Peter McCallister any one of a thousand ogres of on-screen husband- and fatherhood: taskmaster, dud, moron, whipped, adulterer, any one of which would have fit into a neat, boring mental pigeonhole that would allow us in the audience to instantly forget him.
Instead, Heard is what a real father is: warm, funny, overwhelmed, misunderstood by his family, and deeply in love with them. In other words, he’s a human being.
Global ranking: 398
Wins 51% of its matchups
49,735 users have ranked it 372,954 times
161 have it at #1
3895 have it in their top 20
In Big, we have John Heard’s most plot- and character-crucial role. Paul Davenport (so perfectly named) is Josh’s professional and (implied) romantic rival in the horrifying world of adulthood. He’s a product developer at MacMillan Toys, given the unappreciatively challenging job of designing products, and their associated marketing and production plans, that will appeal to children. Paul is good at adulting; he represents everything that Josh has managed to avoid having skipped the soul-deadening effects of extended exposure to life on planet Earth.
It is Heard’s least sympathetic character, but you do not hate him. As a kid, you are intimidated by him; as an adult you see in him all the parts of you that you hate. But you do not resent his presence on the screen. He is, except for a few tactically deployed moments of high emotion, not a force of negativity in his scenes, and I think a lot of this has to do with Heard’s portrayal of the character. Think of someone like a Jared Leto in that role, or a Peter Gallagher, or even a young Robert Wagner. Astonishingly great actors, all, but none would be able to resist the urge to play Paul Davenport as the stereotypical New York slimeball, and I do not think that Heard’s interpretation goes that far at all.
I think Heard did what he always did: he went with the smoothest, most relaxed, most entertaining, most just-the-right-nuanced approach, giving Tom Hanks and Elizabeth Perkins the perfect foil for their exploration of their new way of looking at the world. He may have punched Tom Hanks in the nose over racquetball, but when he pitched that robot that turns into a skyscraper, he made it real and convincing, and I was ready to invest.
Thank you, Mr. Heard. Exit stage right.