The Top Six Actors Who Defined the ’80s Jerk
By Paul Preston
The ‘80s were the birthplace of great jerks in the movies. There have been bad guys in movies for decades, but the ‘80s was heyday for the “jerk”. You know the guy – full of himself, bullies the eventual hero, hair most likely feathered.
The Reagan era birthed the personal computer and cable television, drugs were evil again, and fashion went full-decadence. Movies went nice, breaking from the soul-searching dark territory of Apocalypse Now and Taxi Driver to E.T., Tootsie, and Ghostbusters. Of course, risky films continued, and they continue today, but the tone of the decade made way for a style of comedy that became its own era (and John Hughes became his own genre).
With that, much of the popular storytelling went the way of hero vs. villain. I could talk about the ‘80s villains, then this article would be all about Michael Ironside, James Remar, Michael Rooker and Brad Dourif, but I want to instead focus on “the jerk”. The jerk doesn’t kill anybody or even threaten mass destruction. He’s just in the damn way, and usually louder than everyone we can identify with. I could start with Revenge of the Nerds’ Ted McGinley, but he only did one round as an ‘80s movie jerk. These guys put in a decade of annoying our heroes.
ROBERT PRESCOTT (Real Genius, Bachelor Party) – I have to lead with Robert Prescott because I’m sure many of you don’t know his name but you love the guy. What’s amazing about Prescott is his quick reversal of character type. He went from an upscale jerk in 1984’s Bachelor Party to nerd jerk in ‘85’s Real Genius, sticking the landing on both attempts. His Cole Whittier in Bachelor Party was the perfect foil for Tom Hanks’ goofy Rick Gassko. And Prescott’s Kent in Real Genius is one for the ages, embodying everything that’s the opposite of Val Kilmer’s laid-back mantra for surviving the tech world of geniuses. Petty, childish and not cool in the least, Prescott, clearly capable of being a handsome man, dives into Kent 100%. What other actor could be threatening, crushing a tennis ball with his bare hands in one film and turn around to be a vindictive teacher suck-up nerd in another? Range, man. That’s why Prescott tops my list.
WILLIAM ZABKA (The Karate Kid, Just One of the Guys, Back to School, European Vacation) – Perhaps the most iconic ‘80s foil ever put on film is Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence, bullying the new kid in town, Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid. Zabka was so good at being an all-ego prick that that became the ‘80s for him, continuing to beat up and talk down to other kids and adults in many other films. He didn’t even show up for long in National Lampoon’s European Vacation, but the producers knew they needed someone cold and off-putting – get Zabka! One of the most extraordinary things about Zabka’s career as a teen hothead is his remarkable transformation into a deft comic and dramatic actor in Cobra Kai, the continuing adventures of LaRusso and Lawrence on YouTube Premium. The examination of the lives of these two characters in the shadow of that fateful day at the All-Valley Karate Championship is the best cash-in on teen jerk glory you’ll ever see. I couldn’t stop watching.
THOMAS F. WILSON (Back to the Future, Back to the Future Part II, Back to the Future Part III) – Only one ‘80s jerk character but what a memorable performance! Of all the cast members of the Back to the Future trilogy, the most was asked of Wilson, playing multiple versions of Biff Tannen from old to older, to young and to a filthy western gunman. So classic is his performance that it continues to be talked about today as Part II’s Tannen is routinely compared to Donald Trump. I will contend to the end of my days that Back to the Future is a perfect movie, no small feat considering that it involved time travel (which they always mess up, right?). They didn’t mess up casting no-name Wilson, who continues to work regularly to this day as an accomplished voice actor and as Hank Heywood on Legends of Tomorrow.
JAMES SPADER (Pretty in Pink, Less Than Zero, Baby Boom, Mannequin) – Spader made a splash in the 2000s as a consistently bankable TV star, winning ratings and awards on The Practice, Boston Legal, and currently on The Blacklist. But few can forget his run on jerks that he had in the ‘80s (and he’s the reason I brought up the feathered hair in the first paragraph). You just look at the guy and he’s the perfect casting choice to play a yuppie douche in Baby Boom, but his Steff in Pretty in Pink is the quintessential over-the-top John Hughes-in-Miami-Vice clothing jerk you love to loathe. His whole PRESENCE is simply to be a jerk. He isn’t in competition with anyone, he isn’t a bully, he just is offered up by the script to upend the hero’s relationship. And nobody can chew up and spit out words better doing that than Spader.
WILLIAM ATHERTON (Ghostbusters, Die Hard, Real Genius) – So who was Kent sucking up to in Real Genius? William Atherton didn’t come on the scene as a jerk, going on a crazy road trip with Goldie Hawn in The Sugarland Express back in the ‘70s. But, he settled into the role of putz so, so well. The best part about Atherton’s Peck in Ghostbusters and his Jerry Hathaway in Real Genius is his insistence – the authority figure not going away until you deal with him. And if you deal with him incorrectly, he’ll threaten you. He got so good at being a jerk, Die Hard scooped him up to be just that. They didn’t even really have a lot of plot for him, but they knew audiences would want to see him as a jerk again. They were right.
PAUL GLEASON (Trading Places, Die Hard, The Breakfast Club, Johnny Be Good) – Perhaps one of the most memorable roles of the ‘80s in general, not just the comedies, is Gleason’s standout turn as Vernon in The Breakfast Club. Quote him. Right now. You did, didn’t you? Maybe it was “the next time I have to come in here, I’m cracking skulls” or “what was that ruckus?” or “don’t mess with the bull young man, you’ll get the horns”. That memorability is 50% John Hughes and 50% embodiment of the universally-despised teacher persona brought to the role by Gleason. And if you haven’t seen Die Hard, note that both Atherton and Gleason appear, alongside Alan Rickman. There has never been more reason to root for the good guy than when piling that many ‘80s jerks on top of one another.
Hollywood could do to re-visit what made movies like these so great. The long-term likeability of these films is to be envied. Even if you’re a jerk.