Look at that face. That smile and those eyes are so inviting and caring. Every indication is the man behind that smile is an incredibly nice man. But, In the realm of 80s cinema, William Atherton stands out as the quintessential annoying heavy, weaving his presence into memorable films like Real Genius, Die Hard, and Ghostbusters. He was so good at his job, that every viewer in all of his movies wanted to taser his characters like Bonnie Bedelia did in Die Hard 2. Yes, I'm aware that sequel was released in 1990 and thus not an 80s flick. The statement still stands. His characters were that annoying. Today I want to explore how Atherton brought a unique blend of charisma and annoyance to his roles, leaving an indelible mark on the era.
Ghostbusters (1984) - Atherton's foray into the supernatural came with his role as Walter Peck in Ghostbusters. As the smug and bureaucratic Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) representative, Peck becomes a thorn in the side of the Ghostbusters team. Atherton's portrayal of Peck's disdain for the paranormal and his clashes with the lovable ghost-hunting quartet added a comedic dimension to the film. His ability to embody the aggravating authority figure made Peck a memorable antagonist in the Ghostbusters universe. As we'll discover, he ends up getting interesting and many times uniquely food oriented comeuppances. In Ghostbusters is was an overwhelming amount of marshmallow thanks to Ray Stanz's creation of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Real Genius (1985) - One of Atherton's standout performances came in the cult classic Real Genius, where he played Dr. Jerry Hathaway, a conniving professor at Pacific Tech. Who does he go toe to toe with, none other than Val Kilmer's Chris Knight. He more than held his own with the extreme talent of Kilmer. Hathaway's role as the antagonist added a layer of tension to the film, as his unscrupulous actions clashed with the brilliant and rebellious students. Atherton's ability to portray the perfect mix of arrogance and cunning made him the ideal foil for the film's protagonists. Even further, his hatred of popcorn became the salt in the wound at the end of the film.
Die Hard (1988) - Atherton made two appearances in the Die Hard franchise. But in deference to the focus on 80s movies, we'll only focus on the original. In the first Die Hard, Atherton took on the role of Richard Thornburg, a slimy and opportunistic journalist. Thornburg's relentless pursuit of a sensational story not only added an extra layer of complexity to the plot but also made him a character audiences loved to hate. Atherton's performance showcased his versatility as an actor, seamlessly transitioning from the academic setting of Real Genius, and the political realm of Ghostbusters, to the high-stakes world of action in Die Hard. In my opinion, this is the most slimy of his characters as his actions led directly to putting John and Holly Gennaro McClane in danger as he pursued his own fortune and glory. If not for the ridiculously good performance for an 80s action flick from Alan Rickman, Atherton's action may have shone through more. Regardless, no food comeuppance in this one, unless you define it as a knuckle sandwich. Bonny Bedelia smashes her fist into his face. Poetic.
What made Atherton's performances so memorable was his knack for embracing the irritating qualities of his characters without veering into caricature. Whether he was trying to shut down ghost containment units, taking advantage of a government contract for his own financial gain, or exploiting a hostage situation for a news story, Atherton's characters embodied the perfect blend of arrogance, self-righteousness, and annoyance.
In fairness to Mr. Atherton, these 80s characters are not his only claim to fame. His filmography boasts over 80 films credits and many more television appearances. Some of his other notable roles are as Clovis in Sugarland Express with Goldie Hawn and directed by Steven Spielberg, as Tod in Day of the Locust with Donald Sutherland and Burgess Meredith, and more recently The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise and directed by Edward Zwick.
William Atherton's contributions to 80s cinema extend beyond his ability to play the annoying heavy. His performances added depth and nuance to the films, elevating the tension and providing a foil for the protagonists. Even though audiences may have despised his characters, there's no denying the impact Atherton had on making these movies memorable. In the landscape of 80s films, William Atherton emerged as a master of annoyance, weaving his talents into the fabric of iconic movies. From the halls of academia to the high-stakes world of action and the supernatural realm, Atherton's ability to portray the perfect annoying heavy solidified his place in the pantheon of 80s cinema. If you haven't seen any of these 80s flicks, or more likely haven't seen the forgotten classic Real Genius, go back and take a look. You will not regret it.
Check out this great clip from Ghostbusters to be reminded of the genius of William Atherton and the humor he evokes because his character is such a slimeball.