Veteran actor Lance Henriksen has had a long and distinguished career. From his humble beginnings as a character actor through to his current status of cult icon, the actor seems to have climbed the mountain of celebrity by starting at the very bottom and working his way to the summit. With a penchant for playing everything from biker degenerates to FBI profilers, the gravelly-voiced performer has carved a niche for himself that has allowed him to remain relevant (and working) in a field where many careers are measured in years and not decades. Over that span, Henriksen has had numerous classic roles, including his turn as Frank Black on the television series Millennium (check out the informative Back to Frank Black website for more details about a possible Millennium movie and more ... ). However, his greatest onscreen achievement remains his portrayal of the android Bishop in James Cameron's 1986 film Aliens.
Aliens wasn't the first time Henriksen and Cameron worked together -- they'd previously collaborated on The Terminator, where Henriksen was supposed to play the title role but wound up cast as a detective instead. Cameron clearly thought highly enough of the actor to bring him back in a more prominent role when he was tapped to make a sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien. Bishop became Henriksen's signature character and he's returned to the part in subsequent sequels and spin-offs -- weaving himself into the mythology almost as much as the monstrous Xenomorphs themselves.
Bishop is compelling primarily because seeing Henriksen as a benevolent and kindhearted android is a far cry from what audiences normally expected from the actor (and imagine how dramatic that shift would have been if he had played the T-800 before this part ... ). The other component is the depth the actor brings to the portrayal. Henriksen's work has always been notable for its bombastic nature, but in Bishop the performer finds a more quiet side, imbuing the character with an almost child-like innocence. I had a chance to discuss not only this, but how the character worked as a veiled commentary on the nature of xenophobia in an interview late last year. Here's what Henriksen had to say:
"I've been to South Africa before apartheid and after apartheid. I have memory on both sides of that. The first time was very upsetting to me ... When I did Bishop -- one of the things I did ... I was using the fact that I was 12-years-old. I was using my 12-year-old emotional life and thought of myself as a black kid in South Africa. That if I made a mistake anything could happen. So, that's what I was using through that whole role. There was a certain innocence about Bishop that I created that way. And of course when you're 12 you forgive adults because you know you're going to outlive them."
Henriksen also cites the film as a breakthrough for him when it came to practicing his craft:
"It was a critical movie for me because up until that time I had really always been trying to serve the film, serve the movie, serve the script. One of the things I didn't do, which I did do with Bishop was personalize everything, like I should have been doing my whole career before that ... that's what makes good acting as far as I'm concerned ... It was a critical movie for me because my idea was that if I saw the movie, and the work that I was doing wasn't there, that I would not be acting anymore."
Fortunately, these personal touches shine through regularly in Aliens. Henriksen's taken a small part in an ensemble cast (including an absolutely unforgettable over-the-top performance from Bill Paxton) and made it memorable almost in spite of its subtlety. Bishop is perhaps the most human character in the entire film, a pacifist creation who's been created by man, yet tries to be everything mankind should aspire to -- and does a better job of it than his flesh-and-blood counterparts. In a film with primarily two dimensional (although still admittedly great) characters, Bishop stands out as the one with the most depth.
He's a character forced to the periphery by the very nature of what he is, yet there's an almost understated sense of sorrow in the fact that he can never be one of the humans he spends his time around. Bishop is a great character because Henriksen understands that and adds in an air of honor and selflessness that makes him resonate that much more. Certainly some of this may have been in the script, but there's no doubt that the actor played a major part in shaping the character as well. That's why Bishop remains Lance Henriksen's best role.