Mr. Beaks Says Goodbye to Clarence Beeks

     May 30, 2006

Principal Richard “Dick” Vernon, Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson, Coach Wayne Hisler and, most importantly, Duke and Duke bagman Clarence Beeks – four of 1980’s cinemas greatest assholes, all brought to blustering, indelible life by the great Paul Gleason, who left us over the Memorial Day weekend, succumbing to, according to the AP, “mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer linked to asbestos”. As if we needed further proof other than the work itself that Gleason was a great actor, I’ve always heard from those lucky enough to work with him that his onscreen hard case persona was the complete opposite of his demeanor in real life. Gleason was kind, generous and eminently approachable – more likely to shake your hand than rip out your eyeballs and piss on your brain. I was aware of this several years ago when I encountered Gleason walking down 45th Street one night in Manhattan as the theaters were letting out, but I was too intimidated by his cinematic legacy to croak a simple “Hello”. Had I gotten the courage up, I would’ve said what I’m going to say now, which is, “Thank you for being such a magnificent bastard, Mr. Gleason”. For those of us who grew up watching whole loops of premium cable programming during the 1980s, Gleason, somewhat recognizable from bit parts in The Great Santini, Arthur and Fort Apache: The Bronx, first registered in a big way as the acerbic Clarence Beeks in John Landis’s comedy classic, Trading Places. Charged with delivering a false crop report that would enable brokerage barons Randolph and Mortimer Duke to corner the Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice market, Beeks is, in Gleason’s hands, a study in unfettered invective. He is a mean, violent and utterly joyless creature – certainly one of the few characters in film history to warrant a sodomizing fate (via gorilla). But you couldn’t help but like the guy for his unabashed cruelty when he pauses on a public pay phone to tell a waiting woman to “Fuck off”, it’s an oddly liberating vandalization of decorum. Walking through life as a profane curmudgeon has never seemed like such delightful sport. (Interestingly, the idea of pistol whipping Jim Belushi may be more palatable to audiences today than it was back in 1983.) Gleason then went on to become a Gen X model of vituperative authority in The Breakfast Club playing Principal Richard Vernon, a bitter prick whose creative punishment of forcing five problem students to spend an entire Saturday in the high school library turns into a social experiment that instills in Emilio Estevez the power to shatter glass with a fierce yawp. Though Vernon represents the evils of stereotyping, conformity and misunderstanding against which the students are railing, he’s become more sympathetic over the years as the edges have dulled around Judd Nelson’s glib juvenile delinquent, John Bender. John Hughes’s gratingly sincere dialogue is responsible for this to a degree (the unintentional laughter quotient has risen considerably), but every moment spent with Vernon is insult heaven. “Don’t mess with the bull, young man. You’ll get the horns.” “The next time I have to come in here, I’m cracking skulls!” “You want to see something funny? You go visit John Bender in five years. You’ll see how goddamned funny he is.” That last one’s not intended as a laugh line in the film, and, actually, I’ve never laughed at it while watching the film, but whenever I arbitrarily call the quote up in my head, I grin just thinking about Gleason’s no-bullshit delivery. Gleason’s very appearance could elevate the most dubious material he’s the only reason anyone ever thinks about Johnny Be Good (to Uma Thurman’s eternal dismay), where he’s cast as tyrannical high school football coach Wayne Hisler, who gets so wound up before games, he inexplicably punches through a glass water cooler jug on the way out to the field. Also, when Hisler’s star quarterback (played rather unconvincingly by Breakfast Club alum Anthony Michael Hall) takes himself out of a blowout game due to a self-diagnosed “broken dick”, his unconcerned response is to “rub some dirt on it, and get back in there”. Make no mistake: Johnny Be Good is a terrible movie. But if you want to see some vintage Gleason, it’s worth a look. The last leg of Gleason’s 1980s asshole tour would be John McTiernan’s Die Hard, in which he played Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson, and changed up his usual authoritarian posturing by allowing himself to look like an inept schmuck as Hans Gruber’s terrorists have a field day with his disastrous judgment calls. But while Robinson relishes the thrill of being in charge of a massive police operation, he’s also pathetically devoid of pride when Agent Johnson and Agent Johnson (no relation) of the FBI arrive to relieve Robinson of his command, he becomes a groveling embarrassment, worshipping the feds instead of bristling at their brash usurpation. It’s a fine performance in a fine film, though appreciation for his work tends to get lost amid the clutter of deft action sequences and exemplary ensemble turns. Gleason continued to act with great regularity in films and television after his tremendous 1980s run, but the roles weren’t nearly as memorable (I love Miami Blues, but I honestly can’t remember a single Gleason moment from that movie). It looks like his last film is going to be the completed-according-to-IMDb The Book of Caleb I’ve yet to see Ryan Schifrin’s Abominable, but if it’s as shamelessly enjoyable as El Grande Rojo says, then maybe that would be the more fitting swan song. Still, I haven’t mourned the absence of golden age Gleason over the last eighteen years because the four pivotal performances discussed above rank among the most brilliant character turns ever. When Gleason barged into a scene, you were witness to a garish display of the worst human qualities imaginable. You don’t forget assholes of that magnitude. And we won’t forget Paul Gleason, the man who made high art out of being a prick. (Thanks for the moniker, sir. I’ll try not to tarnish it any more than I already have.)

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