Fiery, forceful and intimidating character actor James Tolkan has carved out a nice little niche for himself in both movies and television alike as a formidable portrayer of fierce and flinty hard-boiled tough guy types. James Stewart Tolkan was born on June 20, 1931 in Calumet, Michigan. His father, Ralph M. Tolkan, was a cattle dealer. James attended the University of Iowa, Coe College and Eastern Arizona College. After serving a year-long stint in the United States Navy, Tolkan went to New York and studied acting with both Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler at the Actors Studio. Short and bald, with beady, intense eyes, a wiry, compact, muscular build, a gruff, jarring, high-decibel voice, and an aggressive, confrontational, blunt-as-a-battle-ax, rough-around-the-edges demeanor, Tolkan has been often cast as rugged, cynical no-nonsense cops, mean, domineering authority figures, and various ruthless and dangerous criminals.
Tolkan first began acting in movies in the late 1960s and was highly effective in two pictures for Sidney Lumet: He was a rabidly homophobic police lieutenant in the superbly gritty Serpico (1973) and a sneaky district attorney in the equally excellent Prince of the City (1981). Best known as the obnoxiously overzealous high school principal Gerard Strickland in the Back to the Future films, Tolkan’s other most memorable roles include Napolean in Woody Allen’s Love and Death (1975), a ramrod army officer in WarGames (1983), mayor Robert Culp’s mordant, wisecracking assistant in Turk 182 (1985), the hard-nosed Stinger in Top Gun (1986), the choleric Detective Lubric in Masters of the Universe (1987), meek mob accountant Numbers in Dick Tracy (1990), and Wesley Snipes’ bullish superior in Boiling Point (1993).
James has had recurring parts on the television series A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001) (he also directed two episodes), Mary (1985), Cobra (1993), The Hat Squad (1992) and Remington Steele (1982). Among the television series James has done guest spots on are Naked City (1958), Hill Street Blues (1981), Miami Vice (1984), The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990), The Equalizer (1985), The Wonder Years (1988) and The Pretender (1996). Besides his film and television work, Tolkan has also performed on stage in productions of such plays as “Between Two Thieves”, “Wings”, “One Tennis Shoe”, “The Front Page”, “Twelve Angry Men”, “Full Circle”, “The Tempest”, “Golda”, “The Silent Partner” and the original 1984 Broadway production of David Mamet’s “Glengary, Glen Ross”. When he isn’t acting, James Tolkan spends his spare time collecting folk art.