Alien was a risky play for Brandywine Productions, 20th Century Fox, and director Ridley Scott. Prior to the release of Star Wars in 1977, the sci-fi genre hadn’t produced many legitimate blockbuster films. On top of that, Alien’s screenplay closely adhered to the pattern established in slasher movies of the day; only one character – a woman – would survive the film, thus committing the studio to a female star if it chose to make Alien sequels. And on top of THAT, Ridley Scott chose to cast a relative unknown in the role of sole-survivor Ripley: Sigourney Weaver, who before Alien had only featured in a handful of films and television series and was mostly known as an up-and-coming stage actress.
Faced with these risks, Ridley Scott and Alien casting directors Mary Selway and Mary Goldberg did what all great gamblers do: they hedged their bet.
With an unknown and largely unproven actress in the film’s starring role, Scott and the two Marys wisely chose to surround her with a truly phenomenal cast – one that was, as Roger Ebert wisely notes, far older and more experienced than the typical casts of slasher movies of the era. If Weaver represents the heart of the film, then the ensemble around her represents its backbone, the solid foundation upon which the film’s success is based. Looking back from the year 2012, their collective accomplishments are truly staggering: 3 Oscar nominations, 1 Emmy Award and 8 total Emmy nominations, 1 Golden Globe Award and 4 Globe nominations, 6 BAFTA awards and 14 BAFTA nominations, 1 Tony Award, 1 acting award at the Cannes Film Festival, 1 memorable role as a James Bond villain, and 2 actors honored as Commanders of the Order of the British Empire. (And that’s not even including Sigourney Weaver’s achievements!)
Leading the ensemble in the role of ship captain Dallas is Tom Skerritt. Prior to Alien, Skerritt was best known for his performance as “Duke” Forrest in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970), and by 1979 he was already a familiar face to both television and film audiences. Of all the characters in the film, he most closely resembles the type of brave, selfless leader that typically populates sci-fi films, and his death comes as a significant shock to viewers. Skerritt, who just prior to Alien worked on Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke, also brings something of a roguish quality to the role, and one wonders if the producers were intentionally trying to mimic the success of Star Wars’ Han Solo (Harrison Ford). Since Alien, Skerritt has had a long and successful career, including the role of Viper in Top Gun, a recurring role on Cheers, and a leading role in Picket Fences, for which he won the Emmy Award for Lead Actor in a Drama in 1993.
Before landing the role of Lambert in Alien, Veronica Cartwright was a well-known child actress who had been featured in a variety of TV series and several films, including Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Like Skerritt, she has gone on to have a long and varied film and television career, and she continues to work to this day, including a role on the ABC series Revenge just a few weeks ago. She has been nominated for three Emmy Awards, two of which were for her guest appearances on The X-Files.
Harry Dean Stanton – Brett in Alien – has become arguably one of the most beloved character actors in Hollywood; indeed, Roger Ebert once created the “Stanton-Walsh Rule,” which states that “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” Although his list of award nominations may not match those of some of his Alien brethren, he has appeared in at least as many memorable roles as any of them, including performances in such films as Paris, Texas, Red Dawn, Repo Man, Pretty in Pink, The Last Temptation of Christ, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Green Mile, and Anger Management.
By all accounts, Yaphet Kotto is a character. An African-American Jewish Republican (not exactly a large demographic group), Kotto once claimed that his father was a Cameroonian Prince (a claim which appears to have some validity) and that he was descended from Queen Victoria (a claim that is considerably more dubious, at least according to Buckingham Palace). Prior to Alien, he was most well-known for his role as the villainous Mr. Big in the blaxploitation-inspired Bond film Live and Let Die. As the engineer Parker, Kotto brings a humorous, everyman perspective to Alien, and his considerable improvisatory skills were used to great effect; in several scenes, the actors were told to ad-lib their banter, and many of Parker’s lines were made up by the actor on the spot.
John Hurt wasn’t even supposed to be in Alien. Ridley Scott originally wanted Hurt for the role of Kane, but Hurt was already committed to a film that was scheduled to shoot in South Africa, so Jon Fitch was cast instead. On the very first day of shooting, however, Finch became gravely ill from a previously undiagnosed case of diabetes. In the meantime, Hurt’s public opposition to apartheid led to him being refused entry to South Africa, and he had to drop out of the film he was scheduled to shoot there. With Fitch having fallen ill and Hurt’s sudden availability, Ridley Scott personally drove to Hurt’s house several hours away from where Alien was shooting in England and convinced him to join the film. This decision, of course, proved to be fortuitous, as Hurt’s role is a pivotal one in the film. Since Alien, John Hurt has become one of Britain’s most respected actors; he has gone on to star in films like Rob Roy and last year’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, has two Academy Award nominations to his name (for Midnight Express pre-Alien and The Elephant Man post-Alien), and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2004.
And last but certainly not least, Bilbo Baggins himself, Ian Holm. His list of accolades both pre- and post-Alien is seemingly endless: a Tony Award that he received for the play The Homecoming in 1967, two Emmy nominations, an Academy Award nomination for Chariots of Fire in 1982, and two BAFTA awards. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1990 and Knight Bachelor in 1998, meaning that he is entitled to be styled as Sir Ian Holm.
Alien had much going against it: a rookie star in Sigourney Weaver, inexperienced producers at Brandywine Productions, and a director making only his second film. The film’s experienced and exceptional ensemble cast, however, lent the film an immediate degree of respectability and gravitas – a not inconsiderable feat for a genre picture that, if done poorly, could have easily come across as just another mediocre monster movie. Given the level of talent involved, it’s no surprise that the end result was one of the finest science-fiction or horror films of all time.
To see the other articles I’ve written so far in the 30 Days of Alien series, visit the link below: