Family & Companions
A consummate character actor for over three decades, John Diehl essayed edgy, often unpredictable men whose status and profession often belied a penchant for dangerous behavior in such films as "Stargate" (1994), "Nixon" (1995), "A Time for Killing" (1995) and "Jurassic Park III" (2001). He began his career playing unmoored young men, from the hapless soldier Cruiser in "Stripes" (1981) to a psychopath targeting prostitutes in "Angel" (1984). A supporting role on "Miami Vice" (NBC, 1984-89) as Detective Larry Zito brought him stardom, but he left the pastel-hued series to hone his craft on stage and in independent films. By the 1990s, he had become a familiar and frequent face in features and on television, often as tough authority figures in the aforementioned films, as well as more nuanced turns in "Gettysburg" (1993) and Wim Wenders' "Land of Plenty" (2004) as an emotionally distraught veteran. Television was his most prolific showcase, but Diehl's versatility and range made him a welcome and consistently skillful performer in all acting mediums.
Born May 1, 1950 in Cincinnati, OH, John Diehl developed a wandering spirit while still a student at St. Xavier High School. He traveled extensively as a teenager, canvassing Mexico, Europe and the Middle East before settling in New York with his sister. There, he worked in a variety of odd jobs, including bouncer and bartender, before heading westward to Los Angeles to make a stab as a visual artist. There, he balanced his art studies with an acting class, where he generated considerable praise. At the urging of his sister, also an actress, he began auditioning for roles in films and television while honing his craft in various Equity waiver plays.
In 1980, Diehl made his television debut in an adaptation of Phil Caputo's Vietnam memoir "A Rumor of War" (CBS), which preceded a steady stream of bit and supporting roles in features and episodic television. He endeared himself to many viewers as the dimwitted Army recruit Cruiser in "Stripes" (1981), opposite Bill Murray and John Candy, but his lanky build and unwavering gaze seemed to make him a casting director's choice for unsavory or unbalanced characters, like his vigilante psychopath in the exploitation thriller "Angel" (1984). That same year, he landed his big break as Detective Larry Zito on Michael Mann's cultural phenomenon "Miami Vice" (NBC, 1984-89), starring Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas. Paired with actor Michael Talbott as Detective Stanley Switek, Diehl's role was largely restricted to comic relief for the often gravely, self-serious program, a scenario he found restrictive and frustrating after two seasons. In 1987, he asked to be released from his contract with "Vice," and Zito was promptly killed off in a two-part episode based around corruption in the boxing world. Ironically, Diehl was also pursuing the sport as a profession offscreen, and amassed a respectable record before retiring in 1986.
Diehl balanced stage work in New York and Los Angeles with numerous television and feature appearances throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Now regarded as a dependable and versatile character actor, he moved effortlessly from villains like the malevolent sex offender Teddy Magyk in a 1988 TV adaptation of Elmore Leonard's "Glitz" (NBC), to broad comic turns like a hapless house guest in "Madhouse" (1990) and even a sympathetic suburban dad in the otherwise forgettable horror film "Mikey" (1992). Like many great character actors, Diehl was able to transform even minor roles into memorable turns: in the epic "Gettysburg" (1993), he was the spokesman for deserting members of the 2nd Maine Volunteer Infantry, key figures in the Union's victory at that battle.
In 1994, Diehl was cast as the no-nonsense Lt. Charles Kawalsky in "Stargate." One of four people to survive an interplanetary leap between worlds, Kawalsky later joined Kurt Russell, James Spader and French Stewart in aiding the indigenous people of an alien planet in revolting against their tyrannical leader (Jaye Davidson). The film was an unexpected worldwide hit, and boosted Diehl's profile in the film world. He was soon in demand for tough, often inflexible characters - men of authority, like General George Custer in Larry McMurtry's "Buffalo Gals" (CBS, 1995), but more often than not, with a touch of unscrupulousness about them. Chief among these was his turn as Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy in Oliver Stone's "Nixon" (1995), but he was also menacing as a thuggish security expert in "The Client" (1994) or a Klansman-turned -legal informant in "A Time to Kill" (1996). Popular films such as these allowed him to indulge in arthouse and avant-garde projects during this period, like Michael Tolkin's comedy "The New Age" (1994) and Wim Wenders' "The End of Violence" (1997).
Diehl's output continued at a steady pace throughout the 1990s and 2000s. If audiences were not entirely sure of his name, they knew his face from a wide variety of projects, including bit and supporting roles in major blockbusters like "Con Air" (1997) and "Pearl Harbor" (2001), to substantial character turns in independent and television fare, like his take on Joe DiMaggio in "The Rat Pack" (HBO, 1998) or the George Clooney-produced, live-TV remake of "Fail Safe" (CBS, 2000). His biggest title of the decade was undoubtedly "Jurassic Park III" (2001), where he played a flinty mercenary who meets a grisly fate from a rampaging dinosaur. The exposure again reminded the industry of his efficacy in nearly any role, and he continued his impressive balancing act of theater, television and features, though now at a pace of up to seven projects a year.
Television was Diehl's most consistent showcase during this period. From 2001 to 2004, he was the face of a major ad campaign for Buick, directed by Tony Scott, in which he depicted the legendary car designer Harley Earl. He enjoyed a number of recurring roles on series, most notably on "The Shield" (FX, 2002-08) as the doomed Ben Gilroy, Assistant Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, and creator of the experimental and controversial Farmington Project, which housed the series' volatile lead, Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and his corrupted Strike Team. He then shifted gears to play a gruff artist who mentored Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) on "Friday Night Lights" (NBC/Audience Network, 2006-2011). Features were also frequent during this period, and Diehl landed rare leads in Wim Wenders' "Land of Plenty" (2004) as a paranoid Vietnam vet who challenged his niece (Michelle Williams) on her perception of the world, and in "Natural Disasters" (2008) as a husband who took in a Hurricane Katrina survivor (Charles Robinson). For the most part, he remained true to his passion for offbeat, character-driven film work, as evidenced by his appearance in cult film director Monte Hellman's critically acclaimed "Road to Nowhere" (2009) and a comic turn as a devout Christian whose untimely illness forces his wife (Rachael Harris) to seek out his drug-addicted illegitimate son (Matt O'Leary) in the festival hit "Natural Selection" (2011).
Cast (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Feature film debut in Ivan Reitman's "Stripes"
First major film role in "Angel"
First worked as a series regular as undercover Detective Larry Zito on "Miami Vice"