Family & Companions
Immediately recognizable to film and television audiences for his piercing gaze and gravelly tones, Michael Ironside was a character actor who essayed powerful, often dangerous figures on both sides of the law in countless films, including "Top Gun" (1986), "Total Recall" (1990) and "Terminator Salvation" (2009). He burst onto the international scene as a malevolent telepath in David Cronenberg's gory "Scanners" (1981) and bounced between heels and anti-heroes for the next decade. His ubiquitous presence in everything from low-budget thrillers to straight drama boosted him to Hollywood features in the late '80s and early '90s, as well as television series like "ER" (NBC, 1994-2009) and "Seaquest DSV" (NBC, 1993-96), and continued to divide his time between mainstream and indie product well into the next millennium. His vast body of work and undeniable screen presence made him a favorite among cult movie fans and tough guy aficionados for nearly four decades.
Born Frederick Reginald Ironside on Feb. 12, 1950 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, he was one of five children by Robert Ironside, a street lighting technician, and wife Patricia, a homemaker. His father instilled a love for the written word in him at an early age, and he wrote his first play, "The Shelter," at the age of 16. The script won the top prize in a nationwide university contest, and Ironside used the money to mount a stage production of his work. While a student at the Ontario College of Art, he directed and starred in a 15-minute short called "Down Where the Lights Are," which caught the attention of actor-director Janine Manatis, who became his acting teacher prior to three years of training at the Canadian National Film Board. She also cast him in a 1977 TV production of John Osbourne's "Look Back in Anger (CBC), which marked his official screen debut. After a short stint as a construction worker, Ironside began pursuing a career in acting on a fulltime basis. Bit parts in Canadian features and on television preceded his star-making turn in Cronenberg's "Scanners" as Daryl Revok, a deranged telepath who, in the film's memorable opening, literally causes a man's head to explode from the force of his abilities. Ironside's terrifying performance, which received a Genie nomination in 1982, led to more villainous turns in low-budget films like the slasher picture "Visiting Hours" (1982) and the campy sci-fi actioner "Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone" (1983). The abundance of work spurred Ironside to try his hand in Hollywood, where he relocated in 1982.
The move proved overwhelmingly successful for the actor; within a year's time, he was working steadily in top features and television series. The most visible of these was the blockbuster miniseries "V: The Final Battle" (NBC, 1984) and its follow-up, "V: The Series" (NBC, 1984-85). The sci-fi projects gave Ironside a rare opportunity to play a heroic character - Ham Tyler, a no-nonsense man of action who joins the human resistance against a wave of alien invaders. The runaway ratings of "Final Battle" helped to pave the way for more mainstream projects for Ironside, including collaborations with John Schlesinger on "The Falcon and the Snowman" (1985) and Walter Hill on "Extreme Prejudice" (1987). However, his biggest project of the 1980s was undoubtedly "Top Gun" (1986), which cast him as the taciturn flight instructor Rick "Jester" Heatherly, who was outflown by Tom Cruise's "Maverick" in the film's opening. In typical fashion, Ironside balanced his work in this box office champion with smaller films like the thriller "Watchers" (1988) with Corey Haim and countless TV guest shots, including a 1989 appearance on "The Ray Bradbury Theater" (HBO/USA Network, 1985-1992) as a murderer obsessed with erasing the evidence of his crime that earned him a Cable ACE nomination.
The 1990s saw Ironside as busy as ever in yet another wide array of projects. The biggest of these was "Total Recall" (1990), Paul Verhoeven's over-the-top science fiction action pic with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a construction worker who discovers his secret identity as a freedom fighter on Mars. Ironside played his nemesis, a brutal security officer assigned to stop Schwarzenegger while enjoying some romantic scenes with a pre-stardom Sharon Stone. He was soon appearing in no less than five movies per year between 1991 and 1996; most were forgettable, like "McBain" (1991) with Christopher Walken, though he gave solid character turns in "Guncrazy" (1992) with Drew Barrymore, and handled the bad guy department with typical menace in the inexplicable "Highlander II" (1991), "Free Willy (1993), as the amusement park owner who exploits the title whale, and "The Next Karate Kid" (1994), which allowed him to show off his martial arts training in a climatic fight with Pat Morita. Ironside also co-penned and starred a Canadian-made independent drama called "Chaindance" (1990) about a convict who is forced to take care of a man (Brad Dourif) with cerebral palsy. He would step behind the camera several more times in later years; first as executive producer for the police mystery "Probable Cause" (Showtime, 1994), in which he also starred as a detective struggling with a sexual harassment charge, followed by the military-themed thriller "One of Our Own" (1997), and later, as writer, director and star of "The Arrangement" (1999), a low-budget crime picture with Lori Petty on the run from mobsters.
In 1995, Ironside was featured in the first season of "ER" as the irascible emergency room chief Dr. William "Wild Willy" Smith. He soon departed the medical drama in 1995 to take over the lead on the Steven Spielberg-produced fantasy series, "Seaquest DSV." The troubled series had undergone major cast changes in its second season, most notably the departure of top-billed Roy Scheider, who was vehemently opposed to the show's scripts and direction; Ironside was brought in to play the new captain of the show's title sub, a futuristic exploration vessel. The series' remaining fans, which had dwindled since the show's launch, rejected the attempt to revitalize the show, and it was soon cancelled. Ironside, however, simply returned to his busy schedule on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border. By now, his résumé had expanded to include voiceover work on animated projects like "Superman: The Animated Series" (The WB, 1996-2000), for which he provided the imposing tones of the god-like alien Darkseid, as well as video games like the Tom Clancy-created "Splinter Cell" series, which featured Ironside as its lead character, the rogue secret agent Sam Fisher. Movie audiences saw him in features ranging from the evangelical Christian fantasy "The Omega Code" (1999), to the mega-hit "The Perfect Storm" (2000), as the stubborn owner of the doomed fishing boat "Andrea Gail," to the schoolteacher-turned-intergalactic Marine in Paul Verhoeven's cult favorite, "Starship Troopers" (1997). The latter was notable among movie trainspotters as one of several films in which a character played by Ironside loses a limb; others included "Total Recall" and later, "The Machinist" (2004).
The new millennium saw Ironside maintaining the same breathless schedule in features and on television. He was the scheming Cardinal Mazarin in the PAX adventure series "Young Blades" (2005), about a quartet of youthful Musketeers in 17th century France, and the ill-fated detective Curtis Monroe, who accidentally shoots himself while investigating Alfre Woodard's murderous sons, on "Desperate Housewives" (ABC, 2004-12). He added more hardnosed military men to his roster with the no-nonsense General Sam Lane, father of Lois Lane, on two episodes of "Smallville" (The WB/The CW, 2001-11), and General Ashdown, leader of the human resistance in "Terminator Salvation" (2009). A year later, he signed on to the web series "The Bannen Way" (Crackle.com, 2009) as the police chief dad of the title character, a con man (Mark Gantt) trying to straighten out his life.
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Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Wrote first play at age 15, "The Shelter", which won first prize in a Canada-wide university contest; produced the play with the prize money
Feature acting debut, "High-ballin'"
American TV-movie debut, "The Family Man" (CBS)
Shone in David Cronenberg's "Scanners"; Cronenberg rewrote and expanded the part of Darryl Revok for Ironside
Moved to L.A.
Had a lead role in the NBC miniseries "V: The Final Battle" and its subsequent spin-off "V: The Series"
Appeared as Tom Cruise's flight instructor Dick 'Jester' Weatherly in Tony Scott's "Top Gun"
Portrayed Harry Bennett in syndicated miniseries "Ford: The Man and the Machine"
Led a hi-tech commando unit in Walter Hill's "Extreme Prejudice"
First film with director Paul Verhoeven, "Total Recall", playing the sociopathic intelligence agent Richter
Feature screenwriting and co-producing debut (also actor), "Chaindance"
Joined cast of the NBC series "seaQuest DSV"
Created the recurring character of Dr William Swift on the hit NBC medical drama "ER"
Starred with Bruce Dern in USA Network movie "Dead Man's Revenge"
Played Colonel Dugan (the villain opposing Pat Morita) in "The Next Karate Kid"
Reteamed with Verhoeven for "Starship Troopers"
Starred opposite Frederic Forrest in "One of Our Own"
Played the abusive, alcoholic stepfather in "Crime and Punishment in Suburbia"
Had featured role in "The Perfect Storm"
Starred with Christian Bale in "The Machinist"
Landed a recurring role on the TV series "Wolverine and the X-Men"
Landed a supporting role in "Terminator Salvation"
Appeared in "Transgression"
Voiced the role of Ultra Magnus on the animated TV series "Transformers Prime"
Landed a supporting role in the thriller "Element"