Early life, family, educational background
American actor James Stewart Tolkan was born on 20 June 1931, in Calumet, Michigan, USA, to a cattle dealer Ralph M. Toklan, and Marjorie Tolkan.
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His paternal grandparents were Russian-Jewish immigrants, Harry and Anna Tolkan. Alexander and Sofia Silvola were his Finnish maternal grandparents.
James attended Coe College, Eastern Arizona College, the Actors Studio, and the University of Iowa. He served in the US Navy for a year, then studied at the Actors Studio, with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg.
He played Napoleon Bonaparte and his look-alike in 1945’s “Love and Death.” The Woody Allen comedy represented a Russian literature satire. The following year he played Tom Paine in “Independence.”
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In 1973 he played a homophobic cop, Lt. Steiger, in “Serpico.” His character loudly accuses a gay encounter in the men’s bathroom between Officer Serpico and another cop. Sidney Lumet directed the neo-noir biographical crime.
In 1979 he played a Coroner in the supernatural horror film, “The Amityville Horror”, based on Jay Anson’s eponymous novel published in 1977, and starring Margot Kidder and James Brolin, and directed by Stuart Rosenberg. Margot and James play a young couple who buy a home and are haunted by the forces living there. The story is loosely based on the Lutz family’s experience in their Amityville, New York home. A year before they moved in, serial murders had occurred in the house. A remake of the film came out in 2005.
James played District Attorney Polito, a determined and cold lawyer in “Prince of the City,” directed by Sidney Lumet in 1981. The following year he played Lt. Glass in the comedy-drama “Author! Author!” by Arthur Hiller.
He appeared in two films in 1983. As FBI Agent George Wigan in “War Games,” which received three Academy Award nominations and won several awards, including a Saturn and a BAFTA. “WarGames” is based on urban legends, and made up of four short films. He also voiced Bishop in the American horror anthology, “Nightmares”, starring Veronica Cartwright, Lance Henriksen, Emilio Estevez and Cristina Raines.
In 1985 James was Gerald Strickland in “Back to the Future,” directed by Robert Zemeckis, and starred Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox.
The film was followed by two sequels, and became famous for its realistic portrayal of different American eras. The National Film Registry inducted the film, and the Library of Congress preserved it for aesthetic, cultural, and historical significance. His character, Gerald Strickland, is the strict assistant principal of Hill Valley High School. In 1989 he reprised his role in the “Back to the Future Part II” sequel. He calls the unnamed gang members ‘slackers’ when they assault him as they drive past, and he shoots back. In 1990 he played Chief Marshal James Strickland, Mr. Strickland’s grandfather in “Back to the Future Part III.”, and reprised his role in the 1991 animated spin-off.
James played the no-nonsense commanding officer, Commander Tom ‘Stinger’ Jardian, in the 1986 film “Top Gun.” He’s famous for the line, ‘Your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.’ The action drama was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson in association with Paramount Pictures and directed by Tony Scott. Jack Epps Jr. and Jim Cash adapted the screenplay from the “Top Guns” article in a California magazine published three years prior. Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Tom Skerritt, Kelly McGillis, and Anthony Edwards star in the film, with Adrian Pasdar debuting as an actor.
Tom Cruise played a young naval aviator, Lieutenant Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.
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Lieutenant Pete and Nick ‘Goose’ Bradshaw, his Radar Intercept Officer, are given the opportunity to train in San Diego, California, at the US Navy’s Fighter Weapons School at Naval Air Station Miramar. The film premiered on 16 May 1986, and received mixed reviews from critics, but effects, action sequences, acting performances, and the aerial stunts received high praise, and cinema viewership increased by 45% four weeks after the premiere. The film was a huge commercial success, and grossed $356 million from a $15 million budget. The film remained popular even in 2013 when it was re-released in IMAX 3D. Berlin won an Academy Award for “Take My Breath Away,” for Best Original Song. In the “Top Gun” video games, James voiced Commander Hondo.
In 1987 he played hard-nosed Detective Lubic in “Masters of the Universe,” and in 1990 Big Boy Caprice’s accountant nicknamed ‘Numbers’ in the Warren Beatty film “Dick Tracy.”
James guest-appeared as Evan Humboldt in the “Naked City” episode entitled, “The Man Who Bit a Diamond in Half” in 1960, as Norman Keyes in “Remington Steele” from 1985 to 1987, and Mr. Bjornstead in “Miami Vice” in 1987.
He played Dr. Oates (alias Dr. Bloat) in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” episode entitled “Day Damn One” in 1990. From 1992 to 1993, he starred as Mike Ragland in the short-lived ABC crime drama “The Hat Squad,” then FBI Special Agnet Korkos in the 1997 episode of “The Pretender”, entitled “Dragon House.”
From 2001 to 2002, James portrayed more than a dozen characters in A&E’s “A Nero Wolfe Mystery”, including Mr. Joseph Pitcairn, Mr. Hackett and Leo Bingham. James also directed two episodes, “The Next Witness” and “Die Like a Dog.” He played Dean Chesny in the 2011 episode of “Leverage” entitled “The Cross My Heart Job.”
His stage debut was at East 74th Street Theatre in 1960, as Frank in “The Shoemaker And The Peddler”. He starred in “Macbeth” at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, in “The Cannibals” at the St. Clement’s Church, and in Arthur Miller’s “A View From The Bridge” at the Sheridan Square Playhouse. In 1965 he was Robert Duvall’s understudy in “A View from the Bridge.”
James has appeared in various productions, including “The Silent Partner,” “Twelve Angry Men,” “One Tennis Shoe,” and “Narrow Road To The Deep North.” He also appeared in the 1984 original “Glengary, Glen Ross” Broadway production by David Mamet.
James met his future wife while she was working at the American Place Theatre in New York as a staffer. They married on 28 August 1971 in Lake Placid, New York, in a private ceremony at St. Eustace Episcopal Church. They are still married, and currently reside in Lake Placid.
Hobbies, favorite things, and interesting facts
On Rotten Tomatoes, his highest-rated films are “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” in 1973, and “Love and Death” – both had a 100% rating, “Back to the Future” was rated 96% and 1989’s “Second Sight” received 0%.
James enjoys spending his free time collecting folk art.
He is a bald man who is 5ft 6in (1.68m) tall. James has blue, intense eyes, which helps him to be cast as overbearing and strict characters.
Net worth and salary
James’ net worth is estimated at over $5 million, as of mid-2020.