Beloved character actor James Rebhorn sadly died at the age of 65 last Friday, robbing Hollywood of one of its finest character actors and likely causing people around the world to point at his picture and say, "Hey, I know that guy!" To me, Rebhorn would always be the ornery Secretary of Defense from Independence Day, a type he played many times in his long career, but he was many characters to many different people. In no particular order, here's some of his best work.
Meet the Parents
Rebhorn, as Robert De Niro's family friend Dr. Larry Banks, was the embodiment of the WASP nightmare Ben Stiller's character Greg Focker was stuck in. He quietly taunts Greg for being a male nurse, but probably his best scene was the pool volleyball game, where he bullies Greg into aggressively pounding the ball into a lady's face. "It's only a game, Focker!"
Scent of a Woman
Rebhorn often played figures of patrician authority. One of the earliest examples is as the corrupt headmaster Mr. Trask in Scent of a Woman, who tries to pressure Charlie (Chris O'Donnell) into informing on his classmates. This means Trask ends up on the end of an epic Al Pacino rant (sidebar: it's never not a bummer that this is the movie Pacino won an Oscar for).
Far From Heaven
Lord, what a creepy scene. Rebhorn is assured and almost kindly as Dr. Bowman (note how his characters often didn't have first names), who advises Dennis Quaid's closeted Frank on medical treatments to "beat" his homosexuality. Rebhorn easily could have made this guy a despicable villain from the first second, but the man has a beside manner, and genuine compassion for his patient.
Head of State
When making his "black Alderman from Washington D.C. crazily gets elected President" comedy, Chris Rock needed a real honky for one of the villains, and who better than Rebhorn, as Senator Bill Arnot? Here he is getting his comeuppance.
Rebhorn is actually third billed in this! That's a bit of a slight to Deborah Kara Unger, and more a reflection of what a two-hander the David Fincher thriller is, but he's great as the "Consumer Recreation Services" psychological tester who just turns out to be an actor. Man, remember how weird this movie was?
Clips are annoyingly hard to find of Rebhorn's best roles. There's the aforementioned Independence Day, where he was told "nobody's perfect" when he protested he wasn't Jewish. There's The Talented Mr. Ripley, where his mannered work as Jude Law's father suggested much more going on under the surface (Matt Damon also did a killer impression of him in that movie). There's his "expert witness" in My Cousin Vinny.
Also, there's his great work on television, as Carrie's dad in Homeland (among the few times he got truly unhinged onscreen), as the CEO of Abaddon Industries in Enlightened, where he played a crucial role in the season finale.
Rebhorn was only 65, but it felt like he'd been playing middle-aged figures of authority my entire life. Before getting to the big screen (he only really started consistently appearing in films in the 90s), he had a long and rich theatrical career. He could have done it for another generation, and it's a tragedy that we won't be able to enjoy that.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.