By SCOTT VOISON
—Autograph May 2010
“Don’t you forget about me…”
Anybody who grew up in the ’80s will recognize those lyrics as the theme to one of that decade’s most iconic films, The Breakfast Club. And anyone who has seen the movie will instantly remember the performance of Paul Gleason as the school principal. It was a role that, for better and for worse, defined him for life.
Gleason was an actor since the 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1983’s Trading Places that audiences finally began to take notice. “That movie was great,” he said. “It was a real turning point for me because it was a big, successful movie, and I had a good part in it.” Although stars Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd received most of the accolades, at least one person was paying attention to Gleason. “John Hughes told me that he saw me in Trading Places and wanted me to be in The Breakfast Club.”
Writer-director Hughes had the unconventional idea of focusing on five teens as they spend a Saturday in detention under the (not always) watchful eye of the school’s principal. “When we were making it,” Gleason recalled, “we rehearsed it for a couple of weeks, and to me, it was like a good play. Since it was all in one room, I didn’t really know if it was going to work as a movie, but it held the audience’s interest. The strength of that film was the richness of each character. Everybody in that movie was very clearly drawn and recognizable, and no matter who you were as a young person, you could identify with at least one of those characters.”
Club became a film of its generation—and beyond. “I didn’t realize it would have such staying power,” Gleason admitted. “I thought it might be a nice, intimate dramatic movie with humor, and I knew it was going to be something I’d always look back on and enjoy having done, but I didn’t know that it would have such an afterlife.”
After the success of The Breakfast Club, Gleason was called upon to play yet another obnoxious authority figure in the action blockbuster, Die Hard. “That was kind of a thankless role,” he said of his character, Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson. “This cop didn’t know what was going on inside that building. The audience knew, but he didn’t know, so he was out there yelling and pissed-off about everything. Some of the critics said the chief of police was acting like a fool, but he didn’t know what was going on. Die Hard was a great movie but there wasn’t much I could do with that part.”
Gleason was so good at playing a jerk, he was asked to repeat the role over and over again. “I’m sure I was typecast,” he said. “I’ve heard casting people say to my agent, ‘Well, we know what he does,’ and for a while there, I was always being hired to play the guy who would go out and yell at everybody. I’ve fenced myself
into a corner playing those kinds of parts all the time, as opposed to maybe being a little more subtle and seeking roles that weren’t so bombastic. That’s my own fault, but on the other hand, there was a demand for my services to be that authority figure, so it worked out okay.”
Paul Gleason passed away May 27, 2006 at 67. Although greatly missed, he left behind a body of work that will entertain audiences for years to come. He also left behind a lot of autographs. He participated in several charity golf tournaments a year in the last decade of his life and was known for mingling with fans and generously signing.
He will not be forgotten.