John Heard, who has died aged 71, was an engaging, intelligent character actor in American film, television and theatre from the mid-1970s onwards. In Big (1988), his slyly funny turn as a resentful executive provided a welcome antidote to the sweetness of a comedy about a boy transformed overnight into a man.
In the smash hit Home Alone (1990), he mistakenly leaves behind his son while taking the rest of his family on holiday, contriving to repeat the oversight in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992). He was Goldie Hawn’s duplicitous husband, who fakes his own death, in the thriller Deceived (1991) and was nominated for an Emmy in 1999 for the first season of the HBO drama The Sopranos, in which he played a self-loathing detective in the pocket of the mafia.
His finest hour, though, came near the start of his film career, when he was cast as the snarling, self-destructive but deeply principled Alex Cutter in Cutter’s Way (1981), directed by Ivan Passer, a key figure of the Czech New Wave. The alcoholic Cutter has lost an eye, an arm and half a leg in Vietnam, and spends much of the picture lashing out with his cane or his tongue. But in his determination to hold to account a local businessman he believes to be guilty of murder, he becomes the film’s motor and its conscience.
“The world lacks heroes,” he tells his charming but complacent friend (Jeff Bridges). The two men make an odd couple, strongly reminiscent of Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, but many of the film’s most indelible moments belong solely to Heard. Refusing booze straight after identifying his girlfriend’s body in the morgue, he says: “The routine grind drives me to drink. Tragedy I take straight.”
The studio had wanted Richard Dreyfuss for the part. “I went to see Dreyfuss in Othello in Shakespeare in the Park,” said Passer. “The noisy audience was not paying much attention, lying on the grass making love and smoking drugs. Suddenly an actor came on stage and quietened the audience with his voice. It was John Heard as Cassio.”
Heard immersed himself in the role of Cutter. “He was walking around with a cane for three weeks before the picture, and he stayed into it throughout shooting. But also, somehow the character was very close to something real in John.” By his own admission, Heard was not an easy man to work with at the time. “Cutter’s Way was a real test of my stupidity. Every day it was like, who did I think I was?… I considered myself an alcoholic, so I had the inside track on how an alcoholic would do this or that…” He was only too aware, though, of how important the role was to his career. “I’m a pretty lightweight guy, and it gave me a chance to play somebody who had a little more strength.”
Heard was born in Washington DC, the son of Helen (nee Sperling), who performed in community theatre groups and worked as a museum guide, and John, who was in charge of installations and properties in the office of the Secretary of Defense. He was educated at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and at the Catholic University of America, Washington DC. He left the latter before graduating in order to take up work in regional theatre and off-Broadway.
At the Long Wharf theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1976 he originated the role of Billy, the gay soldier, in the first staging of David Rabe’s controversial play Streamers, and was disappointed not to have been retained for Mike Nichols’s subsequent New York production. He won an Obie award in 1977 for his performance in G.R. Point, in which he played a man processing dead soldiers from Vietnam before burial, and won another three years later for his combined work in Othello and Split.
His first notable film role was as a disillusioned journalist in Between the Lines (1977), a drama about the fortunes of an underground paper in Boston. He was Jack Kerouac opposite Nick Nolte as Neal Cassady in the Beat Generation drama Heart Beat (1980) and fell for Nastassja Kinski in the flashy remake of Cat People (1982).
He acted prolifically thereafter, with highlights including the subterranean chiller C.H.U.D. (1984), the coming-of-age story Heaven Help Us, released in the UK as Catholic Boys, and Martin Scorsese’s nocturnal screwball comedy After Hours (both 1985). In the same year he starred in the BBC version of Tender is the Night, adapted by Dennis Potter, and played Geraldine Page’s son in the Oscar-winning drama The Trip to Bountiful. He was an FBI agent in Betrayed, a thriller about white supremacists, and a theatre director who becomes romantically involved with two friends in the tearjerker Beaches (both 1988).
Other notable films included Awakenings (1990), with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, the deep south-set drama Rambling Rose (1991), the Clint Eastwood thriller In the Line of Fire and the John Grisham adaptation The Pelican Brief (both 1993). He also had a recurring role in the television spin-off of the film of Grisham’s novel The Client (1995-96).
He never stopped working, although in later years he moved increasingly into television, in series such as CSI: Miami and Prison Break: Resurrection, and in the doggedly trashy made-for-TV horror-disaster film Sharknado (2013).
His private life was beset by difficulties. His first marriage, to the actor Margot Kidder, in 1979, lasted six days. His third, to Lana Pritchard, in 2010, made it to seven months. In 1997 he was found guilty of trespassing at the home of a former partner, the actor Melissa Leo.
He is survived by Annika, his daughter by his second wife, Sharon, whom he married in 1988 (their son, Max, died last year), and by another son, Jack, from his relationship with Leo.
John Matthew Heard, actor, born 7 March 1946; died 21 July 2017
- This article was amended on 24 July 2017. It was Geraldine rather than Genevieve Page who played the mother of John Heard’s character in The Trip to Bountiful.