Wednesday, March 27, 2013

In Character: Dan Hedaya

Maybe you know him as that consistently furious, short statured fella with a thick Brooklyn accent. Maybe you know him for the plentiful number of mafiosos he’s portrayed on screen. The slouched criminal. The wise-cracking thug. Alicia Silverstone’s dad. No matter what you recognize him from, there’s no doubting that you do indeed recognize the weathered face of Dan Hedaya. Dude has been living and breathing character roles since his breakthrough on Cheers (which, incidentally, I have never had an interest in seeing, and will not be mentioned below).

I love the hell out of this guy, and his ceaseless, amusing angst.

Five Essential Roles
Wise Guys (1986)
Anthony Castelo
Brian De Palma’s curiously un-De Palmaesque mob comedy, Wise Guys, is amusing for several reasons, a chief one being Hedaya’s stereotypical mob boss. And, in all honesty, despite the purposeful outlandishness of this movie (or is it because of it…?) Hedaya has a tough role to play here. It’s an intentional mob boss prototype: the thick accent, the hot temper, the constant scowl – play too hard and you’re one caricature among thousands. But ease in just right and you stand on your own. Hedaya has always managed to single himself out, and his Castelo is no different. You may have seen this type of performance before, but there’s something about Castelo’s humorous torment that will stay imprinted in your mind. 

Clueless (1995)
Mel Horowitz
You know what, I’m actually proud that Dan Hedaya’s most popular film performance is as Alicia Silverstone’s fierce father in Clueless. Clueless isn’t the most, you know, evolved movie, but it’s a lot of damn fun, and Hedaya has a clear blast hamming it up with the youngsters. The way he slings insult after insult at Cher’s new flame, Christian (“If anything happens to her, I got a .45 and a shovel, I doubt anyone would miss you,”), how he constantly bemoans about the healthy food Cher forces on him, and how he can display tender, fatherly appreciation at the most appropriate time.

Hedaya crushed in it 1995 and 1996. He was featured in no fewer than nine films, all of which received a healthy audience. Is Clueless the most well known…? You tell me. Either way, Mel Horowitz put Dan Hedaya on the map in a big, big way.

To Die For (1995)
Joe Maretto
Joe Maretto wasn’t buying what Suzanne Stone was selling. He didn’t like his young, na├»ve son, Larry (Matt Dillion) marrying the career-driven Suzanne (Nicole Kidman) in the first place, so when Larry ends up dead from a supposed drug overdose, old Joe isn’t having it. And just watch Hedaya’s face as he studies a television interview with Suzanne, in which she says her late husband had a drug problem no one knew about it. Joe knows that’s bullshit, and it is written all over Hedaya’s stern mug. From that point on, you know Suzanne is far from scott free.

Ransom (1996)
Jackie Brown
Hedaya’s single scene performance in Ransom is, to me, what defines a great character actor. Before meeting Hedaya’s imprisoned Jackie Brown, we’ve heard Mel Gibson’s Tom Mullen describe him in depth. Something about how Mullen illegally paid off a union that Brown was involved with (it’s a fault of the film itself that this plot point is so needlessly complicated, but anyway), and because Brown ended up in jail when Mullen should’ve, Mullen assumes Brown is responsible for kidnapping his son. So, he confronts Brown point black.

The way director Ron Howard lights the prison scene, with Hedaya slowly stepping out of a shadow into the light, subtly hints that Jackie Brown is a force to be reckoned with. We understand immediately that we should fear him, but his reaction to the kidnapping accusation means that Mullen has had him all wrong. It’s a brief, intense and utterly perfect Hedaya moment.

The Hurricane (1999)
Detective Sgt. Della Pesca Paterson
I’ve seen a lot of films featuring Dan Hedaya. The man has a penchant for playing stern, villainous men, with the most deplorable being Sgt. Della Pesca from Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane.

Della Pesca is essentially a composite character of all the racially motivated white cops who fucked over Rubin “Hurricane” Carter for 30 plus years. In the film, Hedaya plays Della Pesca as a relentless thug unwilling to let the innocent Carter simply live his life. He crosses paths with Carter as a child, and tortures him throughout much of his adult life. Why? Who the hell knows. Maybe to make an example of him. Maybe to prove his way is the ultimate way. Whatever Della Pesca’s motivation (which we’re never privy to, which is kind of a shame – a spin off movie would actually be a killer idea) Hedaya played Della Pesca with convincing vindictiveness; you’ll love to hate this guy.

The Best of the Best
Blood Simple (1984)
Julian Marty
I’ve never really considered Marty a bad guy. He’s basically a screwed-over bar owner who wants to catch his cheating wife in the act. Once caught, he lets his pride get the better of him, and he orders a hit man to kill her and her new lover. Some may disagree. Some may think Marty is the most villainous, white trash culprit in the Coen Brothers’ marvelous debut. Not me.

Much of my sensitivity for the character rests solely on the skill of Dan Hedaya. I feel for this guy. I feel bad that he’s been duped, that he’s been more or less taunted by his wife’s lover, that he’s ultimately forced to ruin his life by ruining his wife’s. Don’t get me wrong, Marty is a snake and Hedaya plays him as such, but there’s a level of sympathy in this character that rarely gets discussed.

Let me put it another way. If you’ve seen Blood Simple, you’re most likely aware of a 13-minute, dialogue-free centerpiece sequence in the film involving two men, a long stretch of a road, and a shovel. It is one of the tensest sequences the Coens have ever put on screen. And that is thanks much in part to Hedaya’s dedication to this character. I can’t not feel for him.

Other Notable Roles
In Mulholland Dr.
Cheers; The Tortellis (1984-1993; 1987)
The Hunger (1983)
Commando (1985)
The Addams Family (1991)
The Mighty Ducks (1992)
Benny & Joon (1993)
Rookie of the Year (1993)
Nixon (1995)
The Usual Suspects (1995)
The First Wives Club (1996)
Marvin’s Room (1996)
Freeway (1996)
A Life Less Ordinary (1997)
A Civil Action (1998)
A Night at the Roxbury (1998)
Dick (1999)
Shaft (2000)
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Monk (2006)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Steve Buscemi
John Cazale
Don Cheadle
Patricia Clarkson
Cliff Curtis
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
the Cast of Django Unchained
Laura Dern
Michael Clarke Duncan
Chiwetel Ejiofor
William Fichtner
Ralph Fiennes
Brendan Gleeson
Bruce Greenwood
Philip Baker Hall
Woody Harrelson
John Hawkes
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
the Cast of Lincoln
Delroy Lindo
William H. Macy
Margo Martindale
Christopher McDonald
Alfred Molina
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Jason Patric
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Joe Pantoliano
John C. Reilly
Sam Rockwell
Peter Sarsgaard
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
Peter Stormare
David Strathairn
Tilda Swinton
Danny Trejo
Stanley Tucci
Emily Watson
Shea Whigham
Ray Winstone
Jeffrey Wright
Steve Zahn


  1. He's really one of those people that's in a number of films that I've seen and I don't realize it.

  2. I love this guy. He's one of the great character actors. My favorite performance from his is Dick. I'm going to say this. He was a way better Richard Nixon than Anthony Hopkins. He was funnier and he got the voice right.

    I loved his performance in To Die For. He really added layers to that role of a man who is a father who knows a lot more than what is really happening and he does what needed to be taken care of.

    1. I was really torn to not have his role in Dick on this list. In the end, it just didn't make the cut, but he's definitely brilliant in it.

      Glad you're a fan of his work in To Die For. That was indeed a layered performance.

  3. So I was super sick a couple weeks ago and I'm laying on my couch just looking for the perfect movie to soothe my mind and I chose Clueless. First time I'd watched it in a long time and what struck me most this time around was Hedaya. He's so gruff but so loving simultaneously. That's such deceptively complex work by him.

    I'd also send a personal shout-out to him as Gabriel in A Life Less Ordinary. I know not everyone digs that movie but I do. A lot.

    1. I thought it was a pretty good movie! I actually thought it was quite funny and Hedaya's performance was brilliant.

    2. I like A Life Less Ordinary as well. Not Boyle's best flick, but I definitely enjoy it (and Hedaya's work in it).

      Nick, I couldn't agree more about Hedaya's work in Clueless. He really elevated that role. Made for a damn fun ride.

  4. he's the dad in the poorly done strangers with candy movie. best god damn television series.

    1. Ha no doubt. Haven't heard much good about that movie. Bummer.

  5. Hey Clueless! He's such an adorable dad. That's where I'd seen him. I don't remember him in Jackie Brown. Must rewatch.

    1. Clueless! Dude is the man.

      He actually isn't in QT's Jackie Brown... his name is Jackie Brown in Ron Howard's Ransom. Pure coincidence.

    2. Oh shit. Didn't read that properly. Sorry :P

    3. No, no, it's all good! Easy to get those confused. They were only made a year apart. Really odd coincidence there.

  6. Blood Simple. It's been forever since I've seen that. Great choice though, and it's nice to see To Die For make the cut.

    1. It had been a while since I had seen Blood Simple as well, but man, that's a solid damn movie right there. And To Die For is perfect satire. I really like that film.

      Thanks for reading!

  7. Some of my favorite Hedaya role are in his comedy work. "Addams Family" and "Joe vs. the Volcano" come to mind. What a great series Fransisco.

    1. Hedaya can be comedy gold, no doubt.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting, I really appreciate it! (Although I have to ask... who's Fransisco...? I wish that was my name.)

  8. Whenever I see Dan Hedaya I imagine him in the throes of apoplectic rage. I scrolled through this post trying to remember why...

    ...Mulholland Drive. Of course. He sure does a good job of portraying all-consuming anger, this guy.

    1. Hell yeah he does. I love his one scene in that movie, and the fact that so many people remember it really shows that he's a great character actor.

      "It's no longer your film."


  9. It's crazy how many movies besides Blood Simple I've seen him in without noticing it was the same actor. Had no idea that was him in Mulholland Dr. and Clueless for example. Great that you featured since his listed filmography seems promising.

    1. What's interesting about Hedaya is that he isn't really a chameleon... he always looks the same, he's just in so damn much. Which is awesome.

      Thanks for the comment, Teddy!

  10. What about as Mr. Waturi in "Joe Versus the Volcano?" Did I miss that reference?

    1. He's good in that, but I like the performances I choose more.

  11. I'm trying to remember a comedy movie I think he played a father who kept telling his son not to "disrespect him in public". Anyone know of it.