Early in his career, Lance Henriksen worked for six months with influential French filmmaker Francois Truffaut when both men acted in director Steven Spielberg’s classic 1977 sci-fi fantasy, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Henriksen played Robert, the assistant of Truffaut’s inquisitive French scientist Dr. Lacombe.
Nearly four decades later, it’s still an experience Henriksen remembers vividly.
“We were close to the end of the shooting and he said to me, ‘I have something for you,” Henriksen said in his distinctive gravelly voice. “He gave me a package, and it was the script to ‘The 400 Blows.’”
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Truffaut’s 1959 drama about his troubled childhood spoke to Henriksen, who had identified with the young character, Antoine Doinel. When he first saw the film, he said to himself, “Who would make a movie about my childhood? That was my childhood.”
The actor had never talked to Truffaut about the film or his childhood, but the filmmaker must have sensed that connection, Henriksen said.
“It was so moving to me that I had been seen and heard without having a conversation,” he said. “I was sitting in my trailer weeping.”
Henriksen’s early life was actually far more complex than Truffaut’s. Henriksen first ran away from home at age 5.
“But that didn’t last very long,” he said with a smile.
In his youth, he worked as a shoeshine boy to help support his single mother, a waitress.
“I shined shoes all over Manhattan,” Henriksen said. “I would give half the money to my mother because we needed it. The other half I would go to movies. I sat and watched ‘The Big Sky’ with Kirk Douglas one day maybe six or eight times. I got out at 4 in the morning and would go home.”
Henriksen hit the road permanently at age 12.
“I hated school,” said the gregarious character actor, now 75. “I never went to high school.”
But the New York native did go to sea, traveling around the world with the Navy and the Merchant Marines.
“I traveled all over Europe painting murals,” Henriksen said. “I was a painter. When I’m not acting I make pottery.”
For the first three decades of his life, Henriksen didn’t bother to learn to read. In fact, he learned his part in an off-Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Three Plays of the Sea” when he was 30 by having a friend read the entire piece on tape for him.
“I learned everybody’s lines,” said Henriksen, who attended the Actors Studio as an observer. “The play opened, and we ran for a few months. I started doing plays off-Broadway.”
Henriksen not only learned how to read but also became a writer. In 2011, he published his autobiography, “Not Bad for a Human,” and his five-part Dark Horse horror comic book series “To Hell You Ride,” which he wrote with Joseph Maddrey, came out in 2012 and ’13.
Since making his film debut in 1972’s “It Ain’t Easy,” the tall, lanky actor has made more than 150 films and appeared in dozens of TV series. Henriksen has worked with directors such as James Cameron, Sidney Lumet, Kathryn Bigelow, Sam Raimi, Walter Hill, Philip Kaufman, Richard Rush and John Woo. He played the android Bishop in Cameron’s 1986 blockbuster “Aliens,” Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra in Kaufman’s 1983 epic “The Right Stuff,” a magnetic leader of vampires in Bigelow’s 1987 “Near Dark” and an ex-FBI agent who can see into the minds of criminals in Chris Carter’s 1996-99 Fox series “Millennium.”
This past year has been particularly busy. Besides narrating the FX series “The Strain,” he guest starred in three episodes of NBC’s “The Blacklist” and has the horror film “Harbinger Down” coming out in August. And Henriksen reveals his comedic bent in “Stung,” a horror film that hearkens back to the creature thrillers of the 1970s; it arrives July 3 in theaters and on VOD.
Shot outside Berlin, “Stung” centers on a garden party at a fancy estate that turns into a bloodbath when mutant killer wasps go on a feeding frenzy. Henriksen plays Carruthers, the alcoholic mayor running for reelection who seems more interested in vintage wine than that guests are being eaten alive.
“Aliens” is the favorite film of “Stung” director Benni Diez and writer Adam Aresty.
“It came to the point where we had to cast the role of Carruthers,” Diez said by phone from his home in Cologne, Germany. “We had a lot of options. I said to the producers, ‘Just for the fun of it, can we ask Lance Henriksen?’ A few weeks later my producer called me and said Lance is doing the movie.”
Henriksen couldn’t say no to the part.
“They sent me this little sort of sizzle reel,” Henriksen said. “They had one scene of a guy running through hallways and something is after him. And then you see what it is. I read the script and said, ‘You know this would be worth doing.’ I’m very oddball in terms of what I will do and what I won’t do. When I find something that’s creative on every level that I can relate to, I am willing to take a chance.”