William Atherton played the best Movie Jerk of the ’80s

There are certain actors that just have that special ability to play the “jerk” role in movies. In the ’80s, nobody did it better than William Atherton. You might not know him by name, but you should definitely recognize him when you see his picture or I mention the several great “jerk” roles he so masterfully embodied.

William Atherton is to “jerk” roles in the ’80s what William Zabka was to “bully” roles. Zabka played the “bully” in The Karate Kid (1984), Just One of the Guys (1985) and Back to School (1986). Atherton had his own even more impressive trifecta of “jerk” roles during the decade. Atherton is able to radiate an antagonistic and arrogant vibe that makes you immediately dislike him before you even know that much about him. This is important because he usually does not receive that much screen time, but the time he does get is very effective.

Atherton played his first “jerk” as EPA inspector “Walter Peck” in Ghostbusters (1984). After all of the media attention the Ghostbusters were getting, it drew the attention of the EPA and Peck. As you would expect, the smug, self-righteous Peck and Venkman did not get along very well at an initial meeting and Venkman refused Peck’s request to tour the facility. Peck returned with multiple court orders which resulted in the following scene…

Then later there is this infamous (and hilarious) exchange during a tense meeting with the mayor…

My favorite is when Venkman piles on, “Well, that’s what I heard.” I read a hilarious anecdote told by Harold Ramis, who was a writer and star of the film, about a conversation he had with Atherton which is related to that scene above. Ramis had lunch with Atherton not long after Ghostbusters was a hit and said “so isn’t it great that it’s becoming so popular?” Atherton replied “there was a whole bus of teenagers the other day and I heard one kid say ‘Hey, Peck!’ so I turned around and the entire bus yelled ‘DICKLESS!’” How funny is that? Sure it is no fun being called names, but one of the greatest compliments to an actor is believing that they really are the character they played.

It is extra satisfying when we get to see Peck standing in the exact right place to receive a marshmallow shower at the end…

His next “jerk” was “Professor Jerry Hathaway” in Real Genius (1985). This movie is one of my favorite ’80s comedies. During the course of the film, you build up enough disdain for Atherton’s smug and manipulative character that you cheer when his house is destroyed with popcorn at the very end. A bit of dialogue that Hathaway delivers gives you an idea of the kind of pompous jerk he can be: “What are you looking at? You’re laborers; you should be laboring. That’s what you get for not having an education.” You can find out more about Real Genius in my interview with the film’s director Martha Coolidge. But you can witness some of Hathaway’s jerkiness in this scene with Val Kilmer as “Chris Knight”…

Next for Atherton was a guy actually named Dick, the “jerk” reporter “Richard ‘Dick’ Thornburg” in Die Hard (1988) as well as in its 1990 sequel. He plays the self-absorbed and irresponsible reporter who puts the wife and family of Bruce Willis’ character at additional risk to advance his own career. He cares more about getting the story than the people involved. At the very end of this scene below, Thornburg has just witnessed two SWAT officers being blown up and is more concerned with getting the footage by saying, “Tell me that you got that.”

Thornburg later goes to the McClane house, threatens to have their maid deported and shows his insensitivity by interviewing their children during this deadly crisis. Then you have this satisfying moment at the end when Bonnie Bedelia’s character gets to do something that most people want to do to all of the Atherton characters covered here…

The intense feeling of loathing and contempt that Atherton is able to create for his characters is quite impressive. Though I disliked all of these characters, I really do admire Atherton as an actor for being able to make me feel that way. It takes a special kind of actor to accept and excel in those parts knowing that they will draw the ire of the viewers.

Atherton had many roles before the ’80s and many more since, but it was in the ’80s where he truly shined in his niche as playing the best “jerk” in the business. He would play one more similar “jerk” as “Dr. Noah Faulkner” in Bio-Dome (1996), but hasn’t been cast that way in much else since. There are other actors who play the “jerk” well, but in my opinion, nobody does it quite as masterfully as William Atherton did it back in the ’80s.

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Old School Tim has an adoring devotion to the awesome '80s decade. He loves to relive and share that nostalgia on a regular basis. The Kickin' it Old School blog site has been retired, but you can still get daily doses of '80s goodness on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and anywhere else they let him.