James was delighted when Robert Altman gave him the role of the studio executive Joel Levison in The Player (1992), since he hoped this would get him away from type-casting as "heavies", but he continued to be in greatest demand for thrillers. The director Philippe Mora, who featured James in seven of his films, said, "Although he was well-known for those thriller-villain roles, he really was an actor who had a wide-ranging talent. It's sad that he died at 54. He had another two dozen movies in him, I would have thought." Like many a screen menace, James was regarded by colleagues as completely the opposite in real life. A former drug addict, he was noted for the help he gave young substance abusers to end their addiction.
The son of a teacher who owned the local movie theatre, James was born in Beaumont, California, in 1945. He majored in theatre at San Diego State College, then went to New York where he studied acting with Stella Adler, paying for his tuition by working as her cook and butler. He appeared in several off-Broadway productions, including Long Day's Journey Into Night, Picnic, West Side Story and Lady Windermere's Fan, and worked in stand-up comedy at the Improv club in New York before returning to Los Angeles where he attracted attention with an acclaimed performance in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel.
He made his screen debut in Walter Hill's film about bare-knuckle fighting in 1930s New Orleans, Hard Times (1975), the first of 103 films, including Corvette Summer (1978), Flesh and Blood (1985), Tango and Cash (1989), Striking Distance (1993) and The Fifth Element (1997). (James's philosophy was never to turn down a role.) In Walter Hill's 48 Hours (1982) he played the partner of cop Nick Nolte and returned to the same role in the film's sequel, Another 48 Hours (1990). James stated, "This is the first sequel I've ever been in, because I rarely live through a film. I've been boiled in oil, I've had my head ripped off by a freeway overpass, I've been thrown off a cliff . . . I've killed a lot of people too."
In Blade Runner, James featured in the film's startling first scene, in which, while being interviewed by an inspector who is tracking runaway androids in 21st-century Los Angeles, he calmly states, "Let me tell you about my mother . . ." before whipping out a gun and shooting the man. Later he overpowers the space policeman (Harrison Ford) who is chasing him, telling him, "Nothing is worse than having an itch you can never scratch", before uttering his most memorable line to his semi- conscious victim, "Wake up - time to die."
Though primarily a film actor, James appeared in several television shows, including episodes of The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, The A- Team, Miami Vice and Walker, Texas Ranger.
Among those he helped with drug problems was the young actor and former child star Corey Feldman, who said that, despite the actor's menacing stature (he was 6ft 3in), he was "the sweetest, kindest, most beautiful person".
Brion James, actor: born Beaumont, California 1945; died Los Angeles 7 August 1999.