Paul Gleason

Principal in 'The Breakfast Club'

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:16

Paul Xavier Gleason, actor: born Jersey City, New Jersey 4 May 1939; married first Joanna Hall (one daughter), second 1995 Susan Kiel (one daughter); died Burbank, California 27 May 2006.

Paul Gleason was an excellent character actor who first achieved fame on a television soap opera, but will be best remembered on screen for his portrayal of the gruff and grumpy high school principal Richard Vernon who presides over detention in John Hughes' cult youth movie The Breakfast Club (1985). Other notable roles were the detestable Clarence Beeks in Trading Places (1983) and the idiotic deputy chief of police in Die Hard (1988). Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and a fan of The Breakfast Club, is widely believed to have based Principal Skinner on Gleason's character in the Hughes film.

Born Paul Xavier Gleason in Jersey City in 1939 (some sources give 1944), he grew up in Miami, where he attended Catholic schools prior to Florida State University. Upon graduation, he was signed to a minor league baseball contract by the Cleveland Indians, but failed to achieve a place in the big leagues.

He was watching the Elia Kazan film Splendor in the Grass (1961) with a friend, the beat writer Jack Kerouac, when he decided to take up acting. After studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actors' Studio in New York, he made his Broadway début in Neil Simon's The Gingerbread Lady (1971), then displayed his trademark flair for middle-aged grouchiness in a 1972 revival of the classic newspaper comedy The Front Page. He played small roles in such television shows as Mission: Impossible and Columbo prior to being cast as the bearded Dr David Thornton in the long-running soap opera All My Children, a role he played from 1976 to 1978.

In films, he was often cast as authority figures with more responsibility than sense, or detectives - he was a detective in the horror movie He Knows You're Alone (1980) and in Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981) starring Paul Newman. In 1983 he played the abrasive Clarence Beeks in John Landis's Trading Places, in which a wealthy executive (Dan Aykroyd) and a beggar (Eddie Murphy) change lifestyles to settle a bet between two millionaires.

Two years later, in the Bratpack movie The Breakfast Club, set in a Chicago high school where five students spend Saturday morning in detention, he played the role with which he is most identified. Among the actor's admirers debate usually centres on whether this, or his idiot police deputy in Die Hard, contains his funniest performance. In the latter, his command of deadpan delivery is particularly showcased in such moments as when an FBI helicopter explodes and he comments, "I think we're going to need some more FBI guys." Gleason was to reprise his Breakfast Club characterisation as Richard Vernon in a pop music video, on the television show Boy Meets World and in the film Not Another Teen Movie (2002).

His flair for comedy was displayed in the films Loaded Weapon 1 (1993), in which he was an incompetent FBI agent, National Lampoon's Van Wilder (2002), and in episodes of the television shows Friends, Seinfeld and Malcolm in the Middle. Star Wars fans will remember his performance as Jeremitt Towani in the television movie Ewoks: the battle for Endor (1985).

Tom Vallance

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