With over 40 films under his belt, character actor William Sanderson has more than cemented his place in film history as one of the all-time greatest of the “that guys” — those familiar faces you see all the time in movies and TV but can never place the name. With his South-Western charm and formidable drawl, Sanderson has played a variety of colorful characters, many of whom he lovingly refers to as “prairie scum.” This appropriate term refers to the seedier characters portrayed by Sanderson, but the actor’s range reaches far beyond that.
Before his turn to acting, Sanderson did his stint in the Army as a combat medic. He once snuck into Graceland and spied on Elvis as the King played a piano ballad. He received his PhD in law but never took the bar exam — heading to NYC instead to flex his acting skills on the stage instead of the courtroom. While he’s acted in some massive critical hits like The Client and Deadwood, he’s also made his mark in the cult world — playing both big and small roles in many a nerdy film and show. Sanderson plays a great villain, but he also has the ability to make you explode with sympathy at his more humane characters. So let’s take a look at this motley crew of prairie scum, guilt-ridden greasers, southern sheriffs, and prematurely-aged genetic designers — the 10 nerdiest roles of the great William Sanderson.
10) Skeets, The Rocketeer
While Sanderson only gets to speak one line in the film, it can be argued that his character Skeets is the real hero of The Rocketeer. I’m exaggerating, of course, but bear with me. Skeets was part of Cliff’s flight crew and hung out at the Bulldog Diner with the local flyboys. It’s at the Bulldog Diner that Skeets helps Cliff fight off Eddie Valentine’s hired muscle — wrestling a gun away from one of them so that Cliff can run upstairs to get his rocket gear on. Skeets is the unsung hero of The Rocketeer. Deal with it.
9) Joe Slaader, Beyond the Wall of Sleep
Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story of the same name, Beyond the Wall of Sleep takes the master’s tale of telepathic communication and white trash insanity and, as is the case with a lot of Lovecraft adaptations, ruins it. After his family is brutally murdered, mountain yokel Joe Slaader (Sanderson) is locked up in the Ulster County Asylum where he’s treated with electroshock therapy. Examination reveals that the deformity on Slaader’s back is actually a partially consumed twin named Amducious. This blundering tumor turns out to be some kind of demon and the cause of Slaader’s homicidal breakdown. It’s terrific to see Sanderson get a lead role, even if it is in an amateurish Lovecraft adaptation. Sanderson, who can play crazy with the best of them, is the only reason to watch this otherwise obnoxious movie.
8) Carl Mueller, Sometimes They Come Back
Based on the Stephen King short story of the same name, Sometimes They Come Back is a 1991 made-for-TV movie about Jim Norton, a teacher who moves back to his hometown — the same town where his older brother was murdered by a bunch of greasers 30 years before. It’s not long until Jim starts having nightmares about the murder and the nefarious greasers start coming back from the dead, leaving a trail of dead students in their wake. There’s only one surviving member of the gang, Carl Mueller (Sanderson) and the zombie greasers need him for their plan to escape from Hell for good. If there’s one thing Sanderson might play best, it’s sympathetic sniveling. That talent is put on full display here, as Sanderson plays the grown-up greaser living with heaps of regret and grief.
7) Ray, Man’s Best Friend
In one of his seediest roles ever, Sanderson plays Ray, a junkyard owner and animal abusing bastard in Man’s Best Friend. When a genetically altered Tibetan Mastiff named Max is released from the lab where he was imprisoned, he’s taken in by Lori, a naive journalist who helped him escape. Her dick boyfriend hates Max though and a rivalry develops between the two. Seeing no choice but to find Max a new home, and with scientist Lance Henriksen hot on their paws, Lori leaves Max at Ray’s junkyard. He acts like a concerned dog-lover at first, but when Lori drives away he shows his true asshole colors. He begins his process of “breaking” Max with a shovel and a blowtorch. After this brief moment of brutality, Ray gets his comeuppance pretty quickly. Our dog-hero Max knows the proper way of dealing with animal abusers (a tremendous bite to the nuts).
6) Deuce, Babylon 5
Sanderson’s patented “prairie scum” characterization took to space on Babylon 5 as Desmond “Deuce” Modichenko, a seedy smuggler and racketeer. In the first season episode “Grail,” Deuce smuggles a Na’ka’leen Feeder onto the ship, where he used it to muscle and “mindwipe” people who would openly testify against him in an extortion case. Deuce pulls off all kinds of deviousness in this episode, including shaking down Jinxo, abducting Ombuds Wellington, and nearly killing Aldous Gajic. He reprised the role in the third Babylon 5 TV movie, Thirdspace.
5) Edward Funsch, The X-Files
Being laid off isn’t easy on anyone. It’s especially tough when a neurochemical gas causes you to hallucinate commands of violence through digital displays. Such is the case with postal worker Edward Funsch, played with a restrained madness by Sanderson in the episode “Blood.” Funsch suffers from hemotophia, an irrational fear of blood. This condition doesn’t help when after being exposed to the gas, Funsch gets a paper cut and is later asked to donate blood. These incidents set off his homicidal stupor and it’s up to Mulder to stop him. But as usual, everyone else in the FBI thinks Mulder is a crackpot so he has to dip out on his own and take Funsch down solo. It’s pretty tragic to watch Funsch go slowly mad, but when even your ATM machine is ordering you to kill, you don’t really have much of an option.
4) Dr. Karl Rossum, Batman: The Animated Series
As computer scientist and head of Cybertron, Dr. Karl Rossum taught Bruce Wayne everything he knows about electronics. He could also relate to Bruce’s loss. Rossum’s daughter was killed in a car accident, but instead of going vigilante like Bruce, Rossum dreamed of a utopia populated entirely by androids — where tragic car accidents would never take place. To kick off the robot revolution, Rossum created H.A.R.D.A.C., an intelligent machine capable of mass-producing androids. He has a change of heart though and no longer wants to play Frankenstein, but not before almost getting James and Barbara Gordon, Gotham’s mayor, and Batman almost killed. The physical appearance of the animated Rossum is based on Sanderson, who got to milk his South-Western accent for the part. Especially when he gets to say the episode’s best line: “Nothing like a hot cappuccino and a foot massage.” Nothing indeed, Mr. Sanderson.
3) Sheriff Bud Dearborne, True Blood
On HBO’s pulpy vampire melodrama-comedy True Blood, Sanderson played Sheriff Bud Dearborne. Bud’s a contemplative officer of the law who’s vocal about his distrust of blood suckers. During season 3, Bud loses it and quits while at the murder scene of a headless corpse. After the amount of murder investigations Bud oversaw in just a couple years, any sane human being would want to throw in the towel for a more quiet life. In interviews, Sanderson stated that it was a relief and a little scary to play such a “normal” character rather than his usual bunch of “prairie scum.”
2) Oldham, Lost
Described as Sawyer as a psychopath, Oldham was DHARMA’s interrogation expert. Possibly because of his violent nature, he either chose or was forced to reside outside of the group’s main camp and shack up in the forest near the Barracks. Horace brings Sayid to Oldham to get some answers. He administers some kind of truth serum/hallucinogen to Sayid, who goes on to spill his guts about Ajira Flight 316 amongst other things. Once Sayid confesses to being from the future, Oldham admits he may have given him too heavy a dose. In true Lost fashion, there’s plenty of speculation and theories about Oldham’s background and career as a pharmaceutical CEO. Sanderon’s unassuming gait and old-man glasses make Oldham all the more terrifying.
1) J.F. Sebastian, Blade Runner
It’s safe to say that William Sanderson will forever be synonymous to nerds with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, in which he played ailing genetic designer J.F. Sebastian. He’s a tragic character in a lot of ways — his “Methuselah Syndrome” restricts him from moving to the Off-World Colonies; he has to make his own “friends”; and he’s easily seduced and manipulated by Roy and Pris to gain access to Dr. Tyrell. In an interview with Blade Zone, Sanderson explained that the role almost went to Joe Pantoliano (Cypher from The Matrix), but it’s impossible to imagine anyone else as the gentle Sebastian. His death at the hands of Roy, although it happens offscreen, has got to be one of the most heartbreaking in science fiction. Bravo, Mr. Sanderson.