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Obituaries

Brion James; Character Actor in Thrillers

August 18, 1999|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brion James, a character actor who appeared in 103 motion pictures in such roles as Leon the murderous replicant in "Blade Runner" and studio executive Joel Levison in "The Player," has died. He was 54.

Philippe Mora, who directed James in seven films, said the actor died Aug. 7 at UCLA Medical Center after suffering a heart attack in his Malibu home.

Usually the heavy and occasionally the buddy, the strapping 6-foot, 3-inch James had key roles in such motion pictures as "Corvette Summer" with Mark Hamill and Annie Potts in 1978, "48 HRS" in 1982 and "Another 48 HRS" in 1990 as Nick Nolte's partner, and "Striking Distance" in 1993 and "The Fifth Element" in 1997.

"This is the first sequel I've ever been in," James jokingly told The Times after "Another 48 HRS" opened in 1990, "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."

James regarded his studio executive role in Robert Altman's "The Player" as a career turning point that opened up a larger variety of roles for him. Nevertheless, he remained in greatest demand for thrillers, which often went straight to video.

In the classic science fiction film "Blade Runner," James was one of the four replicants pursued by former cop Harrison Ford, and challenged Ford with the memorable line: "Wake up . . . time to die!"

Although films were his major metier, James also appeared on the small screen in a variety of television movies and in guest roles on such series as "The Waltons," "CHIPs," "Little House on the Prairie," "The Dukes of Hazzard," "The A-Team," "Matlock," "Miami Vice" and "Walker, Texas Ranger."

Actor Corey Feldman praised James, despite his large and potentially menacing stature, as "the sweetest, kindest, most beautiful person" in off-camera life. He said James was a recovering drug abuser who helped others, including Feldman, end their drug habits.

Born in Beaumont, Calif., James was the son of an educator who owned the local movie theater. He majored in theater at San Diego State College and then went to New York to study with Stella Adler.

Mora, who directed James in such satires as "Pterodactyl Woman From Beverly Hills," said the actor could not afford to pay Adler, so he earned his lessons by working as her cook and butler.

James appeared in several off-Broadway productions, including "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "Picnic," "West Side Story" and "Lady Windemere's Fan."

He also worked in stand-up comedy at New York's Improv before returning to Los Angeles, where he received positive reviews for his stage work in "The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel." He made his motion picture debut in 1975 in the tough-guy film "Hard Times," starring Charles Bronson and James Coburn.

The actor is survived by two brothers, Chester and Craig, both of Beaumont.

Mora said a memorial service will be planned next month.

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