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5 Important Mostly Forgotten Roles of Willem Dafoe

Willem Dafoe is an American actor who has been working in film since the early 1980s, earning high acclaim for a number of memorable films and roles.

Known for his unique look and physical presence, Willem Dafoe has built a reputation as one of the greatest actors of this or any other generation, easily commanding parts as both hero or villain. From his acclaimed work in 1986’s Platoon to his more recent successes in 2002’s Spider-Man and 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, Dafoe has long been considered one of the most reliable and likable actors in the business. As his filmography continues to grow, let’s look back at 5 film roles that deserve a closer look from films that maybe have fallen out of light.

Ray Dolezal

Willem Dafoe
White Sands, 1992 © Warner Bros.

FILM: White Sands (1992)

White Sands is a crime thriller about a small-town sheriff who finds a body in the desert with a suitcase full of money, and then impersonates the dead man to try and learn the truth.

Dafoe plays Ray Dolezal, a bored Southern sheriff in New Mexico, who investigates what looks like an apparent suicide in the white sands of the desert. While the suitcase next to him has $500,000 inside, an autopsy reveals a phone number in the dead man’s stomach. Taking up the man’s identity, now “Spenser”, he gets involved in a sting operation with the FBI and a radical left-wing South American group of freedom fighters, not to mention a beautiful woman named Lane Bodine (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio).

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While the film poses a number of questions that seem to have no answers and is mostly standard crime-thriller-filler, it is the performances that make this so compelling, with Mickey Rourke giving a memorable turn. Yet it’s Dafoe who lends the film its greatest strength, carrying us through the twist with a vulnerable but edgy spin that keeps this watchable. For fans of this genre, this is a solid entry and well-worth a screening with some truly good work from Dafoe.

Raven Shaddock

Willem Dafoe
Streets of Fire, 1984 © Universal Pictures

FILM: Streets of Fire (1984)

Streets of Fire is a cult-classic musical action film about a solider of fortune (Michael Paré) who returns home to find his ex-girlfriend kidnapped by a notorious biker gang.

Dafoe plays Raven Shaddock, the leader of the “The Bombers”, a gang of thugs who rule a particularly rough neighborhood called The Battery. Shaddock owns and operates a roughneck bar as well called Torchy’s where local bands play. He leads a gang into nearby Richmond and kidnaps Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), the lead singer of “Ellen Aim and the Attackers”.  Now it’s up to her ex-boyfriend to save her, leading to a battle where the streets are, well, on fire.

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Dafoe gets his first chance to shine in his fourth credited film role, playing a goon with an fantastic hairstyle and making great use of his incredibly expressive and menacing-looking face. A classic villain of the times, the leather-bound look and Dafoe’s physically domineering presence make it one of the most memorable bad guys of the era, which was populated by a rise in ‘greaser’ 50s-style film titles, including Rumble Fish, The Outsiders and of course the one that kicked it all off, Grease.

Eric Masters

Willem Dafoe
To Live And Die in L.A., 1986 © MGM/UA Entertainment

FILM: To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

To Live and Die in L.A. is a crime thriller about a pair of secret service agents assigned to stop a counterfeit ring in Los Angeles but get far more than they bargained for as they burrow deeper into the underbelly of the system.

Dafoe plays Eric Masters, a vicious but highly successful counterfeiter printing from a warehouse in the desert. He doesn’t hesitate to kill and after he and his bodyguard (Jack Hoar) murder a federal agent attempting to arrest them, brings down the law in the form of Richard Chance (William Peterson) and John Vukovich (John Pankow), who have very different ideas about how to catch Masters, leading to a spiraling relationship and a violent, horrifying climax.

Dafoe goes full-on bad guy here in a role that takes what he learned in Streets of Fire and pushes it to a far more grounded and realistic villain that is chilling to watch. While other crime dramas of the time were getting more press, this gripping thriller slipped out of sight, which is a disservice, given how well it still stands up. Directed by the great William Friedkin, all the leads are very well cast, with Peterson a standout, but Dafoe’s work is the stuff that makes actors stars, and was certainly instrumental in getting him cast in his next film Platoon, which would launch him into international recognition.

Salamo Arouch

Willem Dafoe
Triumph of the Spirit, 1989 © Triumph Releasing Corporation

FILM: Triumph of the Spirit (1989)

Triumph of the Spirit is a semi-biographical drama about a Jewish boxer interred in a World War II German concentration camp and forced to box other internees to the death.

Dafoe plays Salamo Arouch, a Greek Jew who is captured along with his family and fiancé Allegra (Wendy Gazelle) in 1943 and sent to Auschwitz. The SS guards at the prison force men to fight for entertainment, and give Arouch no choice but to get in the ring or his family will be killed. If he loses, he will die in the gas chamber, but if he wins, he earns extra rations, which he can share with his loved ones. Every bout is a fight to the death, and he must overcome it all if he is to survive and keep his family safe.

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While the film takes some liberties with the facts and suffers from a few too many filmmaking manipulations to draw upon our emotions, it is Dafoe’s chilling and harrowing performance that stands above it all. One of the best in his career, he is a commanding presence both physically and emotionally, making the film one that is hard to walk away from without being wholly affected by what he does.

John Clark

Willem Dafoe
Clear and Present Danger, 1994 © Paramount Pictures

FILM: Clear and Present Danger (1994)

Clear and Present Danger is an action thriller about a covert war against a drug cartel in Colombia that draws in and entangles an unknowing CIA Deputy Director caught in the clandestine operation.

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Dafoe plays John Clark, a heavily entrenched CIA operative in Colombia who takes command of a secret U.S. Army black-ops unit sent in to undermine cocaine operations in the jungle. When they are ambushed by a betrayal, many are captured or killed and this incites the actions of Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford), the hero of the story who is double-crossed and misled into a lie that sees him to blame for the unit’s losses. Now, he and Clark join forces to try and rescue the remaining men and shut down both the cartel and the corruption that led to Ryan’s set-up.

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The film is the third in the Jack Ryan series, behind The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games, and is one of the big action movies that put Harrison Ford on top of the genre in the 90s. Because of this, and Ford’s hugely dynamic presence in the movie, it’s easy to forget the incredibly impressive work by Dafoe, who plays it heroic, giving a tremendously likable performance that locks this movie as arguably the best in the franchise.



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