Review: Not Bad for a Human (2011)

At twelve years old, Lance Henriksen was lost.  All-but abandoned by his parents and at odds with the world around him, the rebellious boy sought comfort and guidance by following the flickering light of a film projector.  Bringing along camping gear–complete with knapsack, frying pan, and canteen–he would spend nights on end at the local cinema, immersed in the invigorating world of Howard Hawks’s The Big Sky (1952).  Film offered the young man the opportunity to trade the East River for the Missouri River, the chance to exchange the miseries of poverty in New York City for grand adventure amid the Teton Range.  “I wanted to go and find a better world,” Henriksen tells us.  “Alternative parents, alternative life.  When I found that you could exchange people, places, and things in that way, I felt free… I think that was the beginning of it all.”

Lance Henriksen’s is a life that has been lived through the movies, a life chronicled in Not Bad for a Human (2011), a biography written by Henriksen with writer/producer Joseph Maddrey.  Henriksen’s immersion in the adventure of Westerns and science fiction films, his nomadic youth and early struggles, provided the foundation for a celebrated career that has spanned four decades.  Not Bad for a Human tells the remarkable and sometimes startling story of this long, strange journey, his never-ending evolution as an artist.

Filmgoers might think of Lance Henriksen as a man with a thousand faces.  After all, the actor has played a part in a staggering array of cherished films and cult classics ranging from Dog Day Afternoon (1975) to The Quick and the Dead (1995), from Aliens (1986) to Appaloosa (2008).  A glance at his extensive filmography, detailed in full in an eleven-page reference chart at the back of the book, reveals that he has played truck drivers, detectives, attorneys, bureaucrats, scientists, gunslingers, witch hunters, and androids both pacifistic and megalomaniacal.  What makes Not Bad for a Human instantly captivating are those stories that reveal this man has adopted just as many starkly different personas in his personal life.  Long before Henriksen first stepped in front of a film camera, he embarked on a tumultuous journey of survival and self-discovery that took him around the world and led to strange and sometimes frightening places.  His biography offers us the exceptional opportunity to accompany him on that journey, to experience individuals, locales, and events as astonishing as anything he has done on film.

Anyone who has gotten to know Lance Henriksen will have experienced, in one form or another, his great generosity.  That giving spirit is on full display here, evident in his willingness to candidly convey all the trials and triumphs of a life and career that have presented as many devastating disappointments as proud accomplishments.  There’s much to be gained from the telling–for both the reader and Henriksen himself, the book suggests–and Henriksen’s candid delivery of these anecdotes is refreshing, insightful, and at times uproarious.  Henriksen’s candor and Maddrey’s attention to detail complement one another beautifully in a dual narrative that lends the volume depth and a certain swiftness; one wild tale leads to the next and the pages are quickly turned.

Indeed, given the nature of Henriksen’s unique personality, the authors have been granted the opportunity to craft a biography unlike any other.  Henriksen’s incredible strength as an actor is his ability to convey genuine emotion in those dramatic moments captured on screen.  As a devoted and quite sensitive Method actor, he wholly inhabits each of the roles he takes on and they, in turn, transform him.  Exploring the actor’s work in films both legendary and obscure, Not Bad for a Human quickly becomes a veritable compendium of fascinating personas.  Here, condensed into nearly four hundred pages, are the abridged biographies of dozens of wildly entertaining personalities, each shaping the soul of the artist, each quintessential Henriksen.  This multifaceted portrayal is enhanced by passages exploring Henriksen’s other artistic pursuits, including his brief forays into screenwriting and his enduring passion for pottery.

The role the actor inhabited the longest, that of visionary criminal profiler Frank Black, stands out.  It’s not surprising that Millennium (1996) earns its own dedicated chapter in the biography.  Those who remember the television series will learn much about the show and the creative minds who shaped it that has never before been revealed.  Henriksen’s investment in the character of Frank Black, in the family dynamic at the core of this dark drama, never ceases to amaze.  In these pages, we learn the true extent of that committment.  The fascinating story of Millennium’s conception, its development, and its continuing presence is captured from the point of view of the man who became Frank Black–mind, body, and soul.  For the Millennium fan, it should go without saying, this is required reading.

Not Bad For a Human’s content is enhanced by some beautiful design work, marked most notably by the book’s striking cover.  Within, the lively tales and philosophical musings are accompanied by a series of portraits crafted by an impressive line-up of artists renowned for their work in sequential art.  Illustrators including Bill Sienkiewicz, Mike Mignola, Ashley Wood, Eric Powell, Tim Bradstreet, and Tom Mandrake capture the actor’s most iconic roles in a series of stunning illustrations.  The recently released paperback edition of the book adds a number of photographs from the actor’s personal collection, exclusive snapshots capturing on-set hijinks as well as rare works of pottery.

The life of Lance Henriksen is a story worth reading and it is a story best told in the actor’s own words.  “Every love affair you ever have, that chick leaves a mark on you,” the actor explains, “and whenever you have a good laugh, your DNA is altered.  Those things make you who you are. For me, it’s the same thing with acting.  Every role alters my cell structure.  Those films are in me.”  Henriksen remains a fascinating figure and an unforgettable performer.  Given his approach and sheer dedication to his craft, it is unsurprising that his long-awaited biography is such an exceptional tome.  Those films are in him, and they are etched on every page of Not Bad for a Human.

 

Not Bad for a Human is available in hardcover, from Bloody Pulp Books, and in paperback, from Alexander Henriksen Press.

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