1986’s Aliens featured a memorably sleazy villain in the form of Paul Reiser’s Carter Burke, but why was the comedy performer cast in the part?
James Cameron’s Aliens featured a memorably sleazy villain in the form of Paul Reiser’s Carter Burke, but why was the comedy performer cast in the part? Released seven years after Blade Runner director Ridley Scott’s original “haunted house in space” sci-fi horror hit, Alien, started the franchise, 1986’s Aliens saw The Terminator creator Cameron up the action and scale of the series to both critical acclaim and audience adoration.
Bigger, louder, and more fast-paced, Aliens replaced the claustrophobic, hardcore horror of Alien with a more action-oriented approach, keeping Sigourney Weaver’s iconic heroine Ripley as its lead, but adding a phalanx of space marines to help her out. Of course, as the title implied, the threats were bigger this time around, with the first film’s lone, eponymous xenomorph being replaced by an entire hive teeming with the toothy beasts and the iconic Alien Queen at its center.
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The most unexpected villain of Aliens, however, is definitely sleazy company man Carter Burke, an amoral Weyland-Yutani executive who talks (read: coerces) Ripley and her colleagues into facing off against the alien horde despite knowing it’s a suicide mission. Burke oozes sneaky, two-faced faux-charisma whenever he’s onscreen, and makes for a memorably scummy personification of corporate malfeasance. So why is he played by the otherwise warm-hearted and charming actor Paul Reiser, who would go on to enjoy a long career in rom-com and sitcom starring roles?
Since his movie debut playing a stand-up comedian in 1982’s underrated sleeper hit, Diner, Reiser had established himself as a reliably warm and relatable screen presence. The actor was carving out a nice niche as a beleaguered everyman in everything from the Eddie Murphy vehicle Beverly Hills Cop to the college comedy, Odd Jobs. As such, no one expected him to play a villain; Cameron was able to utilize Reisier’s recognizable face and reliably likable screen presence to throw viewers off the scent. Carter initially seems to be a trustworthy ally to Ripley. When he’s revealed to be a duplicitous snake, the audience was doubly thrown thanks to Reiser’s then well-established screen persona as a nice guy. It’s one of many twists thrown in to ensure Aliens is as engaging and fast-paced as its predecessor. The reveal of Burke’s uncaring villainy is almost as much of a shock as the early exit that recognizable face John Hurt suffers in Scott’s Alien.
Interestingly, the actor then went on to flip this subversion with his role in Stranger Things decades later. In an oblique reference to his role as Aliens’ unexpectedly villainous Carter, Reiser’s Stranger Things season 2 role as a shady government scientist had “bad guy” written all over it. However, this set-up was put in place only for him to later end up being a minor hero of the season who helps the protagonists escape danger. It’s a neat trick which references Reiser’s ability to shift between sleazy villainy and relatable charm with ease, and serves as a clever allusion to the sudden surprise of his Aliens character’s true nature.
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