What A Character! Daniel Stern – Wise-Ass to the Stars

Daniel Stern in Home Alone (1990)

By Jack Deth

Welcome all and sundry! Having been sidelined for awhile with the vagaries of an old body catching up with me, I was thrilled to see that the Sixth Annual What A Character! Blogathon was in the works, with some delightful selections from numerous cinephiles coaxing my attention to the newer batches of those who work in the background of sets and groups, inching their way closer to success.

To that end, allow me a few moments of your time while I dig out, dust off, root around, and unearth the career of some local homegrown Maryland talent in

What A Character: Master Craftsman Daniel Stern. Wise-Ass To The Stars!

Along with Chris Meloni (“Bound,” “Oz,” “Law & Order: SVU”) and Jonathan Banks (“Who’ll Stop The Rain,” “Wiseguy,” “Breaking Bad”), Stern was the tall, gangling scarecrow of an upstart who caught my eye providing sarcastic comic relief as one of four high school graduate buddies facing life’s daunting future in Breaking Away.

A Peter Yates-directed coming-of-age project from 1979, filmed in and around Bloomington, Indiana. A surprisingly good example of a on-location film that excels in “Bang For The Buck,” mixing teen angst, uncertainty, and a scaled-down version of a hometown bicycle “Tour de France” with the four friends — “Cutters,” named after the local families who cut and formed marble and granite for the state’s municipal and court buildings — going up against better-trained, -financed and -equipped fraternities. Adding a dash of underdog to the film’s drama and comedy that surprised audiences, the Golden Globes, and Academy of Arts and Sciences alike.

What does Mr. Stern bring to the film? A refreshing bit of quiet, affable stability among his friends, Dennis Christopher (Dave), Dennis Quaid (Mile), and Jackie Earle Haley (Moocher). Even though Mr. Stern looks like the kid who was made for basketball, he can’t dribble. His Cyril is the rock that their friendship is based on. Even up to the point of helping Dave serenade a sorority girl (P.J. Soles), and getting beaten up by a jealous frat boy for his efforts in a case of mistaken identity. When otherwise making himself available to indulge in light sarcasm directed at Bloomington’s many authority figures,
Not too shabby for a first outing. With the film racking up four major nominations in the 52nd Academy Awards and taking home a win for Best Original Screenplay, a win for Dennis Christopher as Most Promising Newcomer to Lead In Film from the 33rd BAFTA Awards, plus four 37th Golden Globe nominations and one win for Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy.

Keeping busy through the next three years with roles in Starting Over, A Small Circle Of Friends, and Stardust Memories. Being at the right place and the right time to ply his craft under some soon-to-be heavy hitters in the acting and directors departments. With Alan Pakula and Woody Allen at the tiller of notable “You’ve Gotta Start Somewhere” projects. While lining up his sights on a personal Barry Levinson project tailor made for Mr. Stern’s talent: Diner.

A landmark film and launchpad for another aspiring group of young talent ranging from Tim Daley, Kevin Bacon, and Mickey Rourke to Steve Guttenberg, Paul Reiser, and Ellen Barkin, with Mr. Stern playing the more mature and settled married member of the film’s batch of bachelors, whose touchstone is Baltimore’s Fells Point Diner. Though life outside the diner reveals that Mr. Stern’s electronics salesman and music aficionado Shrevie is not all that wise, mature or settled.

In a film that broke many molds in focusing on dialogue much more than action, to the point of the financing and distributing studio, Warner Brothers, wanting to shelve the finished film, until surprisingly positive reviews were written by Pauline Kael, and the Los Angeles and New York Times.

Outside of encompassing everything good about the spirit and possibilities of independent films, Diner is a meticulously-detailed medium-budgeted piece of cinema, wrapped around the last evening of 1959 and beyond in regards to clothes, cars and locations. The film does allow for all its stars to shine in script and improvisation, backed by an excellent, eclectic soundtrack.

Mr. Stern then made time for a side expedition into the Valium addiction biopic, I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can, before sitting down to an audition with director John Badham and his action/conspiracy thriller, Blue Thunder.

Where he plays recently graduated Officer Richard Lymangood. Former Navy Aviation Rating, JAFO (Just Another Fu$king Observer) and Electronics Geek working with veteran ASTRO (Air Support To Regular Operations) helicopter pilot Officer Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider), under Division Commander Captain Jack Braddock (Warren Oates). Where Mr. Stern falls on his sword and flawlessly tees up some of Mr. Oates’ best lines.

Sticking true to form and keeping a cautious one step back from the implications of a heavily armed rotary wing platform seething with unheard of surveillance, stealth and computer capabilities in preparations for the 1984 Olympics.

And what it could do when weaponized and released on the citizens and cultural landscape of Los Angeles and surrounding counties. Mr. Stern supplies the conscience, though not much is needed, in guiding Mr. Scheider’s Frank Murphy to a quick and dirty solution in the film’s final moments.

Clearing the decks for roles in Sidney Lumet’s Daniel (a personal favorite), C.H.U.D., Frankenweenie, and Hannah and Her Sisters. Turning again to comedy for Born In East L.A. and The Milagro Beanfield War. Switching over to nighttime  noir drama in D.O.A. Before opting for science fiction in the 1989 deep sea exploration thriller, Leviathan.

Where Mr. Stern goes against character and out of his way to be an arrogant, misogynistic “Been There. Done That” prick, Buzz “Sixpack” Parrish, who keeps the women, Amanda Pays and Lisa Eilbacher, on edge, while giving the rest of the cast — Peter Weller, Ernie Hudson, Richard Crenna and Hector Elizondo — their moments to shine in an under-appreciated and -rated personal slow smoldering, edge of your seat “Guilty Pleasure.”

Shifting gears back to comedy for Little Monsters, and My Blue Heaven, then writer John Hughes, director Chris Columbus, and a small-scale franchise with 1990’s Home Alone.

Where Mr. Stern effortlessly makes his partner in crime, Harry Lime (Joe Pesci), look even better and more pathetic while being on the receiving end of a well-budgeted and -cast, seasonal and overblown, live-action Warner Brothers “Road Runner & Wile E. Coyote” cartoon.

Following it up with City Slickers a year later.

Slipping over in voice acting, narration, and supplying the adult voice of Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) for six seasons (1988-1993) of ABC’s multi-award-winning “The Wonder Years.” Editor’s note: the clip won’t embed, click through to listen.

Making time to reprise his role as Paul Berquist in City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, along with Bushwhacked and Celtic Pride before latching onto Peter Berg directing Jon Favreau, Christian Slater, Jeremy Piven and Leland Orser in the Bachelor Party Gone Bad “Black Comedy,” Very Bad Things in 1998.

Shifting back over to animation voice work for thirty episodes of “Dilbert.” Staying in television for better than five years with guest spots across the spectrum. Before returning to film and Drew Barrymore’s debut directing a small budgeted “Girl Power” film with Ellen Page, Whip It, another personal low budget favorite.

Where Mr. Stern plays Ellen’s dad, Earl Cavender, who goes against his wife’s (Marcia Gaye Harden) wishes and rallies behind his “one shot at happiness” with Texas Roller Derby.

Then returning for a final lap around television, its many series and guest star slots. Most notably fifteen episodes of WGN’s award winning (2014-2015) series, “Manhattan.”

Overall Consensus A consummate “Actor’s Actor” who learned his craft from the bottom up, while having the great good fortune to get the attention of young and established directors who would make their mark in later years.

Three years behind me, age-wise, Mr. Stern graduated from Bethesda Chevy Chase High School in 1975 and auditioned for the Washington Shakespeare Festival seeking a job as a lighting engineer, but wound up as a “strolling player with a lute,” before landing roles on stage and off Broadway with Gary Sinise’s Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago and its production of “True West,” appearing with Mr. Sinise and troupe co-founder John Malkovich. Stern garnered experience and positive reviews before starting his cinema career as too-tall Cyril in Breaking Away, and masterfully catching and riding the crest of that wave for decades thereafter.

Racking up an impressive number of roles in favorite, original, low-budget “Bang For The Buck!” films like Breaking Away, Diner, Blue Thunder, Daniel, Leviathan, Home Alone, Very Bad Things, and Whip It, and creating multiple personae for cinema and television, while holding on tightly to his gift of dry, wry. sarcastic and occasional wise-ass humor.

A “Utility Infielder”? Not precisely. More content and assured as part of an ensemble, while making that ensemble and film much better for his inclusion.

All in all, the very definition of a Character Actor!

Agree?…. Disagree?…. Personal Opinions or Choices? The Floor Is Open For Discussion!

22 thoughts on “What A Character! Daniel Stern – Wise-Ass to the Stars

    1. Thank you for a great start, Patricia:

      Mr. Stern does have a memorable body of work. Which is what drew me to him for this year’s Blogathon.

      Now that you mention it, Mr. Stern did play a major league pitcher past his prime in the 1993 comedy, ‘Rookie Of The Year’.

  1. I’m always excited to see Daniel Stern’s name in the credits. Has he ever given a bad (or even mediocre) performance? Not to my knowledge. He’s been a fairly busy actor, by the looks of it, and for good reason!

    1. Since the time I first noticed Mr. Stern. I can’t think of a time when he wasn’t working. A sure sign that excellence creates opportunities.

      Even if the film is not well received. (‘Little Monsters’. Aimed at kids and not adults.) Mr. Stern fulfills his obligation and delivers. Often more than required, necessary or asked for.

  2. Great piece, Jack! Always a welcome character actor in the mix of a film. He has wonderful instincts for physical comedy. Thanks for joining our blogathon with this fab contribution.

    1. Thanks, Kellee:

      Mr. Stern has always struck me as one of the next generation of character actors beyond Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton and Bruce Dern.

      An every man of surprising depth and talents. As noted verbally in ‘Breaking Away’ and ‘Blue Thunder’. Then turning on a dime for physical comedy in ‘Home Alone’ and its sequel.

  3. Thanks for this career recap, Jack. I have to admit most of these have gotten by me, but I most remember Stern in City Slickers in the “I hate bullies” scene, which shows Phil’s transformation in no uncertain terms. So maybe he went a little too far, but it’s a satisfying moment to watch.

    1. You’re welcome, Paula:

      I wanted to keep this retrospective narrowed down to ‘Breaking Away’ and perhaps, ‘Diner’. But the deeper I dug the more films I remembered Mr. Stern in.

      Audiences and actor lives for those scenes where one “loses it”.
      And Mr. Stern’s ‘I hate bullies!” scene rates right up there with the best of Jimmy Stewart (‘Winchester 73’) and Jack Nicholson’s “I am the Shore Patrol!” scene from ‘The Last Detail’.

      And one of the reasons the scene works so well is that Mr. Stern’s Phil Berquist is perceived to be so quiet, meek and easy to intimidate. Yet savvy enough to reel his anger back in once his message is received.

        1. Outstanding choice, Paula!

          Jimmy throwing the Duke’s island sized steak and larger platter around makes the scene.

          I’ll open with your favorite. Dan Duryea as Johnny Prince on ‘Scarlet Street’.

          Then bump and check to the Dealer with Robert Ryan as murderous Anti-Semite, Montgomery in the last moments of ‘Crossfire’.

    1. Thanks very much, Marsha:

      Which also firmly plants Mr. Stern in the grand company of J.K. Simmons, Eli Wallach, Jack Klugman, Joe Pesci and John Goodman to name but a few.

  4. As soon as I saw the subject of your post, I immediately thought: Breaking Away. He was that good, and memorable, in that film. I haven’t seen much of him since Diner, so it was great to get caught up thanks to your post.

    1. You’re more than welcome, Jocelyn:

      It’s also nice to see that Mr. Stern has kept those memorable, impeccable standards alive and well throughout his career.

      Glad you enjoyed the trip down Memory Lane!

      1. Also. Excellent retrospective on Brian Donlevy.

        It’s nice to see the old and fertile fields of Mr. Donlevy plowed by a just starting out Fred Mac Murray in his being a “Superb Louse” in ‘The Caine Mutiny’, ‘Pushover’, ‘Double Indemnity’ and ‘The Apartment’.

  5. He was also featured on a short-lived TV series I quite enjoyed, Hometown. Again he was a solid part of an ensemble.

    1. Welcome, Cliff:

      Good catch with ‘Hometown’. Which featured Jane Kaczmarek after her Officer Pilsky in six episodes of ‘Hill Street Blues’ and her bartender and love interest for Harvard Law Student, James Hart; Connie Lehrman in eight episodes of ‘The Paper Chase’. And long before her wife, Lois in ‘Malcolm In The Middle’.

      Also interesting to see that her and Mr. Stern’s paths crossed again two years later in ‘D.O.A.’.

  6. Wonderful piece Jack. I’m not sure I’ve considered Stern to be anything other than a workmanlike performer in, as you allude to, an ensemble. But it’s interesting to realise, courtesy of your detailed article, what Stern has brought to a number of films. He’s an ordinary Everyman but I think that’s a quality he possesses. He’s definitely likeable. And funny. I have to admit, I always watch Blue Thunder and wish, this time around, he makes it to the end. That says something about his qualities as an actor and how he captures our hearts.

    1. Cheers, Dan. Long time no see!

      Thanks very much for your insightful and delightful comment.

      Mr. Stern’s ability to be a cinematic Everyman is right up there with James Stewart, Elisha Cook, Jr. and Harry Dean Stanton in making any role his own. And adding touches and vulnerabilities which make the audience truly care for him.

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