“Good guy’ or ‘bad guy’, hero or anti hero; doesn’t matter to me, what role I play, only the character have something magical” – Rutger Hauer
Tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed, he was a 6’1½ “ tall paradox. An actor who could charm with handsome features and a sly smile yet slip with ease into cold psychosis or a persona wracked with inner demons. Rutger Hauer was all of that and much, much more. He was, at once, a brutal terrorist out to cause mayhem in Bruce Malmuth’s gritty 1981 actioner Nighthawks, the iconic replicant antagonist Batty in Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner and the cursed soldier/lover Navarre in Richard Donner’s 1985 fantasy Ladyhawke. The multi-talented Hauer died on July 19, 2019 in his home in the Netherlands after a brief illness. As many-faceted and unique as his portrayals were (in some truly landmark films and with a career spanning five decades), combined with his off-screen passions for the environment and for combatting the epidemic of AIDS, it would seem fitting to celebrate his life and work and the impact he leaves rather than mourn the passing of his physical being.
Born in 1944 in Breukelen (a town in the Utrecht province of the Netherlands) to drama teacher parents. After leaving home at 15 to work at sea scrubbing decks on a freighter, Hauer came back to attend the Academy of Theatre and Dance in Amsterdam for acting classes. The bug had bit, as it were. Perhaps the biggest course alteration in his life and career came after five years in working with an experimental theatre troupe when he came into contact with another young Dutch talent destined for icon status, director/producer/screenwriter Paul Verhoeven. The helmer would sign Hauer to star in the country’s popular medieval action series Floris in 1969. The rookie actor became the household name rapidly. He later reprised the part for a German big screen version in 1975 called Floris von Rosemund. Though he made his English-language debut in the 1974 political thriller/actioner The Wilby Conspiracy, it seemed that Hollywood and international audiences really failed to take notice of the intense artist. Hauer remained working in the Netherlands for a few more years, amassing impressive credits one after another, often guided under the direction of Verhoeven. A Soldier of Orange (1977) and Spetters (1980) are two of their very best pairings, in my opinion. The former is an intelligent, literate study of the courage of students who join the resistance against the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam, while the latter is a treatise on wanting more in life than just a work-a-day existence as three bikers share a passion for dirt-bike racing. Hauer is magnetic as the professional racer idolized by the trio.
There are examples of actors, throughout the history of the entertainment medium, who tend to regard their craft in something of an uber-serious fashion. True, everyone who truly wants to excel in their vocation (whichever it happens to be) must take it at a certain level of integrity and meaning so as to devote the necessary energy to honing one’s skill. But I believe there is a strong connection between keeping an element of fun, of silly to the art that allows more of a freedom to take risk and play with roles and career direction. Hauer seems to agree with this notion of holding the proverbial grain of salt when it comes to performing. “I was convinced that acting was for fools. I was on the stage when I was eight with my father, he was playing one of those Greek blind guys that sees things and warns people, whilst I was in a blue skirt. I think there were 5,000 people in the theatre, it was ridiculous.”
The 80s certainly served as prime example of Hauer’s pursuit of variety. U.S. film-goers finally took notice, in 1981, of the actor with his chilling turn as the terrorist Wulfgar opposite pursuing cops Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams in Nighthawks. It is the role that caught my eye, certainly, as a 14-year-old film fan obsessed with thrillers. It took some doing to convince my dad to take me to the cinema for this R-rated epic. To say I was riveted was an understatement. More so due to the absolute conviction thrown into Wulfgar character by Hauer. Every mannerism, hand gesture and eye gaze smacked of a man driven by elements that were greater than him to complete his bloody goal. Relentlessly determined, with only people able to try to stop him having to be on the very same level of desperation.
Of course, no discourse on Hauer and the 80s could go on without mention of what may be his definitive, iconic role. That of the replicant Roy Batty, destined to tangle with Harrison Ford’s futuristic cop Rick Deckard while opining about “tears in the rain” (a monologue much of which was ad-libbed by Hauer) in Ridley Scott’s bleak future masterwork Blade Runner. It seems that the longevity and appeal by fans was a true testament that the feature worked and resonated, according to the future star. ”You really can’t say enough about ‘Blade Runner.’ For that movie to have such a long life – you can’t describe what a beautiful feeling that is. Initially, the movie was out of theaters in something like two weeks. But the people that wanted it back – the fans – they really saved it.”
The thespian did find an interesting irony in his frequent casting as killers and psychopaths, noting the environment that he was born in back in ’44. In an interview for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune back on April 23, 1981 he offered this: “I was born in the middle of the war. And I think, for that reason, I have deep roots in Pacifism. Violence frightens me. I once owned a gun, but the thought of using it so appalled me that I threw it away. I am very strong, but the only thing I could kill is a fly.” It is another sense of irony when you reflect that, really, the only thing his characters never did in a movie was to kill a fly. Mutants and monsters, yes. But no flies.
Donner’s Ladyhawke deserves really a special singling out in that it is, perhaps, the closest Hauer ever came to the romantic knight hero in Navarre, in love with the fair Michelle Pfeiffer and doomed by a magic spell from a jealous rival. Certainly, Hauer delivers quirky and off-kilter, even in the standard. But it is a cheery delight to see him play as straight-forward as he ever got. There was nothing cheery about his next assaying, that of killer hitch-hiker John Ryder in Robert Harmon’s brilliant 1986 horror gem The Hitcher. The more appropriate description of this human monster may be gleeful. His is a private devil who delights in getting under the skin and tormenting C. Thomas Howell’s innocent good samaritan Jim Helsey. It is more than just good versus evil. Rather to the level of warring IDs, environment and circumstance having put each down a different path.
In what was on the level of blind-to-accent-ala-Yul-Brynner casting, Hauer was hired to take the role of Nick Randall, offspring to Steve McQueen’s bounty hunter Josh Randall, in the 1986 followup to the hit 1950s series Wanted: Dead or Alive. Ever determined to get the part right (in fact, Hauer was, as mentioned in the open of this piece, dubbed the Dutch Paul Newman much due to his own devotion to method acting and inhabiting roles), he sure does a yeoman’s job in burying his accent to play Randall and gives the whole affair a true galvanizing conviction. This same conviction to character propels the story and events in the 1989 Phillip Noyce helmer Blind Fury. This one is something of a “B” cult favorite for me as it shows the flair for comedy at times that the actor was rarely called to do. Of course, there are the requisite action set-pieces that are high energy fun but it is the little bits like the humor that really carry it over.
Though the legend would go on to accumulate a lengthy resume (working until the very end, as it turns, with five works in filming/completed/post-production status, including as the Ghost of Christmas Future in a mini-series adaptation of the perennial Charles Dickens holiday favorite A Christmas Carol), it is really a testament to the desire within the man to be more than he is and do more that I’m most intrigued by. Over the years, Hauer had become quite the activist and fighter against the spread of HIV and AIDS. He started the Starfish Association in 2000. As its mission statement reads, it is an organization “dedicated to providing help, attention and care to children and pregnant women with HIV/AIDS, as well as educating communities about this disease.” One of his trademark pieces of clothing attire he would wear over the years is a leather jacket adorned with a red ribbon symbolizing the fight against the disease. This philanthropy and activism has branched out into other areas as well. Among these projects is the Long Distance Adoption program, which seeks to provide adoptions of children from areas of Africa such as Rwanda and Malawi, and the Pharmaccess Foundation, an NGO (Non-Government Organization) in the Netherlands devoted to assisting the Ministry of Health in Tanzania in its effort to role out a national HIV/AIDS Care and Treatment Program.
Amongst the awards Hauer has received over the years for his work in film, television, on the stage and in his tireless efforts in service of bettering the human condition, perhaps his most coveted honor came in 2013 when he was knighted by the King’s Commissioner in Friesland (John Jorritsma) in the Order of the Netherlands Lion. A fitting honor for a man who, while not playing many heroes in his career, certainly was the hero to many in real life.
So many aspects to this human being, this artist, this trend-setter, this movement starter. He refused to be square block placed neatly into the square hole. It seemed that the block pounded into the round opening until something broke was more his style. That was pure Rutger Hauer. Smashing stereotypes and convention everywhere he could. And bringing his fans along for one glorious, rip-roaring ride as he did it. We are all the richer for his having shared in the Earthly experience with us. To Mr. Batty, Wulfgar, Navarre, and Nick I say rest in peace. To Mr. Hauer, I will simply say thank you for all that you were and are.