Rutger Hauer, who died this week at the age of 75, was one of the towering screen presences of our time – a man who tended to dominate any film that he was cast in, seemed equally at home playing heroes and villains, and could move from serious drama to low budget sci-fi with ease, never giving less than a committed performance.
His career began in theatre in his native Holland, before he took the lead role in Paul Verhoeven’s TV series Floris – the show that would later inspire the pair’s film Flesh + Blood. Verhoeven and Hauer would become the golden team of Dutch cinema, with a series of impressive and daring dramas that remain some of their best work – Turkish Delight, Katie Tippel, Soldier of Orange and Spetters. After the international production Flesh + Blood, both would increasingly work in America, though a falling out meant that it would be separately.
Hauer’s US career began with a bang, as psychotic terrorist Wulfgar in the 1981 thriller Nighthawks. Hauer stole the film from star Sylvester Stallone and created one of the most chilling villains in cinema history. From here, he moved on to his most iconic and widely quoted role of Roy Batty in Blade Runner – Hauer famously wrote his own closing monologue, which is now widely hailed as one of the great moments of cinema. After that, he worked with Nicholas Roeg in Eureka, Sam Peckinpah in The Osterman Weekend and Richard Donner in the fantasy Ladyhawke, before creating another iconic role as the title character in the psycho thriller The Hitcher.
Throughout the rest of the 1980s and into the 1990s, Hauer was a solid presence in a series of otherwise forgettable films. At this time, he was probably best known to the general public for his laconic appearance in a string of Guinness commercials. He was wasted in Buffy the Vampire Slayer – the dismal 1992 film, not the superior TV series – and movies like Blind Fury, Split Second and Omega Doom seemed beneath his talents. He would increasingly take guest star roles in TV series and movies (winning a Golden Globe in 1987 for Escape to Sobibor) before having something of a career revival at the turn of the century, with roles in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Sin City, Batman Begins and the overrated grind house pastiche Hobo with a Shotgun. Hauer played both Dracula (in Dracula III: Legacy) and Van Helsing (in Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D), and his other vampire projects have included Salem’s Lot in 2004 and the TV series True Blood.
If cinema and TV increasingly struggled to find projects tat were worthy of Hauer’s talent, then so be it. There is no suggestion that he particularly considered himself to be slumming, or that he took himself too seriously. And his life was always about more than just acting. Hauer wasn’t a vacuous celebrity, prone to turning up to the opening of an envelope and chasing the headlines, and neither was he a dilettante campaigner. Hauer founded AIDS awareness organisation The Starfish Association, which he backed with his own money (all the proceeds of his 2007 autobiography went to the Association), something that meant more than the countless celebrities who ostentatiously attend exclusive fund raising events that are more about ego stroking and elitism than charity. And in a town where relationships are fickle, he remained married to his second wife from 1985 – having been with her since 1968.
As an actor, Hauer was probably under-appreciated; as a person, he was probably better than most of Hollywood combined. I’ve never seen anything to suggest that he was anything other than a thoroughly nice guy. Sometimes, as you watch a film you get a feel for the real person behind the actor, even as they play the worst of monsters. For many of us, Hauer felt like more than just another actor. He seemed like a thoroughly decent bloke that you could have a pint with, and that’s as glowing a tribute as anyone could hope for.