There are, in general, two types of fans of the TV show of M*A*S*H—fans of the early years and fans of the later years. If you’re a fan of the later years, you’re probably not a fan of the movie much, either. Which means that you may completely forget the character of Duke exists, much less was played by Tom Skerritt. And while Skerritt was first-billed in Alien, he’s definitely not the first person you think about in the movie. Likely not the second or third, either. The Dead Zone is one of the few high-quality Stephen King movies, but George Bannerman’s at best the third character you remember, and probably even lower than that. He’s not even credited in Harold and Maude, and since he’s the motorcycle cop, you can’t see his face anyway.
Yet for longer than my lifetime—and I am not a young woman—Tom Skerritt has been giving solid, quality performances. Often in classics. He’s got five movies in the National Film Registry, though of course one of those is Harold and Maude. Several more seem likely to join them in time. I’m not sure there are any movies where I’d say Skerritt starred; he’s usually a supporting player. But he’s often important to the plot and one of the valuable parts.
And that’s just the movies. He’s also done literally dozens of TV shows, going back to 1963. (He was thirty at the time.) He’s one of the only people who did both the movie and TV show of The Dead Zone, for instance, albeit not as the same character. I regret to inform you that he never did either Lux Video Theatre or Perry Mason—not even Columbo—but he did do about a dozen Westerns back in the ’60s. Including an episode from one of my favourite long-running Wonderful World of Disney serials, which I’ll get to at some point, from the second series of it when they were in the West.
It’s not surprising that he’s done a lot of Westerns, and that’s leaving aside the basic fact of the television landscape from the ’60s which means it’s basically impossible to have been on TV in those days without having done at least one or two. (George Takei did Death Valley Days, though alas his episode is not one of the five Skerritt did.) While Skerritt is from Michigan, he still gives off that kind of rustic, wholesome, outdoorsy vibe that works so well in a Western. I’d kind of like to see him do something with Sam Elliott one of these days.
Actually, by the standards of this column, Skerritt and I are practically neighbours—he lives in Seattle, when he’s not working. Weirdly, he played the lead in the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Don Quixote a few years ago, a thing I very much wish I could have seen. If for no other reason that to know how much dancing is involved in the role and if this means that Tom Skerritt can dance. If he can, I now want to see him in a movie with Christopher Walken as well.