Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Terry O’Quinn’s performance in The Stepfather.
If you grew up watching Disney movies, you can probably name a few popular wicked stepmothers. But what if someone asked you to name a few of Hollywood’s favorite wicked stepfathers? If you’re a lover of film noir, your mind will likely go straight to Robert Mitchum’s demented Reverend Harry Powell in the classic 1955 thriller Night of the Hunter. But for my money, the best cinematic wicked stepdad goes to Terry O’Quinn’s Jerry Blake in Joseph Ruben’s The Stepfather.
The incredibly entertaining B-movie gained a cult following on home video in the late 1980s, but what sets The Stepfather apart from other schlocky thrillers from the Blockbuster era is a truly incredible performance by O’Quinn. As the titular baddie, he creates a multilayered character that is both frightening and exhilarating as we watch him spiral out of control.
Ruben wastes no time introducing us to our wicked stepfather. In the opening seconds, O’Quinn, dripping in fresh blood, walks into a bathroom. There’s a crazed look in his eyes as he silently stares daggers into his reflection in the mirror. Without saying a word, the actor brings an energy that tells the audience that this man is disturbingly unstable.
That sense of instability slowly abates as O’Quinn’s Jerry methodically changes his appearance, removing his bloodstained glasses, putting in new contact lenses, and shaving his unkempt beard. As he dons a suit and straightens his tie, O’Quinn shows the audience Jerry regaining not only composure but control over his emotions as it sinks in that he just murdered his family in their downstairs living room.
After these opening moments, the movie picks up one year later with Jerry having already embedded himself into a new family. He’s now married to a widower, Susan Maine (Shelley Hack), and desperately wants the favor of his new stepdaughter, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). This is Jerry’s M.O. He has a deep-seated obsession with traditional family values, and once he’s gotten his fill of the Norman Rockwell way of life, he systematically murders his wife and stepkids, changes his identity, and starts the cycle over again in a new zip code.
His obsession with traditional values extends to his job in real estate. In Jerry’s world, he’s not just a realtor; he sells the American dream. He wants all of his neighbors to have the perfect home to match their perfect families. You would think that for a character this entrenched with upholding traditional American values that O’Quinn would play Jerry with an overwhelming sense of toxic masculinity. But he resists making the easy choice. Instead, he allows Jerry — at least on the surface level — to express genuine emotion and love for his friends and family that is as surprising as it is genuinely effective.
During a backyard barbecue, Jerry pours his heart out in gratitude to his neighbors, waxing poetic on the American Dream before we hear his voice break. As tears fill his eyes, he quickly buries his face into Susan’s shoulder, like a bashful child hiding in his mother’s arms. O’Quinn plays Jerry so earnestly in this moment that I was instantly reminded of the sweet sensitivity that Anthony Perkins gave Norman Bates in Psycho. O’Quinn, like Perkins, has disarmingly kind eyes that make us momentarily forget a stone-cold murderer hides behind Jerry’s family man persona.
Because O’Quinn is so convincing as a congenial dad, the audience is pushed off balance when we finally see the unhinged side of Jerry on full display. After he reads a story in a local newspaper about one of the many families he murdered, he exorcises his anxiety by raging out in his basement. “Why won’t they leave me alone?!” Jerry screams, O’Quinn exploding with volatile emotions to show his character spiraling into mania. “All we need is a little order around here,” he roars to himself, slamming his fist into his workbench before switching on a dime to mewl over a picture of his new family. Jerry is larger than life in this scene, but it’s not a conscious decision by O’Quinn to make big acting choices. He’s simply following the instincts he has in character and allowing those varied impulses to inform Jerry’s heightened emotional state.
While Jerry may express his anxiety over being arrested for his crimes in his private basement, O’Quinn never allows the audience to see him publicly sweat, even when he’s caught in a lie by another character. We first see this happen early in the movie as he shows off a new home to a family. As they survey the property and Jerry pushes their young daughter on a swing, he tells her about his own family. But as they talk, he accidentally mixes up the name of his living stepdaughter with one of his many dead stepdaughters. Rather than showing Jerry scrambling to make up an excuse when the girl asks why he called his daughter a different name, O’Quinn seems almost unencumbered by his error. He easily brushes off her question and gets lost in the memory of his past murders.
We see Jerry unfazed by a slip of the tongue once again in The Stepfather’s most famous scene. After Jerry has decided to kill his new family, he begins to untether himself from Susan and Stephanie. He quits his job, opens a new life insurance policy, and even starts getting friendly with a widower in the next town over. When Susan learns that Jerry left his job without telling her, she confronts him. He confidently explains himself, laying the blame on an absent-minded receptionist to cover his tracks.
But just as Susan begins to acquiesce that the receptionist must have gotten the name wrong, Jerry yells, “Hodgkins! What’s there to get wrong!?” As Susan pauses, slowly turning to face her husband, O’Quinn hesitates, processing the mistake his character just made. Jerry called himself by the wrong last name. In this identity, he’s Jerry Blake, not Jerry Hodgkins. As a wave of bewilderment washes over his face, he says aloud, “Wait a minute. Who am I here?” It’s a chilling line because this should be the moment when Jerry, feeling trapped, loses complete control. But O’Quinn keeps Jerry cool and composed as he begins his attack, a far more unsettling and intriguing character choice than if he played his killer stepdad as a predictable movie maniac.
Before The Stepfather, Terry O’Quinn was best known for supporting roles in everything from the megaflop Heaven’s Gate to the first television revival of The Twilight Zone. Despite having the recognizable face of an accomplished character actor, Jerry Blake was the first lead role in O’Quinn’s career. As he told The A.V. Club, “The Stepfather was the first time I sort of carried a film…and doing it was fun, and I felt very special. Afterwards, though, I was terrified. I just thought, ‘Wow, this is basically going to be about me. If this film is a success or a failure, a lot of it’s on me!’”
The movie did enjoy a limited theatrical run in 1987, but it was far from the box office success O’Quinn may have hoped for. That being said, it did receive acclaim from critics, including Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who singled out O’Quinn’s performance as being the saving grace of a movie they otherwise described as “sick” on their show, At the Movies. However, the movie proved popular enough to inspire two direct sequels, allowing The Stepfather’s cult following to grow on home video and late-night cable until it was inevitably remade in 2009 with Dylan Walsh.
As much as I love The Stepfather, I can’t imagine this movie would have spawned a small franchise if it weren’t for Terry O’Quinn’s magnetic performance. Throughout this cult classic, he delivers an absolute masterclass in creating an incredibly complex psychopath. As Jerry Blake, he perfectly executes an emotional balancing act that weaves together a Norman Rockwell-esque dad with a cold-blooded murderer, effortlessly switching between quiet paternal warmth and dangerously unhinged energy.
No doubt his talents as an actor would have continued getting him work regardless of his role in The Stepfather. But after this performance, it would have been impossible for casting directors to overlook the unbelievable talents of Terry O’Quinn.
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