When Leland Palmer first appears in the pilot episode of Twin Peaks—his daughter dead, though he doesn’t yet know it—he exudes a very specific pencil-pushing businessman quality. You know the type. He’s not the boss. He works for the boss. He’s put upon, nervous, and that nervousness is unsettling. The moment he realizes something is wrong, with Sheriff Truman removing his hat and walking towards him, his wife on the other end of the phone breaking down, Leland tries all he can to hold it together. “My daughter’s dead,” he says, the tears beginning to stream. He spends much of the rest of the pilot on the verge of tears, the darker side of his character masked at the outset by the grief of a man whose impotence is worn on his face at all times. It’s one of the great TV performances, delivered by one of the great TV actors: Ray Wise.
“Anybody who has a good little part for me and I like the writing and I can do something with it, I’m there!” Wise said in an interview earlier this year. “You know, it doesn’t really matter how much they’re going to pay me or any of that stuff.” With 248 acting credits, his IMDb confirms this attitude. And who even knows how accurate that count is. The second credit on that list is an episode of the old soap opera Love of Life, which IMDb would have you believe he appeared in for one episode in 1976. “I think I did around 950 half-hour shows,” he told The AV Club in 2008. The internet has steered me wrong before, but there’s a difference between 1 and 950, and that difference is more than just 949. “When I first started out on the soap, I was more theatrical, like a stage actor, a little bigger than life,” Wise told The AV Club. “As I did more and more Love Of Life, I became more natural. I learned the value of underplaying. It was a great training ground for me.”
Learning how to act natural while starring in a soap opera is the perfect Ray Wise origin story. There is nothing natural about his performance style, except for the magnetism, a crucial remnant of that theatricality, which he honed on-stage in the evenings while collecting his paychecks on Love of Life during the day. Ray Wise is commanding, a would-be “that guy” who never quite earned the moniker because once you look him up you’ll never forget his name and face. His severe features—that pointed nose, the wicked smile—draw you in and suggest, always, a menace and mischievousness lurking beneath the surface. His gregariousness and surprising warmth are evident even when he’s literally playing the devil.
In 1982’s Swamp Thing, in which the rest of the cast amps up the cheesiness, acting like they’re in some cheapo ‘50s B-movie and coming across like they’re doing a spoof, Wise one-ups them. He is the guy from a ’50s B-movie. Doesn’t even break a sweat (though he does catch fire and explode and turn into the Swamp Thing). He’s committed, totally, while also Acting, with a capital A. In a Reddit AMA in 2014, Wise revealed his passion for those sorts of classic popcorn flicks, telling one questioner, “I’m what you would call an EXTREME horror fan! As a young boy, I grew up in the 1950’s and it was a great time for horror, great creature features, great sci-fi with invasions from outer space, and then great, great horror from outfits like HAMMER films where I became enamored with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.” The love is real, and the respect for genres of even the corniest variety is palpable in his energy as an actor.
It’s the reason Wise’s villainous henchman in RoboCop, the perfectly named Leon Nash, is so memorable. He’s the stuff movie henchmen are made of: over-the-top to just the right degree, and often without any dialogue. His face, his posture, and his presence are tools enough. A couple of decades later, on 24, Wise put those tools to great use playing Vice President and secret puppet master Hal Gardner. He’s the guy who wants to impose martial law via legal loopholes, surely the season’s baddie, setting off alarm bells with every sideways glance and pursed smile. Only it turns out it’s the president who’s hiding the dark secrets, with Wise’s Gardner coming out something of a hero. It’s the sort of TV twist that depends on two important factors: bad writing, and an actor willing and able to sell it anyway. That’s the Ray Wise magic.
Of course, part of selling it is simply doing the work, and Wise is the kind of guy who’s never going to let a job go half done. One of his early credits is in the classic 1980 TV movie Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders II. Auspicious stuff—the kind of unadulterated cheese that seems difficult for a real actor to take seriously. “You would think it would be hard,” Wise told The AV Club, “but every job, once you get there and start doing it, you approach it the same way. And it does become a serious thing, because it’s not easy to do, even something silly. You still have to be professional and perform.” That professionalism is there in every role Wise takes on, whether it’s Ken Cosgrove’s father-in-law on Mad Men, or Marvin from Fresh Off the Boat, or President Michael Dugan in the cutscenes from Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, or even the multiple PureFlix movies he’s appeared in.
Let’s pause for a moment. Have you seen God’s Not Dead 2? It’s about a teacher, played by Sabrina the Teenage Witch, who teaches her students about the wise words of Jesus Christ and MLK, and for her efforts she gets put on trial for violating the separation of church and state. Enter: Ray Wise, playing an ACLU lawyer named Pete Kane who announces at one point, “We’re going to prove once and for all that God is dead.” Spoiler: God is still very much alive at the end of the movie, despite Mr. Kane’s valiant efforts. He’ll get God next time, I’m sure. Now, I don’t advise anyone actually watch God’s Not Dead 2 (or the first film, or the third film, or even the fourth film), but if you do watch it, which you shouldn’t, you won’t be faulted for cheering on Kane’s devious lawyering, and not just because the facts of the case are on his side and right-wing evangelicals are a bunch of apple-pie-eating hypocrites literally destroying America as we speak. It’s the class he brings to the joint. No shade to the Teenage Witch, or even to Ernie Hudson (he plays a judge!), but the second Wise walks into the room, you know you’re in the company of greatness, totally outshining everyone else on-screen with his devilish charm. Take that, Christians!
Wise put his devilishness to even better use in the gone-too-soon CW series Reaper, in which he played Satan himself, donning a suit and tie and enough charisma to tempt the weak and cull the herd, as he says in one episode. It’s probably the most outright fun performance of his career, not only in the characterization of the Devil, but in the obvious joy Wise takes in playing him. That wicked smile is there in spades, as is his incredible swagger, and it’s infectious as hell. Wise has frequently spoken with relish about playing the role, no doubt partly for the fact that he was an actual series regular (a too-rare thing in his career), but also because playing Lucifer in a comedy series offered him so much scenery to chew. Which isn’t to say Wise is a ham. There’s no over-acting in a Ray Wise performance. He pitches exactly what the given part calls for, no more, no less, and without a hint of condescension.
While Wise is apparently game to find the meaning and gravity in every job he does, no matter how big or how cheap, he isn’t often given the chance to flex his muscle with material that goes deep. Good Night, and Good Luck is a rare exception. In George Clooney’s film about Edward R. Murrow, Wise plays CBS News journalist Don Hollenbeck, who publicly supported Murrow’s reports on Joseph McCarthy and was painted as a pinko in turn. Dealing with a difficult divorce and the communist accusations, Hollenbeck took his own life in 1954. He isn’t a huge character in the film, but Wise plays him with nothing less than full humanity. Listening to his colleague read aloud the newspaper criticism of his support for Murrow, Wise’s face goes sullen with the look of a man who cannot bear the weight of living. “George was familiar with my work and my career, and once he saw me do the character, he felt I was the perfect guy for it. And it turned out to be that way,” Wise recalled in his AV Club interview. “It was something I really identified with. I think George saw aspects of Hollenbeck in Leland Palmer. They were both tragic men whose lives came to a tragic end.”
Understanding the similarities between Leland Palmer and Don Hollenbeck is a striking example of Wise’s capacity for empathy as an actor. He’s said in many interviews that he was upset when David Lynch informed him, finally, that Leland was the killer in Twin Peaks. “The whole idea in my mind of abusing and killing my own daughter was anathema to me, as Leland. I’d just had my own daughter. She was a couple of years old when I started on Twin Peaks. I was feeling very fatherly as I was playing the character. So all of that really bothered me,” he told Consequence in 2017. Lynch assured Wise that his character would “go out with redemption, with a full realization, and with forgiveness given to me.” That moving and complicated redemption did come, and as anyone could have expected, Wise delivered in his final moments, making apparent Leland Palmer’s tragic humanity in having done some of the worst things a person can do.
The torn up menace of that humanity was further explored in the prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which Wise himself has cited as Lynch’s masterpiece. A moving act of reclamation for the character of Laura Palmer, it’s no surprise that an actor as empathetic as Wise appreciated the polarizing film as a statement about redemption, even as his character’s monstrousness was made more clear. It’s the work Wise is giving himself over to, and there’s no ego in that. Perhaps that is why seeing Wise in the role of Leland once more, only briefly, in Twin Peaks: The Return was such an emotional experience for fans of the show. More than just a bizarro dad who molested and killed his daughter while being inhabited by an evil spirit, in Wise’s hands, the tragedy of Leland Palmer is that he was never less than human. I’m sure his Doctor Simmons from Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders II was no different.