William Atherton

William Atherton Biography

Film Actor, Actor, Television Actor, Theater Actor (1947–)
William Atherton is an American actor known for playing heavies in films like Ghostbusters and Die Hard.


William Atherton was born on July 30, 1947, in Orange, Connecticut. Screen legend George C. Scott helped him land his first film role. His second role was in Steven Spielberg's The Sugarland Express. Beginning with Ghostbusters, and continuing in Real Genius and the Die Hard series, Atherton has regularly taken roles as jerks or villains and says he enjoys the meatier material. He has been married to Bobbi Goldin since 1980.

Early Life

Actor William Atherton was born William Atherton Knight on July 30, 1947, in Orange, Connecticut. Atherton took to acting at a very young age, becoming the youngest member ever of New Haven's Long Wharf Theater company while still a high school student. Atherton left his home state to attend college in Pittsburgh, earning his bachelor's of fine arts in drama from the Carnegie Institute of Technology at Carnegie Mellon University. After further training in the theater arts at California's Pasadena Playhouse, Atherton moved to New York City to pursue a professional career as a stage actor.

Early Acting Career

After starring in several off-Broadway roles in the early 1970s, Atherton got his big break in film while appearing in a 1971 stage production of The Basic Training Of Pavlo Hummel. The legendary actor George C. Scott, a member of the board of the theater producing Pavlo Hummel, suggested the 23-year-old Atherton for the cast of his upcoming film The New Centurions. The 1972 film was Atherton's first movie, and the young actor was "green to the point of imbecility," he later admitted. "It was kind of like instant education, which I think I passed with a C. At least I passed," he said with a laugh.

Big Break

For his next film, Atherton was cast as the jailbird husband of Goldie Hawn in The Sugarland Express, the first big feature film of an up-and-coming director named Steven Spielberg. "We were all in Texas, and we were all 24, 25 years old, and we had a fabulous time," Atherton said. "[Spielberg] was great. I've never had an experience as unique and consistently great as that one." Critics singled out both Spielberg and his young stars as new talents to watch.

Atherton next tackled dramatic roles in films like The Day Of The Locust (1975) and Looking For Mr. Goodbar (1977). The films were critically well received but weren't huge box-office draws. Following Looking For Mr. Goodbar, Atherton took a break from work in Hollywood, spending the next seven years focused almost entirely on Broadway and off-Broadway stage roles.

Typecasted as a Villain

In 1984, Atherton returned to the big screen in his biggest role, a scene-stealing turn in the 1984 blockbuster Ghostbusters as uptight Environmental Protection Agency agent Walter Peck. "The movie became enormous," Atherton said. "We knew it was going to be big, but it was a culture shift. It's just like getting hit by the bus."

In his next role, Atherton played the obnoxious Professor Herry Hathaway in the movie Real Genius, now regarded as something of a cult classic. Then in 1988, he played the slimy, self-promoting television reporter Richard Thornburg in the Bruce Willis action thriller Die Hard, a role he later reprised in Die Hard 2. Atherton's turns as memorable foils in those high-profile movies in the late 1980s nearly erased the public's memory of his earlier dramatic roles. He became known as a villain, a typecasting he accepted good-naturedly. "I always thought of them as comedy roles. I've never seen them as villain roles," Atherton said. "If you have to be the antagonist, you often have a lot more creative powers. You have a lot more color to you."

Later Roles and Personal Life

After the success of the Die Hard movies, Atherton found steady work in television and film. He had recurring roles on television series like Murder, She Wrote, Law & Order, Desperate Housewives and Life. He also appeared in movie roles as diverse as CIA Agent Block in 2005's Into the Sun, and Lyle Funion in 2007's Totally Baked: A Pot-U-Mentary.

Atherton has been married to Bobbi Goldin since 1980. Though fans may know him best for his "jerk" roles, Atherton takes that in stride. "Oftentimes, the protagonist roles aren't as interestingly written as the antagonists are," he said. "People can say, 'Well, you're playing the jerk,' and I don't mind. It's just that I don't really approach it that way. I approach it as a comedy part; I approach it as somebody who has an agenda, and go on from there."

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