In this '87 sci-fi flick, Richard Dawson plays the murderous emcee of a hit television reality show to chilling, thrilling effect

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated April 06, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Everett Collection

The Running Man

  • Movie

Richard Dawson, awesome action-movie villain!

As far as I’m concerned, it’s pointless to even debate who the greatest ’80s action-flick villain was. Alan Rickman’s Teutonic badass Hans Gruber from Die Hard wins hands down. The real contest is for the runner-up spot.

While some might have a soft spot for the oily Ronny Cox in RoboCop, or Gary Busey’s Mr. Joshua in Lethal Weapon, or even Carl Weathers’ double-dealing Dillon in Predator, you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that there’s a stronger all-around candidate than… survey says: Richard Dawson in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzengger sci-fi throwdown, The Running Man.

Playing off of his cuddly, Cockney kissing-bandit persona from The Family Feud, Dawson might have been the unlikeliest bad guy in a decade crawling with unlikely bad guys (Ben Gazzara in Road House?). For years, we welcomed Dawson into our living rooms, first as the suave British P.O.W. in Hogan’s Heroes, and then as the fizzy quizmaster who’d pucker up and plant one on the lips (rarely did he go for the cheek) of Midwest housewives on the Feud. So when he popped up in ’87, turning his lovable Lothario image on its head to lock horns with Arnold, all bets were off.

A lot of actors these days talk a good game about how brave they are to play against type. They virtually beg for our respect for their ”daring” onscreen choices. But Dawson wasn’t looking for any of that with The Running Man. By playing a sadistic game show host, he was just messing with us. And clearly having a blast doing so.

In the film, Dawson plays Damon Killian, the emcee of a hit television reality show called The Running Man. The year is 2019. America has become a police state. And anyone who breaks the law — or just happens to be someone the government wants to screw with — is sent to be a contestant on Dawson’s show. The rules are pretty simple: Convicts are dressed in skintight spandex jumpsuits and thrown into an urban gladiator arena where they battle the show’s ”stalkers” (more on them in a second). If they can defeat these murderous goons, they can win pardons instead of ”parting gifts.” Problem is, no one ever wins.

After Schwarzenegger’s brawny cop Ben Richards is framed for the massacre of dozens of helpless civilians, he’s sent to a prison camp and outfitted with an explosive collar around his neck. And when he gets caught escaping (along with his buddies Yaphet Kotto and Marvin J. McIntyre), he’s the next contestant on the Feud?I mean, The Running Man. There’s a bunch of hooey involving the Charo-esque Maria Conchita Alonso too, but I won’t bother with that. Instead, let’s talk about Dawson.

Dawson’s Killian is a true god in this brave new world. With an audience of blue-haired biddies who swoon in his proximity, Killian takes the stage at the outset of every show, surrounded by Solid Gold dancers, and asks the audience: ”Who loves you and who do you love!?” And the audience roars ”Killian!” It’s awesome. Backstage, Dawson isn’t quite as sweet, though. He chainsmokes and barks at his underlings, he bribes and threatens contestants, and he has about as much regard for human life as a Great White shark on an all-chum diet.

He also needs to boost his ratings. So when he sees some footage of the strapping Schwarzenegger on the news, he takes one look at the slice of Austrian beefcake, lets loose a nicotine cackle, and purrs, ”You want ratings? I can get 10 points for his biceps alone!” When Arnold is brought to the studio to be Dawson’s sweeps sensation, Dawson calls him ”cutie pie.” Then, as Schwarzenegger’s about to be set loose into the arena and warns Dawson, ”I’ll be back,” Dawson doesn’t even hesitate for his response: ”Only in rerun.”

Arnold does battle with Dawson’s team of A-list stalkers, who are introduced like Iron Chef contestants by a Don Pardo-esque announcer. There’s ”Subzero,” a huge Japanese sumo dude with a steel hockey stick who ”slices his enemies limb from limb into quivering bloody sushi”; ”Buzzsaw,” who has a chainsaw which ”can cut muscle, bone, or even solid steel”; ”Dynamo,” a fat opera-singing guy in a Lite-Brite outfit who frankly didn’t seem all that scary to me; and ”Fireball,” ex-football great Jim Brown with a flamethrower.

While Arnold’s showing these guys who’s the boss, Dawson’s Killian is back in the studio, narrating the unexpected upset results, slowly starting to get nervous that a contestant may actually win. So Dawson downshifts into squirming sycophancy mode and tries to reason with Schwarzenegger, offering him a pardon if he’ll become one of his new stalkers. Of course, Arnold’s having none of this.

There’s nothing new about a sniveling villain getting his comeuppance in a Hollywood action movie. It’s been a part of the formula since the talkies. But rarely has there been one as deliciously evil — as giddily contrary to the off-screen guy playing him — as Damon Killian. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Dawson wasn’t flooded with offers after The Running Man came out. He could have talked circles around a befuddled Van Damme and unleashed all sorts of suave mayhem on Stallone and Seagal. The ’80s should have been the Decade of Dawson. Instead, there was silence.

I’m not going to wrap up this column by kicking and screaming for a Running Man sequel, or prequel, or whatever — although I’d be first in line to see one. But just imagine Richard Dawson putting Matt Damon through his paces in the next Bourne installment, or tormenting the X-Men with lizardy one-liners. Would it kill the suits in Hollywood to pick up the phone and give him a call?

Who gets your vote for the greatest action-movie villain of all time?

Episode Recaps

The Running Man

  • Movie
  • R
  • 101 minutes