Before Tommy Lee Jones faced down gargantuan aliens and tracked convicted killers on the silver screen, he tackled a more dangerous assignment: laboring in the Texas oil fields. Jones was born in the Central Texas town of San Saba in 1946, but his was a nomadic existence, moving from town to town with his roughneck father. He finally settled in Dallas when he received a football scholarship to St. Mark’s, the elite prep school. There, Jones discovered his aptitude on the stage and became a regular fixture in the school’s productions. At Harvard, where he studied English, Jones continued to act, and after graduating, he moved to New York and then Los Angeles, beginning the slow climb to the top of the A-list. Jones, now as famous for his acting as his rutted face and surly off-screen demeanor, is sought out for his ability to bring complexity to even the most standard role.
Here are ten of his notable appearances onscreen.
Love Story (1970): Author Erich Segal claims Oliver Barrett IV, Ryan O’Neal’s character, was modeled on both Jones, who appears in his first film role as Barrett’s Harvard roommate, and Jones’s real-life Harvard roommate, former vice president Al Gore.
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980): Jones creates a subtle, intricate character in Dolittle “Mooney” Lynn, the ambitious husband of country legend Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek). He exposes Mooney’s flaws with such sensitivity that he never loses the audience’s sympathy, nor veers into cliché. It is one of the finely nuanced performances Jones is now famous for.
Lonesome Dove (1989): Jones received an Emmy nomination for his performance as Woodrow Call, a grizzled former Texas Ranger on one final cross-country adventure with his pal Gus McRae, played by Robert Duvall. As one of the most beloved miniseries of all time, Dove is guaranteed to elicit a watery chorus of “No, I just have something in my eye” from the men in the room.
JFK (1991): Director Oliver Stone cast Jones as Clay Shaw, the smirking New Orleans businessman brought to trial by District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) for his alleged part in the murder of the thirty-fifth president of the United States. Jones earned his first Oscar nomination for his boldly accurate portrayal.
Under Siege (1992): Often called Die Hard on a Boat, this film would be utterly forgettable if not for Jones’s psychotic ex–CIA agent, William Strannix. He hijacks both the battleship and the movie, creating a villain so memorable it is easy to see why so many directors covet Jones for their bad guy. Of course, Steven Seagal’s butt-kicking cook must triumph, but it’s hard not to root for the deliciously over-the-top Strannix.
The Fugitive (1993): “I didn’t kill my wife!” “I. Don’t. Care.” With that line, Jones finally became a household name. In his Oscar-winning role as Deputy U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard, Jones tracks wrongly-convicted Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) as he attempts to find the one-armed man who killed his wife. Though subsequent films like Volcano, Double Jeopardy, and The Hunted attempted to duplicate the charismatic hard-but-fair tough-guy, Gerard remains unsurpassed.
Blue Sky (1994): In Tony Richardson’s final film, Jones stars as Major Hank Marshall, a nuclear scientist working for the Army in the early sixties. He uncovers some unsavory information about the side effects of nuclear testing in Nevada, then returns home to discover equally unsettling news about what his free-spirited, Marilyn Monroe–esqe wife (Jessica Lange) has been up to. Lange and Jones work so well together that it becomes obvious why the Marshalls remain a couple, despite the drama.
Men in Black (1997): Jones and Will Smith make a stellar pair as two agents working for a top-secret government agency charged with monitoring the planet’s sizable alien population. Jones’s cranky dead-pan Agent K is the perfect foil for goofy Smith. They bust more illegal aliens in the 2002 sequel.
Man of the House (2005): What worked in Men in Black falls short in this light comedy. Jones stars as a Texas Ranger protecting five murder witnesses who happen to be University of Texas cheerleaders. He wants them to play by his rules; they want him to loosen up. Predictable high jinks ensue.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005): Jones shows the world his vision of West Texas with this month’s Three Burials. Jones, who stars and directs, picked up the Best Actor award at the film’s premiere at Cannes for his role as Pete Perkins, a rancher bent on returning the body of his murdered ranch hand to Mexico.