Paul Reiser Credits Aliens With Landing Him His Role In Stranger Things

The films of the 1980s were awash in Yuppie scum villains. These characters were loathsome opportunists obsessed with career advancement and the acquisition of wealth. They sneered at poor people, rolled their eyes at social activists (caring about stuff was so 1960s) and took advantage of people attempting to make an honest living. James Spader was their avatar, but if you're looking for the apex of the archetype, you need look no further than Paul Reiser's Burke in "Aliens."

Burke is a slimy piece of work. The Weyland-Yutani exec uses the Marines' search-and-destroy mission as a pretense to smuggle xenomorph eggs back to Earth for biological weapons development. He even releases a pair of facehuggers as a dastardly means of turning Ripley and Newt into human xenomorph incubators. Burke's subsequent death at the hands of an alien is one of the film's most satisfying moments.

So it's hardly a surprise to learn that Reiser's hissable Yuppie bad guy prompted Matt & Ross Duffer to reach out to him for the role of Dr. Sam Owens in "Stranger Things."

From Burke to Dr. Sam Owens

In an interview with Consequence, Reiser acknowledged that Burke probably "has something to do with why the Duffers called me for 'Stranger Things.'" It's savvy casting in that, as a Department of Energy executive, we're cued to distrust Owens from the outset. But Owens winds up being the opposite of Burke. He possesses a conscience. He arranges for Jim Hopper (David Harbour) to be the adoptive father of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). He's a relatively decent guy.

Beyond "Stranger Things," Reiser isn't convinced that his portrayal of Burke has earned him more work. He's probably right about this. His success is likely most attributable to the affable, amusingly neurotic persona he established as a stand-up comic and in Barry Levinson's masterful "Diner" (seen below). Still, he is amazed by the pervasive influence "Aliens" has had on filmmaking in general. As he explained to Consequence:

"[W]hat I have only come to really appreciate in the last five years or so is how deep and wide the impact of the film is. Certainly you see the movie's effect on the films that have come since then — so many films emulate the mechanics of the film, the pacing of the film, the structure of the film, the special effects, the actual props and the weaponry. It was a hugely impactful film. I've met so many people who've done many, many things and they'll go, 'Oh man, Aliens.' It was over 30 years ago, but you never know, you never know."

Living in a Reiser-ssance

Reiser's career arc is fascinating. Early on, he was compared to, and seemed to be competing with, Jerry Seinfeld as an observational comedian. He stole a scene or two from Eddie Murphy in the first two "Beverly Hills Cop" movies. He continued to do stand-up after "Aliens," but didn't become a star until he landed the co-lead role on NBC's "My Two Dads." Then came "Mad About You," which turned him into a household name.

While Reiser didn't entirely disappear after "Mad About You" ended its run in 1999, he worked sporadically and largely in supporting roles. It wasn't until he took the role of New Jersey country club power broker Doug Getty in the criminally short-lived Showtime series "Red Oaks" that he reminded us what we'd been missing. Since then, it's been a veritable Reiser-ssaince with "Stranger Things," "The Kominsky Method" and "Reboot." In all of these shows, he's generally working variations on his anxious comedic persona. But every now and then, there's something about his characters you don't quite trust. That's when Burke comes out. Suddenly, he's not so harmless. In fact, he's downright frightening.