Tall, chiseled-face character actor Robert John Burke has been acting since the 1970s, but he is best known to art house audiences as a regular member of New York-based director Hal Hartley's stock company of decidedly non-Hollywood actors.
Born on Long Island, Burke studied acting at S.U.N.Y. Purchase in the early '70s. After he graduated from college, Burke began acting in TV, appearing on such shows as As the World Turns and Happy Days. Though he made his feature film debut in The Chosen (1981), Burke devoted his energies in the early '80s to an experimental teaching program designed to involve students directly in the arts. Burke returned to movies and TV in the latter half of the 1980s with roles in actioner Wanted Dead or Alive (1986), TV movie comedy Pass the Ammo (1989), and late-'80s dance trend vehicle Lambada (1989).
Burke's fortunes began to change when he was cast in the lead role of an enigmatic ex-con who returns to his Long Island hometown in the then-unknown Hartley's first feature, The Unbelievable Truth (1990). Shot on a shoestring budget in 11 days, The Unbelievable Truth garnered positive notice for Hartley's distinctly offbeat, dark comic sensibility and his stars' deadpan, wry performances. Burke followed The Unbelievable Truth with a supporting part in the Oscar-nominated 1930s coming of age film Rambling Rose (1991) and a high-profile starring role replacing Peter Weller as the imposing eponymous cyborg law enforcer in Robocop 3 (1992).
Burke stayed busy from then on, alternating between independent movies and Hollywood projects. Working with Hartley again, Burke starred as one of a pair of brothers searching for their ballplayer-turned-anarchist father in the quirky yet appealing Simple Men (1992); he played a smaller role in Hartley's troubled romance triad Flirt (1995). Burke also acted more than once with the far less celebrated independent filmmaker Eric Schaeffer, appearing in Schaeffer's industry insider comedy My Life's in Turnaround (1993) and self-indulgent romantic comedy If Lucy Fell (1996). Outside of the New York independent scene, Burke played Reese Witherspoon's African gamekeeper father in the children's adventure A Far Off Place (1993), joined the distinguished cast populating Tombstone (1993) (the Kurt Russell version of the Wyatt Earp Western legend), appeared in Oliver Stone's third Vietnam movie, Heaven and Earth (1993), and starred as the cursed obese lawyer in Stephen King's horror yarn Thinner (1996). Continuing to show his versatility in both comedy and drama, Burke joined the supporting cast of the light-hearted buddy chase movie Fled (1996) and starred as Natasha Gregson Wagner's father in the bayou love story First Love, Last Rites (1997). Burke returned to TV in the late '90s in two acclaimed HBO productions, the ambitious miniseries From the Earth to the Moon (1998) and the wrenching Vietnam War docudrama A Bright Shining Lie (1998).
At the start of the 2000s, Burke reunited with Hal Hartley for the Cannes Film Festival entry No Such Thing (2001). Drawing upon his varied experience, not to mention his formidable mien, Burke played the mammal/lizard Beast to Sarah Polley's Beauty in Hartley's singular reworking of the fairy tale romance.