Upon leaving the Midwest where he was born, raised, and educated (University of Iowa), James Tolkan headed for New York, where he studied acting with Stella Adler. In movies since 1969, Tolkan has been seen in gritty urban character roles in such films as The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Author! Author! (1981), Off Beat (1985), and Made in Heaven (1987). In the first two Back to the Future films, Tolkan appeared as acerbic high school teacher Strickland; in Top Gun (1986), he was seen as Stinger; and in Dick Tracy (1990), he showed up as minor criminal Numbers. On television, James Tolkan appeared on the short-lived 1985 Mary Tyler Moore sitcom Mary as mobster Lester Mintz, and on both installments of the two-episode Sunset Beat (1990), in which he played Captain Parker.