Before underappreciated character actor Steve Railsback became a fixture in the direct-to-video market, he studied with Lee Strasberg and spent a decade acting on the N.Y.C. theater circuit. His made his film debut in Elia Kazan's 1972 crime thriller The Visitors, and followed that up with a role in the 1974 action drama Cockfighter. His first major film role was as the cult leader Charles Manson in the 1976 CBS movie Helter Skelter, based on the book by Vincent Bugliosi. He starred opposite Sophia Loren in the barely released Canadian film Angela and opposite Kim Basinger in the six-hour romantic miniseries From Here to Eternity. His last mainstream starring role was in the 1980 offbeat action movie The Stunt Man, as a fugitive who stumbles onto the set of a fictional movie directed by Peter O'Toole and starring Barbara Hershey. The movie developed a bit of a cult following, and as a result Railsback developed a small but appreciative audience.
Throughout the remainder of the '80s, Railsback thrived as a leading man in the special area of low-budget B-movies seen mostly on cable or home video. Some schlocky favorites include the British sci-fi horror flick Lifeforce and the Australian action movie Escape 2000. A few exceptions to his action-filled resumé are the family drama The Golden Seal and the period comedy Calender Girl. In the '90s he tried producing and screenwriting while also playing recurring psychopath Duane Barry on FOX's The X-Files. He made his directorial debut in 1994 with The Spy Within, an erotic thriller starring Scott Glenn and Theresa Russell. In 1997 he joined the cast of the FOX sci-fi drama series The Visitor for a season. In 2000 he returned to playing sicko psychopaths as the title character in the creepy biopic Ed Gein. In addition to portraying the farmer-turned-serial killer, he also served as executive producer. He stayed with the horror genre for his next appearance in the South African movie Slash (2002).