The Enthusiast Guide To Movie Dudes In Headsets

In high-tech team action thrillers, team members – whether they’re government spies, rogue operatives, freelancers or amateurs – tend to fall into roles. There’s the hero, who does most of the infiltration and gun-blasting. There’s the daredevil driver or (more usually) helicopter pilot. There’s the cynical, risk-averse one who always insists the plan won’t work… and is always proven wrong. Then there’s the Headset Dude.

Hands-free communication devices were first invented in 1910 by Nathaniel Baldwin, a student at Stanford University; early telephone exchange operators had used handsets rather than headsets. The rise of military and commercial aviation during and after WWII boosted the headset industry, but the first ones were very heavy. But in 1951 Herbert ‘Mac’ McClelland invented a wireless microphone that could be worn by baseball umpires.

Then in 1961 pilots Courtney Graham and Keith Larkin invented a more lightweight version based on hearing aid transponders. The company they founded, Plantronics, is still the world’s leading headset firm. Plantronics headsets were used in space, transmitting Neil Armstrong’s legendary “giant leap for mankind” speech on the moon. The company also innovated the Supra headset, which has become the standard in call centres around the world. Now many headsets and earpieces are wirelessly linked to communication devices via Bluetooth radio connectivity.

In the visual language of action cinema, a headset implies military, aviation and espionage genres. But Headset Dudes aren’t just computer hackers, or gadget whizzes such as Q from the Bond films. Their role implies the binary of base and field. While the field operative wears an undetectable earpiece, the background operative wears a headset to signify that his (and it’s mainly the preserve of men) role is to interact with and remotely unlock information systems, to feed that information to the field operatives, and to troubleshoot tech issues.

While we must admit a certain amount of excitement while watching the recently released trailer for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and observing that Tom Cruise has stolen Pete Campbell’s blue sharkskin suit from Mad Men, the film’s main triumph is getting Simon Pegg in a role he richly understands and respects: Headset Dude.

Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) has always been the main Headset Dude in the Mission: Impossible movies, replacing Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez) who was unfortunately crushed in an elevator shaft at the start of Mission: Impossible (1996). Luther is the one taking Ethan Hunt (Cruise) step by step through that famous harness heist of CIA headquarters, and in MI:2 he’s nearly killed when the villain’s henchmen plant a bomb underneath his surveillance van. In the complex events of JJ Abrams’s MI:3, he muses, “Langley was a cakewalk compared to this.”

Pegg, meanwhile, has already played the godfather of Headset Dudes, Scotty from Star Trek, in JJ Abrams’s 2009 reboot. While Gene Roddenberry clearly imagined a headset-free future, Scotty satisfied the role’s key requirements, namely: the Headset Dude should be remote from the action, at HQ or in a mobile HQ; he engages in piquant comms-related banter; and he’s responsible for nailbiting tech problem-solving on the fly.

Here are a few of The Enthusiast‘s other favourite Headset Dudes. Feel free to suggest more in the comments.

Albert Gibson, True Lies (1994)

Albert Gibson (Tom Arnold) is one of the great Headset Dudes. As Harry Tasker’s (Arnold Schwarzenegger) tech guy, he spends much of the film either in a surveillance van feeding Harry info, or helping Harry rejuvenate his marriage to Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis). However, there is a wonderful scene when he pats himself down after enduring a barrage of gunfire behind a flimsy electricity pole, mouthing “Thank God” when he finds his balls are intact. At the end, as Harry and Helen tango, he says over the comlink, “You know what? I’m sick of being in the van. You guys can be in the van next time. I’ve been in the van for 15 years, Harry.”

Captain Colleen Goodwin, Source Code (2011)

The reason we’re calling them Headset ‘Dudes’ is because Hollywood prefers its women to be displaying their assets in the field, such as Catherine Zeta Jones writhing around ‘lasers’ in Entrapment, or being victimised by technology rather than mastering it, such as Sandra Bullock in The Net. But every so often, we get a Headset Chick, including Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), chief operator of the Source Code program. Cool, calm but with a conscience, she’s Captain Colter Stevens’ (Jake Gyllenhaal) link between the virtual world of the Source Code and the outside world… and eventually, she’s his salvation.

Radar Technician, Spaceballs (1987)

Click through to see Michael Winslow’s bleeps, sweeps and creeps. Best known as Sergeant Larvelle ‘Motor Mouth’ Jones in the Police Academy movies, Winslow has built a career on his uncanny ability to make sound effects using only his voice. In the Mel Brooks Star Wars parody Spaceballs, Winslow is paying homage to the many, many wonderful Headset Dudes in Star Wars, who are basically just featured extras.

Connie Hooper, Unstoppable (2010)

The trailer concentrates on Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, but Rosario Dawson is the Headset Chick in Tony Scott’s underrated thriller, which is based on a true story of a runaway train. Connie Hooper is yardmaster at Fuller, from whence the train escapes. And she kicks arse behind the scenes with her quick-thinking decision-making and liaison with local police, sheriffs and higher-ups at the Federal Railroad Administration – not to mention the driver and engineer who aim to avert a disastrous crash.

Ray Arnold, Jurassic Park (1992)

As the chain-smoking operations chief at a futuristic dinosaur theme park, Samuel L Jackson makes being a Headset Dude look cool, even if Mr Arnold does not appreciate Dennis Nedry’s “hacker crap”. He advised everyone to hold on to their butts, and even his Velociraptor-amputated arm could give Laura Dern the fright of her life.

Also in Jurassic Park, we’ve got to give props to budding Headset Chick Lex Murphy (Ariana Richards) for her 1337 h4x0r work on the door lock systems. “It’s a UNIX system… I know this!”

Lobot, The Empire Strikes Back (1982)

Lobot (John Hollis) is Lando Calrissian’s aide from The Empire Strikes Back (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Jean-Luc Picard). According to the series’ insanely detailed website and wiki, he was a criminal whose punishment was to become an indentured bureaucrat via his cyborg headset implant; however he loyally stayed in the job and became seen as Bespin Cloud City’s de facto leader.

In the movie, the character originally had a substantial amount of dialogue until the filmmakers changed their minds with the logic that the implant would have had a lobotomising effect. Hence his name, a portmanteau of ‘robot’ and ‘lobotomy’. It is nearly impossible to find serious Lobot clips online, but here’s an enjoyable scene from Robot Chicken, in which he gets a dance solo.

Bosley, Charlie’s Angels (2000) and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003)

Charlie’s Angels is interesting in that it splits the functions of the Headset Dude in two: the unseen Charlie (John Forsythe), who issues his instructions to his field operatives remotely, and his fixer Bosley (played in the first movie by Bill Murray and the second by Bernie Mac), who provides logistical support. In the first film, Bosley has a comlink embedded in a tooth, which eventually enables the Angels to track him when he’s kidnapped by the baddies.

Darryl ‘Mother’ Roskow, Sneakers (1992)

This vastly enjoyable caper is still probably the ultimate Headset Guy film, because there are so many Headset Guys! Whizzkid Carl Arbogast (River Phoenix); ex-CIA agent Donald Crease (Sidney Poitier); Erwin ‘Whistler’ Emory (David Strathairn)… but the best one is Mother, probably because of the intertextual fun of the character’s conspiracy theories now Dan Aykroyd’s nutty paranormal beliefs are well known (Crystal Head Vodka, anyone?)

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