Best known for playing the replicant Leon Kowalski in the movie Blade Runner, James portrayed a variety of colorful roles in well-known American films such as 48 Hrs., Another 48 Hours, Tango & Cash, Silverado, Red Heat and The Player. James commanding screen presence and formidable physique usually resulted in his casting as a heavy, appearing more frequently in lower budget horror and action films throughout the 1980s and 1990s. James appeared in more than 100 films before his career was tragically cut short by a fatal heart attack.
James early years were spent in Beaumont, California, where his father owned and operated a movie theater. After graduating from high school in 1962, James attended San Diego State University as a Theater Arts major. Migrating onto New York, James immersed himself in the theater scene, taking on bit roles here and there. At this time he began what would become a life-long friendship with Tim Thomerson. The two would end up serving in the Armed Forces together as cooks.
In 1975, James landed a small role in the made for TV movie, The Kansas City Massacre, playing John Dillinger gang member Homer Van Meter. Higher profile roles followed in 1976, with his casting in Nickelodeon and Harry and Walter Go to New York. James also appeared in the acclaimed television miniseries Roots and popular 1970's shows such as Gunsmoke, The Incredible Hulk, Mork and Mindy, Chico and the Man and CHiPs.
James career began to take a sharp upturn in the early 1980's with several sharply defined character roles in films such as Southern Comfort and 48 Hrs..
But it was his performance as Leon Kowalski in the 1982 film Blade Runner that gave him his greatest, most lasting fame. James' role consisted of only two extended scenes (which included the classic line, "Wake up! Time to die!"), but both are regarded as some of the most memorable in the Sci-Fi film genre.
Even though his memorable performance threatened to typecast the intense yet versatile actor as a movie villain for the remainder of the decade, James continued to pile up a prolific acting resume, playing significant roles in Enemy Mine, Flesh + Blood, A Breed Apart, Armed and Dangerous, Red Heat, Steel Dawn, Red Scorpion and Tango & Cash. James continued his strong work on the small screen as well, with guest spots in A-Team, Little House on the Prairie, The Dukes of Hazzard, Matlock, Miami Vice, Sledge Hammer! and Dynasty. In the 90s he appeared in Highlander as the evil Immortal named Armand Thorne/John Durgan in the season 3 episode The Cross of St. Antione", and lent his voice to the character of Parasite in Superman: The Animated Series. Another of his most his most memorable roles as came near the end of his career; the amiable General Munro in The Fifth Element (1997).
Despite having died in 1999 and due to the near-constant workload he had, he appeared in five feature films following his death, the last of which was Phoenix Point (2005).