Cast of Matewan (1987) Then and Now

Cast of Matewan (1987) Then and Now
Cast of Matewan (1987) Then and Now

John Sayles' 1987 drama Matewan depicts the true story of a 1920 West Virginia coal miners' strike in the town of Matewan. With authentic period details and powerful performances, Matewan provides a gripping look at the miners' fight for justice and economic freedom. Over 35 years have passed since Matewan first hit theatres, so let's take a look at what the cast has been up to since their acclaimed performances in this impactful historical drama.

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Matewan - A Powerful Dramatization of the West Virginia Mine Wars (Full Review)

Released in 1987, Matewan is writer/director John Sayles’ dramatization of the West Virginia mine wars, in particular the Matewan massacre of 1920. With authentic period details and stellar performances from an ensemble cast, Matewan provides a gripping and humanistic portrayal of one of labor history’s most significant events.

Bringing 1920s West Virginia Convincingly to Life

With a budget of just $4 million, Matewan’s production team managed to vividly recreate 1920s Appalachian mining towns on location in West Virginia. Period costumes, props, and sets effectively transport the viewer to the era. Matewan feels like an authentic window into the past, never slipping into melodrama or caricature. The costume design deservedly earned an Academy Award nomination.

Powerhouse Cast Delivers Captivating Performances

The ensemble cast of Matewan brings the miners, their families, and the town authorities to life with nuance and conviction. Standouts include Chris Cooper’s restrained performance as union organizer Joe Kenehan and David Strathairn’s measured strength as Sheriff Sid Hatfield. James Earl Jones brings complexity to the scab worker Few Clothes. Mary McDonnell offers an outsider’s perspective as schoolteacher Elma Radnor. Funny, touching performances from Ken Jenkins and Kevin Tighe provide moments of levity among the tense drama.

Sayles’ Script Tackles Weighty Themes

Writer/director John Sayles had already established himself as a champion of intelligent, social-minded independent films like Return of the Secaucus 7 and The Brother from Another Planet. His script for Matewan continues that tradition, using the Matewan massacre as a lens to explore timeless issues around workers’ rights, racial and economic inequality, the tension between pacifism and armed resistance, and moral courage in the face of adversity.

Authentic Depiction of a Watershed Labor Struggle

While fictionalized, Matewan adheres closely to the historical record and captures the essence of this watershed labor uprising that helped pave the way for unionization in the Appalachian coalfields. The film is firmly on the side of the miners and their fight for dignity and economic justice without resorting to simplification. Matewan dramatizes history in a way that brings the past to life and illuminates how it resonates with the present.

Acclaim and Legacy

Upon release in 1987, Matewan received widespread critical praise for its direction, performances, authenticity, and resonant themes. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, including a Best Supporting Actress nod for Mary McDonnell. While not a major commercial success, the film cemented John Sayles’ reputation as a leading voice of political, character-driven independent cinema.

Matewan's legacy continues to grow over time. In 2019, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. The Criterion Collection released a beautifully restored Blu-ray edition in 2020 with new interviews and essays. Matewan remains a touchstone work of American labor history and socially conscious cinema.

Chris Cooper (Joe Kenehan)

Age Then: 36

Age Now: 73

Chris Cooper (Joe Kenehan)

In the film, Chris Cooper plays Joe Kenehan, an ex-Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World) organiser for the United Mine Workers who arrives in Matewan to unionise the miners against the oppressive Stone Mountain Coal Company. A World War I veteran and committed pacifist, Joe hopes to help the exploited workers while avoiding bloodshed.

With quiet strength and moral conviction, Cooper provides the emotional backbone of Matewan. His restrained but passionate performance earned him his first Independent Spirit Award nomination.

Over the following decades, Chris Cooper built a reputation as one of Hollywood's most reliable character actors. He finally broke through to the A-List by winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his unforgettable turn in 2002's Adaptation. Further Oscar nominations followed for his roles in American Beauty and Seabiscuit.

Now 73, Cooper remains an in-demand performer, recently appearing in acclaimed films like Little Women and most recently appearing in The Boston Strangler. His career has come a long way from his fateful starring role in Matewan over 35 years ago.

James Earl Jones (Few Clothes Johnson)

Age Then: 55

Age Now: 93

James Earl Jones (Few Clothes Johnson)

Although Chris Cooper's Joe Kenehan is Matewan's protagonist, James Earl Jones brings his own legendary presence to the film as Few Clothes Johnson. A proud coal miner subjected to scorn and racial abuse from the company bosses, Few Clothes ultimately risks everything to stand up for his rights and join the union cause.

Jones was already Hollywood royalty before Matewan, immortalised as the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars and earning acclaim for films like The Great White Hope and Conan the Barbarian. Since then, he has become one of the most iconic actors of all time, with his bellowing voice lending gravity to roles like Mufasa in The Lion King.

Now into his nineties, James Earl Jones remains an active, respected screen legend over 60 years after his debut. His inspiring turn as Few Clothes Johnson formed just a small part of his monumental legacy.

Mary McDonnell (Elma Radnor)

Age Then: 35

Age Now: 72

Mary McDonnell (Elma Radnor)

Mary McDonnell earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her performance as Elma Radnor. Stoic but compassionate, Elma tends to injured workers and provides a voice of reason amidst the swirling chaos.

An acclaimed stage performer prior to Matewan, McDonnell used the film to launch her screen career. She went on to earn two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress in her own right for Passion Fish and Dances With Wolves. Sci-fi fans will recognise her for her iconic leadership role as President Laura Roslin in the Battlestar Galactica reboot.

Now 72, McDonnell continues to impress on screens big and small, recently appearing in TV projects like Major Crimes and the Netflix miniseries The Fall of the House of Usher.

Will Oldham (Danny Radnor)

Age Then: 16

Age Now: 54

Will Oldham (Danny Radnor)

In one of his earliest screen roles, indie musician and actor Will Oldham plays Danny Radnor, Elma's idealistic teenage son. Danny is inspired by Joe Kenehan's quiet passion. He becomes an active supporter of the miners’ cause, much to his mother’s dismay.

All we got is our misery, as Joe Kenehan used to say, and the least we could do is share it.

Oldham was better known as a rising folk/rock artist when he appeared in Matewan. From 1993 to 1997, he performed and recorded in collaboration with dozens of other musicians under variations of Palace (Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, and Palace Music). After briefly publishing music under his own name, in 1998 he adopted Bonnie "PrinceBilly as the name for most of his work. He later achieved cult status among independent film fans for playing eccentric, even otherworldly characters in acclaimed low-budget films like Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy.

Now 54, Oldham remains a fixture of the indie scene as both an idiosyncratic actor and avant-garde musician.

David Strathairn (Sid Hatfield)

Age Then: 38

Age Now: 74

David Strathairn (Sid Hatfield)

As Matewan’s principled sheriff, Sid Hatfield, David Strathairn provides the film’s moral compass. Sid tries diplomatically to balance miners’ rights with his duties to the Stone Mountain Coal Company, only to become disillusioned by violent strikebreaking tactics. His standing with the working class makes him a marked man.

Strathairn won significant critical praise for his performance in Matewan, cementing his transition from lauded stage actor to reliable film presence. He went on to earn an Oscar nomination for portraying legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck.

Strathairn, now 74, maintains his reputation as one of Hollywood’s finest character actors with acclaimed recent turns in Nomadland, The Expanse, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

Ken Jenkins (Sephus Purcell)

Age Then: 47

Age Now: 84

Ken Jenkins (Sephus Purcell)

A gruff old miner whose wisdom and experience help guide the younger miners. Sephus Purcell's character plays a significant role in the portrayal of the miners' struggle and the events leading to the Matewan massacre in the film

Jenkins spent much of his early career playing smaller roles on film and television before Matewan offered a rare chance to chew scenery as an outsized bad guy. He later found fame as the sardonic Dr. Bob Kelso on the long-running medical comedy series Scrubs.

Now 84, Jenkins has retired from acting, but his smarmy turn as Sephus remains a small gem of a character role.

Kevin Tighe (Hickey)

Age Then: 43

Age Now: 79

Kevin Tighe (Hickey)

As brutal Baldwin-Felts detective agency leader Hickey, Kevin Tighe poses an intimidating physical threat throughout Matewan, responsible for terror tactics and violence against union sympathisers. While not as loudly sadistic as his underlings, the cold-eyed Hickey calmly oversees atrocities.

Tighe was well known for playing Roy Desoto in the 1970s TV show Emergency! He teamed up the following year with Director Sayles in Eight Men Out, then appeared in the cult classic Road House in 1989.

Now 79, Tighe has amassed over 150 film and television credits over a prolific career playing mostly cops and criminals. He remains an in-demand character actor.

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Gordon Clapp (Tom Griggs)

Age Then: 39

Age Now: 76

Gordon Clapp (Tom Griggs)

A henchman for the Baldwin-Felts detective agency and the brutish right-hand man to Hickey, he torments the mine workers, especially young Danny.

A stage veteran, Matewan offered some of Clapp’s first major film exposure. He remains best known for playing Detective Greg Medavoy for over a decade on NYPD Blue, earning four Emmy nominations.

Clapp, now 76, works selectively, most recently appearing in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2021.

Bob Gunton (C.E. Lively)

Age Then: 41

Age Now: 78

Bob Gunton (C.E. Lively)

A spy for the company within the union tries to goad the miners into violence and secretly informs the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency of Kenehan's presence. He is ultimately revealed as the infiltrator, and he flees town after his betrayal is exposed.

Gunton earned an iconic role as the strict warden in The Shawshank Redemption. Other memorable bureaucratic performances include Demolition Man and television’s 24.

Now 78, Gunton’s most recent roles include Netflix’s Ozark and the acclaimed indie comedy-drama Driveways.

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Josh Mostel (Cabell Testerman)

Age Then: 41

Age Now: 78

Josh Mostel (Cabell Testerman)

As Matewan’s ineffectual yet well-meaning Mayor Cabell Testerman. He supports the miners strike and is a voice against the mining company.

From vaudeville DNA as the son of legendary stage comedian Zero Mostel, Josh Mostel carved his own niche, appearing on Broadway and stealing laughs in films like The Woman in Red, Wall Street, and Billy Madison.

Though never a leading man, Mostel has amassed over 100 screen credits playing eccentric side characters. He continues acting well into his late seventies, last appearing in the 2020 thriller The Blackout.

John Sayles (Hardshell Preacher)

Age Then: 36

Age Now: 74

John Sayles (Hardshell Preacher)

Serving as both writer and director, John Sayles also tackled a small role in Matewan as a wilderness preacher known as Hardshell. Though nameless and appearing only briefly, the zealous Hardshell gives a memorably fiery sermon about the impending peril that looms, be it Socialism, Communism, Unionism, or, as he put it, "the enemy of all that is good."

The Prince of Darkness is upon the lion. - Preacher

A fiercely independent filmmaker, Sayles used Matewan as a passion project to spotlight injustice and labour rights—themes common across his body of work. He has written, directed, and edited nearly 20 films, ranging from searing dramas like Lone Star to rousing genre romps like Piranha.

Now 74, Sayles’ DIY ethic remains influential among independent directors. Beyond cameos, he also continues acting in films like Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World.

The ensemble of actors that make up Matewan proves essential to capturing both the human tragedy and resilient hope buried in the town’s history. Their committed performances keep the film’s messages of social justice and workers’ rights relevant over three decades later. Wherever the faces of Matewan may be now, their contributions to one of independent cinema’s masterpieces will not be forgotten.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Matewan Massacre and the Film Matewan

What was the Matewan massacre?

The Matewan Massacre was a shootout that took place in Matewan, West Virginia, in May 1920 between local miners and detectives from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. The detectives had come to evict miners from their homes for joining a new union. In the gun battle, seven detectives and four townspeople were killed. The massacre was a flashpoint in the miners' struggle to organise labour unions in the coalfields of West Virginia.

What led to the Matewan massacre?

Tensions had been rising in Matewan as miners tried to organise with the United Mine Workers of America to improve their pay and working conditions. The Stone Mountain Coal Company retaliated by evicting over 2,000 miners from company-owned homes. The massacre erupted when 12 Baldwin-Felts men arrived in Matewan to evict more families, and a shootout broke out with the local sheriff Sid Hatfield and a group of miners.

Who were the major figures involved in the actual Matewan massacre?

  • Sid Hatfield - The pro-union sheriff of Matewan who sided with the miners and died a year later in an attack related to the massacre. Played by David Strathairn in the film.
  • Joe Kenehan - A UMWA union organizer who was in Matewan organizing at the time. Played by Chris Cooper in the film.
  • Albert and Lee Felts - Brothers and detectives from the Baldwin-Felts agency who led the eviction effort and died in the shootout.
  • Mayor Cabell Testerman - The mayor of Matewan who sided with the coal company against the union. Played by Josh Mostel in the film.

How accurate is the film Matewan?

While Matewan is fictionalized, it depicts the main events and figures surrounding the Matewan massacre relatively accurately. Some details were changed for dramatic purposes, but the film authentically captures the miners' struggle to organize.

What were the biggest differences between the real-life events and the film?

  • The romance between Sid Hatfield and Elma Radnor is fictionalized.
  • The film simplifies the roles and backgrounds of some characters like Few Clothes.
  • Danny Radnor is a fictional composite character representing young miners.
  • Some dialogue is invented by the film writer/director John Sayles.

How did the Matewan massacre impact the fight for miners' rights?

The Matewan massacre brought national attention to the miners' unionization efforts and provoked a larger armed conflict known as the West Virginia Mine Wars that lasted over a year. While the coal companies ultimately retook control, the sacrifices of the Matewan miners represented an important early step in the struggle for fair pay and safe working conditions.

Why is the film Matewan still relevant today?

Matewan highlights issues of economic inequality, workers' rights, and the tension between workers and powerful industries that remain timely. The miners' fight for economic and social justice continues to resonate with modern day labor struggles. The film's stunning performances and authenticity provide an immersive viewing experience that brings this history to life.