Sure, we love Mulder and Scully — as well as Skinner and even that pesky Cigarette Smoking Man. And while a good portion of The X-Files’ magic came from the interactions between its regular cast members, the sci-fi series’ prolific use of guest stars helped elevate its storytelling, particularly in its wonderful “monster-of-the-week” episodes.
It’s very hard to narrow down a list of favourites, but we’ve picked 15 actors (and yes, this list skews heavily male… as does The X-Files’ overall list of guest stars, but that’s a tangent for another time) who helped make the spooky sci-fi series one of TV’s most enduring classics.
Michael J. Anderson, “Humbug”
Season two’s “Humbug” features an array of eye-catching guest stars since it takes place within a community of former sideshow performers. But Anderson — then at the height of his fame after starring on a different “weird FBI” series, Twin Peaks — makes an impression as Mr. Nutt, the manager of the trailer park where Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) stay during their investigation.
In an amusing exchange, he takes great offence when Mulder suggests Mr. Nutt might be a former circus performer: “You thought that because I am a person of short stature, that the only career I could procure for myself would be one confined to the so-called big top?”
Ricky Jay, “The Amazing Maleeni”
This season seven episode casts Jay as both the title character — who dies of decapitation shortly after performing an incredible trick in which his head seems to rotate 360 degrees — and the title character’s normal-dude identical twin brother. Or is he? The episode’s overarching themes of illusion and deception are perfectly supported by having a real-life magician in the central role, and Jay is a wry delight.
Jodie Foster, “Never Again”
When a distraught, recently divorced man gets a midlife-crisis tattoo, he’s dismayed to realise his freshly-inked pin-up girl can talk — and immediately starts berating him and ordering him to do very bad things. Multiple Oscar-winner Foster has played a lot of different characters over her long career, but “voice of an evil tattoo” is definitely one of her most unusual roles.
Doug Hutchinson, “Squeeze” and “Tooms”
Say what you will about Hutchinson’s later emergence as a cradle-robbing tabloid sensation; his turn as long-living, liver-loving, mutant serial killer Eugene Victor Tooms is so outstandingly eerie the character was featured in two memorable episodes during the X-Files’ first season.
Peter Boyle, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”
Boyle won an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his poignant turn as a psychic whose “gift” is seeing how people will die, and who ends up assisting Mulder and Scully with a perplexing murder case.
Lily Tomlin and Edward Asner, “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas”
Scully and Mulder investigate a house purportedly haunted by ghosts who only emerge on Christmas Eve — only to briefly become trapped within the dangerously mischievous spirits’ manipulative games. Aside from Duchovny and Anderson, comedy icons Tomlin and Asner are the only two members of this season-six episode’s unusually small cast, allowing for an acting showcase that’s helped make “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” the closest thing the X-Files has to a holiday special.
Bruce Campbell, “Terms of Endearment”
This Rosemary’s Baby season-six riff stars the horror legend as a demon who just wants to have a regular human son or daughter, but the babies keep taking after him…so he has to kill them before they’re born. (Good thing he secretly has multiple wives?) Sure, he’s a villain, but he’s also weirdly sympathetic and even sorta likable — unavoidable traits whenever a character is played by Bruce “Groovy” Campbell.
Brad Dourif, “Beyond the Sea”
Character actor Brad Dourif, also known as the voice of Chucky, plays another serial killer here — Luther Lee Boggs, who offers to use his alleged psychic talents to help solve a kidnapping in exchange for swapping his death sentence for life in prison instead. He also uses them to try and manipulate Scully, who’s grappling with the recent death of her father. “Beyond the Sea” leaves the authenticity of Boggs’ gifts up for interpretation, but there’s zero doubt that Dourif’s ability to play “creepy as all hell” helps elevate the entire episode.
Charles Nelson Reilly, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”
This much-loved season three episode draws on the charms of veteran comedian Reilly, playing an eccentric author who meets the agents while researching a book about alien abductions and UFOs. “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” also boasts some very clever writing that plays with different perspectives while poking a bit of fun at the X-Files’ own alien mythology. And while Reilly is the standout and the focal point, the episode also boasts a few bonus cameos — the unlikely team-up of Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek as men in black will forever be an X-Files comedy high point.
Luke Wilson, “Bad Blood”
Another episode about clashing points of view, “Bad Blood” sent Mulder and Scully to a small town in Texas to investigate a possible vampire. There, they met the local sheriff, played by Wilson — who has a great time playing two versions of the same character. In Scully’s recollection of events, he’s easy on the eyes and otherwise highly agreeable; Mulder, meanwhile, has a much less attractive memory of the guy. Vampire fangs are one thing, but have you seen the sheriff’s teeth?
Rhys Darby, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”
While the New Zealand comedian might not be a household name stateside (unless your household is obsessed with Flight of the Conchords…), he’s just perfect in this season 10 episode as “Guy Mann,” an ancient lizard-creature that Scully and Mulder encounter during a rare moment in his life cycle where he transforms into a human. He works at a cell phone store, he gets a dog, he bonds with Mulder in a cemetery, he genuinely tries to blend… but to his relief, he eventually returns to his true form. Sometimes a were-monster’s just gotta were-monster, ya know?
Bryan Cranston, “Drive”
Famously, this season six episode inspired X-Files writer Vince Gilligan to cast Cranston in a little series he was putting together called Breaking Bad. Though Cranston’s X-Files character, who spends most of the episode riding in a car with Mulder, was a vile bigot, not a megalomaniacal meth maker, there are similarities — not the least of which being Cranston’s ability to make both men people you want to root for in spite of everything. “You don’t have to like him. But you need to sympathise and feel empathy and sorrow for him at the end of the hour,” Gilligan told the Hollywood Reporter in 2011.
Burt Reynolds, “Improbable”
Season nine is nobody’s favourite, but it did feature this standout episode in which Reynolds plays… God.
Brian Husky, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”
This season 11 episode gave us comedian and “that guy” actor Husky as Reggie, who claims to be a fellow X-Files agent in a twisty, very funny episode skewering the Mandela Effect in a way that also explores why and how certain that make us nostalgic, including The X-Files itself. Thanks to its imaginative premise and sly sense of humour (helped along by Husky’s performance) “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” is easily the high point of The X-Files’ deeply uneven final season.