RIP Al Matthews: As Sgt. Apone, he fought to the end in Aliens

The actor and singer was a military vet himself when he played the cigar-chomping space leader.

Gael Cooper
CNET editor Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She's been a journalist since 1989, working at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Twin Cities Sidewalk, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NBC News Digital. She's Gen X in birthdate, word and deed. If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
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Gael Cooper
3 min read

Al Matthews' name might not be familiar to all sci-fi fans, but remind them that he played cigar-chomping Sgt. Apone in Aliens and they'll know exactly who he is.

Matthews died at age 75, the Hollywood Reporter reported Monday. The actor was found dead in his home on Spain's Mediterranean coast on Saturday, the website notes. No cause of death was given. 

Matthews was erroneously reported to be dead back in 2006, and at the time, he joked about it in an online interview. A representative for Matthews did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Spanish newspaper El Pais reported that his death had been certified by emergency services there. Spanish newswire EFE also reported his death.

The Brooklyn-born actor packed an impressive number of accomplishments into his 75 years. He was not only the leader of the Colonial Marines in Aliens, but he himself was a real-life Marine, serving in Vietnam and receiving numerous combat awards and two Purple Hearts. His website is now down, but on it, he reported that he was the "first black Marine in the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam to be meritoriously promoted to the rank of sergeant." 

He was musically talented as well, and his song, "Fool," reached number 16 on the UK Singles Chart in 1975. And after playing Apone in Aliens, he resurrected the role for the 2013 video game Aliens: Colonial Marines, acted in other films and TV shows, and helped inspire the character Avery Johnson in Halo.

But it's in his first role as Apone, the cool Marine sergeant faced with the uncoolest of situations in James Cameron's 1986 Aliens, that he will be forever remembered.

From the moment he wakes up the Marines under his command for their mission, he's eminently quotable. He blinks, then immediately stuffs his ever-present cigar in his mouth and starts to lead his Marines. 

"All right, sweethearts, what are you waiting for?" he brays. "Breakfast in bed? It's another glorious day in the Corps. A day in the Marine Corps is like a day on the farm: Every meal's a banquet. Every paycheck's a fortune! Every formation's a parade! I love the Corps!"

Aliens has always chilled me to the bone more than Alien, and I know that's near-blasphemy to some fans. But it always had to do with Matthews' Apone and his Colonial Marines. Apone's part cheerleader, part coach, and all Marine. He never loses his composure, even when he's scowling, "Somebody wake up Hicks."

And then things go absolutely, horribly wrong. The Marines land and begin finding the innocent colonists, dead or serving as hosts for the aliens. All of Apone's military training hasn't prepared him for this, but it's his voice that comes over the monitor, as calming as could be: "Steady, people. Let's finish our sweep," he says. "We're still Marines, and we've got a job to do."

Maybe an actor who hadn't served could have delivered that line in the same compelling way, maybe not. But in this case, it was easy to accept that Matthews' Apone had seen the worst, and would face it clear-eyed. 

His loss, and the loss of most of his marines, made Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her battle to save little Newt, all the more powerful. If you've got a cigar today, chomp on it in his honor, stay steady, and finish your sweep.

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