1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is naturally best remembered for bringing the TV cartoon heroes to the big screen in live action, but the film also sported some memorable human characters – perhaps most notably Casey Jones, portrayed by Elias Koteas.
Canadian actor Koteas was 28 years old with a handful of film and TV credits to his name when he played the long-haired, hockey mask-clad vigilante who becomes an ally of the Turtles. While this role might easily have paved the way for Koteas becoming a new Hollywood action hero, the actor instead went on to pursue a more modest career, as a character actor so chameleonic viewers don’t always realise it’s him.
From John Hughes and Coppola to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Born in Montreal on March 11, 1961, Elias Koteas says he gravitated towards acting through a young interest in films and television. “I used to watch a lot of TV and I was a huge horror movie buff growing up. It wasn’t like I excelled in school, so it was either [acting] or end up as some kind of thief somewhere!”
After taking his first roles in 1985 Canadian movie One Magic Christmas and failed TV pilot Private Sessions, Koteas got a breakthrough role with 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful, in which he played punk bad boy Duncan. Written by the legendary John Hughes, the film failed to have so great an impact as such earlier Hughes hits as The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, but it was enough to put Koteas on the Hollywood radar.
Following this, Koteas was cast in two films back-to-back for legendary director Francis Ford Coppola of The Godfather fame, 1987’s Gardens of Stone and 1988’s Tucker: the Man and his Dream. After a few more small-scale independent films, Koteas landed a role in the film that would make his name: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
After starting life as a comic book series, the Turtles sky-rocketed in popularity in 1987 with the launch of both a toy line and an animated TV series – and, as co-creator Kevin Eastman reflects, “the obvious evolution was a live-action movie.”
While Koteas has avoided going into specifics, he has confessed that the project came around at what was a difficult time for him personally. “Quite honestly, my life at that time was in such turmoil…
“The job was a reprieve from that: going and playing with turtles and pretending I’m this swashbuckling, tree-swinging, rooftop vigilante guy… With whatever was going on in my life, it just felt like, ‘Ah, this is appropriate. Let me live out a fantasy of protecting the weak.'”
Embracing his inner action hero
The introduction of Casey Jones in the original Turtles comics was very similar to what we see in the movie. Wearing a hockey mask with a golf bag strung over his shoulder containing baseball bats and hockey sticks, Jones aggressively beats up two purse-snatchers, before red-masked turtle Raphael intervenes.
The nature of the role meant that Koteas had to undergo some martial arts training: “It wasn’t like I was this high-kicking karate guy, you know what I mean? You work with what you got.”
Of course, any physical challenge he faced paled in comparison to that of the actors playing the turtles themselves under heavy prosthetic suits, with animatronic components handled by legendary Muppets creator Jim Henson and his team. (It proved to be Henson’s last work: he died only two months after the TMNT movie was released.)
Koteas recalls, “You could be doing it 16 times, until they get it technically right. So it was a challenge to just try to remain curious and focused while they got the mechanics correct with the turtles’ heads and all these things. But it was fun. Sometimes you gotta just say, ‘OK, whatever study I did, I’m going to toss it out and play.'”
Off a budget of a mere $13.5 million, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wound up making $202 million at the global box office in 1990, making it the highest-earning independently produced film ever at the time (this record would be broken by Pulp Fiction four years later).
Koteas would sit out 1991 sequel Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, although he did appear in 1993’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time. This time-travelling sequel (which proved a far smaller hit) cast Koteas in dual roles, as both Casey Jones in present day and a warrior named Whit in 17th century Japan.
More mainstream films followed. The early 90s saw Koteas take supporting roles alongside John Travolta and Kirstie Alley in Look Who’s Talking Too and Paul Hogan in Almost an Angel, as well as taking the lead in sci-fi action movie Cyborg 2 next to a then-unknown Angelina Jolie.
In the years that followed, however, Koteas would pivot towards darker and artier fare, giving him a chance to show off his shapeshifting range as a performer.
Character actor extraordinaire and TV fame
Koteas soon became a favourite of many esteemed directors, working with Terence Malick on The Thin Red Line, David Cronenberg on 1996’s hugely controversial Crash and David Fincher on Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Koteas would also team up with Martin Scorsese on Shutter Island, a role which saw many audience members confuse the actor for Robert De Niro (perhaps because his scar make-up resembles De Niro’s in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein).
Despite his fame, Koteas has managed to remain a fairly private person. He was married to actress Jennifer Rubin (best known for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3) from 1987 to 1990, and he is known to have dated Heather Graham. Beyond this, his relationship status is unknown, nor is it known if he has any children.
Like many actors of his generation, Koteas has in recent years made a home for himself in television. His last film credit, My Days of Mercy, was in 2017; he’s since become best known as Alvin ‘Al’ Olinsky, a role he originated on TV’s Chicago Fire before the character became a recurring character on spin-off series Chicago P.D. (This prominent role in a TV crime drama may partly explain why Koteas is often mistaken for Christopher Meloni of the Law & Order franchise.)
Even so, for millions who grew up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Koteas will always be the definitive Casey Jones (most fans agree that Stephen Amell’s take on the role in 2016’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows could not compare). All other portrayals of Casey Jones have been from voice actors, including Chris Evans in the 2007 animated movie TMNT and Haley Joel Osment in 2022’s Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie.
Koteas seems grateful for the recognition: “I get stopped in the street and it’s like, ‘Hey, there’s Casey Jones!’ There’s nothing but gracious gratitude, if there is such a term… So yeah, Ninja Turtles kind of makes me smile when I think about it.” He has described making the film as “a lot of fun, man! You know, you show up and you put on an outfit and you become a superhero that is talking to these Turtles… Seeing them brought to life was an amazing experience”.