James won the 1984 Drama Desk award for outstanding ensemble work as part of the cast of Glengary Glen Ross.
Besides the Back to the Future trilogy, Tolkan's movie career includes: Stiletto, They Might Be Giants, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Serpico, Love and Death, The Amityville Horror, The Wolfen, Prince of the City, Hanky Panky, Author! Author!, Wargames, Iceman, Turk 182!, Top Gun, Off Beat, Armed and Dangerous, Masters of the Universe, Made in Heaven, Viper, Split Decisions, True Blood, Second Sight, Ministry of Vengeance, Family Business, Opportunity Knocks, Dick Tracy, Problem Child 2, Hangfire, Driving Me Crazy, Bloodfist IV: Die Trying, Boiling Point, Underworld ('96), River of Stone, Love in Ambush, Seven Times Lucky, and Heavens Fall.
Tolkan's made-for-TV movie appearances include: Sketch Artist II: Hands That See, Beyond Betrayal, Sketch Artist, Two of a Kind: The Case of the Hillside Stranglers, Leap of Faith, Weekend War, Little Spies, and The River.
Tolkan was particularly busy in 1960, the first year of his acting career. He appeared in all of the following plays: Between Two Thieves, 42 Seconds from Broadway, A View From the Bridge, Julius Caesar, Live Like Pigs. Pinkville, The Affair, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, The Best Man, The Cannibals, The Silent Partner, The Tempest, The Three Sisters, and Twelve Angry Men.
Tolkan is best known for his role as the officious Principal Strickland, which he played different versions of in all three Back to the Future movies. Robert Zemeckis had Tolkan specifically in mind when he created the role of Principal Strickland.
Tolkan recreated his role of Stinger from Top Gun for the two Top Gun CD-ROM games.
He is married to Parmelee Tolkan.
Tolkan was Robert Duvall's understudy in the 1965 Broadway production of A View From the Bridge.
Tolkan studied with first Lee Strasberg and then Stella Adler at the Actor's Studio in New York.
He attended the University of Iowa starting in 1950.
He stands 5'6" (1.68m).