The fickleness of acting fame

 

(c) Reynolds Pictures, Inc

 

The actor Gregory Walcott, who died a week ago at the age of 87, was hardly a household name.  But in a fickle profession – I’ll wager that 99.9% of all actors and actresses never win any degree of fame or recognition at all – he had a pretty good innings.

 

Between the 1960s and 1980s he made guest appearances on a slew of American TV shows that I remember well, if not always fondly, from my childhood and teens – western ones (Rawhide, Bonanza, The High Chaparral, Alias Smith and Jones, The Quest), cop ones (Kojak, McCloud, Barnaby Jones, Baretta, CHiPs, Vega$) and science-fiction ones (The Invisible Man, The Gemini Man, Land of the Lost, The Six Million Dollar Man).  He also turned up in those two big-haired, big-moneyed super-soap-operas that were an inescapable feature of Ronald Reagan-era TV, Dallas and Dynasty.

 

Cinematically, Walcott appeared in the supporting casts of several Clint Eastwood movies back when Big Clint was in his prime (and before he became better known for talking to empty chairs at Republican Party conferences).  These were Joe Kidd (1972), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), The Eiger Sanction (1975) and Every Which Way but Loose (1978).  Also, Walcott got to work with legendary director John Ford in 1955’s Mister Roberts; and in 1974 he appeared in The Sugarland Express, which was directed by a young, barely-started-shaving Steven Spielberg.

 

However, when Walcott’s obituaries appeared a few days ago, it wasn’t his extensive TV work or his associations with Eastwood, Ford and Spielberg that received attention.  No, the item in Walcott’s CV that the obituarists focused on was a low-budget science-fiction film that he’d made in 1956: a film whose script he considered to be ‘gibberish’ but which he went ahead and starred in as a favour to a friend, Ed Reynolds, who was the film’s executive producer.  Initially, Walcott wasn’t bothered about making this unpromising-sounding film and possibly damaging his acting reputation as a consequence.  He assumed it would sink without trace.  “I honestly thought,” he told an interviewer later, “it would only be shown out in the boondocks and no-one would ever see it.”

 

Walcott must have felt increasingly nervous as, during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, this particular film refused to stay in the boondocks.  Rather, it began to loom large in popular culture.  Inexorably, its fame – or infamy – grew.  Thanks largely to it being championed by movie critics like Michael Medved, filmmakers like Joe Dante and cultural commentators like Clive James, it became a contender for the title of Worst Film Ever Made.

 

By 1994, when Tim Burton made Ed Wood, a biopic of the movie’s director – with Johnny Depp in the title role of oddball, angora-obsessed and epically-incompetent filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr – it was no longer just a contender for the title.  In the public consciousness, the movie, Plan 9 from Outer Space, now was the worst film ever made.

 

(c) Reynolds Pictures, Inc

 

These days connoisseurs of bad movies spend hours enthusing about Plan 9’s multiple shortcomings: about the cemetery headstones (obviously made of cardboard) that topple over on camera and the characters’ cars that change make from scene to scene; the flying saucers that look like they’ve been fashioned from hubcaps; the risible dialogue (“Inspector Clay is dead… murdered… and someone is responsible!”); the fact that the movie’s biggest star, Bela Lugosi, had died before filming started and his ‘performance’ was a combination of home-movie footage shot when he’d been alive and the use of a stand-in (actually Wood’s wife’s chiropractor) who looked nothing like him; the sets that’d apparently been assembled inside a cupboard, including one of an airplane cockpit with sides made out of shower-curtains and a very visible boom-microphone overhead; the barmy narration by Jerome King Criswell, a real-life, self-proclaimed psychic who intones, “Greetings my friends!  We are all interested in the future.  For that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives!”  And so on, and so forth.

 

With cruel inevitability, Plan 9 figured prominently in the headlines about Walcott’s death.  The Independent called him THE BLAMELESS ACTOR WHO COULDN’T SHAKE OFF BEING A PART OF THE WORST MOVIE EVER.  In the Times, he was the ACTOR WHO STARRED IN A FILM REGARDED AS THE WORST IN CINEMA HISTORY.  A slightly-more-circumspect New York Times declared, GREGORY WALCOTT, ACTOR IN ‘PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE’, DIES AT 87.

 

Walcott reminds me of a more famous actor who passed away in February, Leonard Nimoy.  Nimoy appeared in some classic TV shows (The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Mission Impossible) and was nominated for an Emmy for playing Golda Meir’s husband in the 1982 TV movie A Woman Called Golda.  He appeared in several acclaimed stage productions, including Fiddler on the Roof, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Equus and Twelfth Night.  He enjoyed parallel careers as a screenwriter, producer and director – he even directed and starred in a 1981 TV movie called Vincent, a biopic of Vincent Van Gogh.  And he was a photographer, poet and singer-songwriter too.  Despite all this, Nimoy went to his grave with five words etched (metaphorically) on his headstone: MR SPOCK IN STAR TREK!

 

(c) Desilu Productions 

 

No matter how much he tried to escape it – and by the mid-1970s he seemed pretty annoyed at the fact, because he penned a memoir called I am not Spock and refused for a time to be involved in the first Star Trek movie (which eventually did have him on board when it was released in 1979) – Nimoy was forever associated in people’s minds with a half-human alien who lived by the dictates of logic.  One who took orders from Captain William Shatner, incapacitated opponents using the very handy Vulcan nerve-pinch, and possessed the most famous pair of pointy ears on the planet.

 

Later, though, Nimoy seemed to make his peace with Star Trek and Mr Spock.  The second volume of his memoirs, published in 1995, was entitled I am Spock; and he continued making Star Trek movies into his old age.  He even appeared in the new, rebooted Star Trek films with Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, Benedict Cumberbatch, etc., playing a venerable and sagacious Mr Spock from an alternative universe.

 

I have to say that, while I’m not a Star Trek fan, I think Nimoy made the right decision.  I’ve read some of his poems and heard a little of his singing.  And I like him much better as Mr Spock.

 

It must be galling for actors and actresses – trained in a profession where the goal is to become a human chameleon, to be able to step into the shoes of any character, inhabit their persona and imbue them convincingly with life onstage or onscreen – when your audience becomes fixated with one role you’ve played, or one TV show or film you’ve appeared in, and associates you with that for the rest of your career.  And very often, the role, show or film that the crass, fickle public saddles you with is something less than Shakespearean.

 

(c) De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

 

I can think of two well-known Scottish actors who’ve had to deal with this.  Craggy, Dundonian performer Brian Cox has enjoyed a distinguished career in the theatre, on TV and in films.  But in 1986 he had a supporting role in Michael Mann’s dark thriller Manhunter, based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.  He played an inmate in an institution for the criminally insane who’s onscreen for only a few minutes.  But that character was Dr Hannibal Lektor who, three years later, would win mass-popularity when Anthony Hopkins played him in Silence of the Lambs (with the character’s surname re-spelt as ‘Lector’).  For a long time afterwards, Cox had to put up with countless comments and queries about his turn as the first cinematic incarnation of Harris’s suave, Nietzschean super-cannibal.  Even now, he’s probably getting letters asking him what his thoughts are on the funky new leather jacket that Mads Mikkelsen will be wearing in season three of Hannibal.

 

Then there’s Crieff-born actor Dennis Lawson, who receives more mail about his role as Wedge Antilles in the original three Star Wars movies than about everything else he’s done put together.  This is despite the fact that he’s only in each movie for about a minute.  He’s seen climbing into an X-Wing Fighter before each big space-battle, sitting in the X-Wing Fighter during each big space-battle, and climbing out of the X-Wing Fighter after each big space-battle.  (Indeed, it was only when he filmed the climbing-out scenes that Lawson realised that his character had survived yet another movie.)  Still, his association with the films may have been welcomed in certain quarters of his family – two decades later, his nephew Ewan McGregor secured the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels.

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

Returning to Gregory Walcott – like Nimoy and Spock, he eventually learned to live with Plan 9 from Outer Space.  In an interview with the LA Times, he said of the film that “it’s better to be remembered for something than for nothing.”  Bearing his old director no malice, he agreed to a cameo role in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, which proved to be his final film appearance.  And last year, when a pub called the Plan Nine Alehouse opened in his neighbourhood, he allowed his son to gift it his old copy of the Plan 9 script.  (The script ended up as a decoration in the pub toilets).

 

Actually, I get slightly irritated when people identify Plan 9 as the worst film ever made.  It’s badly written and technically inept to a comical degree, I admit, but I think Ed Wood deserves kudos for at least investing it with a crazed enthusiasm.  He was a desperately bad filmmaker but he shouldn’t be condemned for being ambitious – the problem was that the realisation of his ambitions fell far short of what’d been in his imagination.  Tim Burton clearly recognises and sympathises with Wood’s creative yearnings because, near the end of 1994’s Ed Wood, he inserts a hypothetical scene where Wood, pissed off at his financiers’ meddling in the making of Plan 9, bumps into and chats with Orson Welles, who’s equally pissed off at Universal’s meddling in the making of Touch of Evil.  (“They want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican!”)

 

Plan 9 even contains a speech, delivered by an alien, which denounces humanity’s obsession with building bigger and evermore-terrible weapons of mass destruction.  It’s a noble sentiment but, as usual with Wood, this well-meaning speech becomes nonsensical.  The alien (played by an actor with the eccentric name of Dudley Manlove) starts raving about exploding sunlight-particles that’ll somehow trigger a chain reaction and destroy the universe.  Then he has a hissy fit: “Your stupid minds!  Stupid!  Stupid!”  And yet, in that artless scene, there’s probably more personality than you’d find in the entirety of Michael Bay’s Transformers, Transformers 2, Transformers 3 and Transformers 4.

 

I should say that I’m supported in this opinion by no less a personage than the TV star and movie critic Jonathan Ross.  In his 1993 volume The Incredibly Strange Film Book, Ross writes that he’d far rather watch an enjoyably shonky Ed Wood movie than some ultra-bland, boring mainstream Hollywood effort like 1987’s Three Men and a Baby.

 

Three Men and a Baby, incidentally, was directed by a certain Leonard Nimoy.  Yes, Mr Spock, would you prefer to be remembered for that?

 

(c) Touchstone Pictures