Where’s Walter?

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(c) American International Pictures

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January 2019 ended on a sad note with the announcement that prolific and much-loved American character actor Dick Miller had passed away at the age of 90.  Though nearly all of Miller’s film work consisted of supporting roles and cameo appearances and only rarely was he a leading man, his compact and craggy presence was a welcome addition to countless movies – highbrow ones, cult ones and good, old-fashioned, unrepentant exploitation ones.

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A native of the Bronx who’d served in the Navy and attended New York University, Miller arrived in 1950s California intending to make it as a writer.  However, during an encounter with a young aspiring filmmaker (and future human B-movie factory) called Roger Corman, he suddenly became an actor: “…He (Corman) said, ‘Ah, I don’t need writers, I need actors.’  I said, ‘I’m an actor!’  Just blurted it out like that…” 

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Corman began by casting him in Westerns like Apache Woman (1955), The Oklahoma Woman (1956) and Gunslinger (1956), which were made with Corman’s soon-to-be-legendary thrift – in Apache Woman, Miller not only plays an Apache but also the settler who shoots him. He continued employing him when he came to specialise in sci-fi and horror movies, like It Conquered the World (1956), Not of this Earth (1957), The Undead (1957), War of the Satellites (1958) and the unexpectedly influential Little Shop of Horrors (1960), which was done on a tight schedule even by Corman’s standards – he filmed it in two days, supposedly in response to a bet that he couldn’t make a movie in two days.  In Shop, Miller plays a character called Mr Fouch, who has an eccentric predilection for eating flowers.  During filming, Miller did this for real: “I gave them a try and I ate them, and I said, ‘That’s not too bad,’ and then I dug into ’em…  I didn’t stop to think they may have been sprayed or something.”   

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Miller’s biggest role for Corman was in a movie that’s also Corman’s best 1950s work, A Bucket of Blood (1959).  In this, he plays a hapless schmuck called Walter Paisley whose dream of becoming an avant-garde sculptor is thwarted by his total lack of talent – “Be a nose!  Be a nose!” he cries while he tries and fails to fashion a recognisable human visage out of a lump of clay.  Worse, to make ends meet, he has to work as a busboy at the local Beatnik café, which is full of pretentious tossers bragging about what creative geniuses they are.  After accidentally killing his landlady’s cat and then killing an undercover cop who tried to implicate him in some drug-dealing taking place at the café (Paisley memorably cleaves his head with a skillet), he hits on a way of producing perfectly proportioned statues: by committing murder and coating the bodies in clay.  It has to be said that Paisley’s resulting corpse-centred statues look hideous, but that doesn’t stop the Beatniks at the café proclaiming them as works of art.  Evidently, their lack of taste in sculpture matches their lack of taste in poetry, for at the beginning of the movie we hear Beatnik bard Maxwell Brock (Julian Burton) reading out one of his poetic gems, called Life is a Bum:

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Life is an obscure hobo bumming a ride on the omnibus of art…  The artist is, all others are not…  Where are John, Joe, Jake, Jim, Jerk?  Dead, dead, dead!  They were not born before they were born, they were not born…  Where are Leonardo, Rembrandt, Ludwig?  Alive, alive, alive!  They were born…!

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(c) American International Pictures

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In the 1960s, Miller kept appearing in films directed by Corman, like The Premature Burial (1962), X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), The Wild Angels (1966), The St Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) and The Trip (1967).  Corman, however, was increasingly moving into producing and encouraging young, up-and-coming talents to do the directing for him – on low salaries, low budgets and tight schedules, obviously.  (These constraints didn’t stop some of Corman’s protégées becoming big names indeed.)

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A movie symbolic of this transition is 1963’s The Terror, which came about because Corman wanted to make further use of sets and a star (Boris Karloff) he’d just used on a previous movie.  Without much idea of a story, he filmed some scenes with Karloff before the star went away, and then left it to various associates to come up with a script and a film incorporating the Karloff scenes.  The result is a weird hodgepodge that likely contains input from half-a-dozen directors: not only Corman but also Jack Hill, Dennis Jakob, Monte Hellman, Jack Nicholson (who starred in it alongside Karloff) and a young Francis Ford Coppola – ‘what’s-his-name, who makes the wine,’ as Miller referred to him once in an interview.  Late on in the production, when a script had finally evolved, it fell on Miller’s character to spout a load of exposition and enlighten the audience about what the hell was going on: “(Corman) said, “All right, this is what we’re going to do.  In this scene, you’re going to explain everything that happened in the picture…  ‘No, it wasn’t me, it was him, and he did that and they did it, and we did it to each other!’  And I was like, ‘Okay, that explains it.’”

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Thereafter, Miller became the cinematic equivalent of a family heirloom, passed down from Corman to younger generations, i.e. his many protégées.  Miller was particulary busy with Jonathan Kaplan, who directed him in 1972’s Night Call Nurses, 1973’s Student Teachers and The Slams, 1974’s Truck Turner, 1975’s White Line Fever, 1977’s Mr Billion, 1979’s 11th Victim, 1987’s Project X and 1992’s Unlawful Entry, but he also worked with Jonathan Demme (in 1975’s Crazy Mama), Paul Bartel (in 1975’s Death Race 2000 and 1976’s Carquake) and Allan Arkush (in 1979’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, 1981’s Heartbeeps and 1994’s Shake, Rattle and Rock).  In Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Miller appeared alongside fellow New Yorkers and celebrated punk band the Ramones.  Playing a disgusted police chief, he says of them: “They’re ugly…  Ugly, ugly people!”

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Martin Scorsese, whose second full-length feature Boxcar Bertha had been produced by Corman in 1972, cast Miller in New York, New York (1977) and After Hours (1985); while James Cameron, who’d started his career working as a special effects man and art director for Corman, had him appear briefly but memorably in 1984’s The Terminator – he plays the unfortunate gun-shop owner who supplies Arnie with his firepower.  (“The Uzi nine millimetre.”  “You know your weapons, buddy!”)  Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino, whom I suppose could be described as a second-generation Corman protégée – Monte Hellman helped him get his first film Reservoir Dogs to the screen in 1992 – gave Miller a small role in 1994’s Pulp Fiction.  He’s Monster Joe, owner of a dodgy junkyard called Monster Joe’s Truck and Tow where Harvey Keitel’s Mr Wolf character gets rid of the dead bodies he accrues during his work.  “If you ever need it,” he generously tells Wolf, “I’ll dispose of a body part for free.”  Alas, Tarantino decided to remove the scene from Pulp Fiction’s final cut to prevent the film getting too long and cluttered.   But you can see it on Youtube here.

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(c) Amblin Entertainment / Warner Bros

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Miller’s longest and most famous partnership with a graduate from the Roger Corman School of Film-making, though, was with Joe Dante.  When Dante and co-director Allan Arkush cast him in 1976’s Hollywood Boulevard, the pair hit it off so well that Miller appeared in (by my calculations) 13 more of Dante’s movies: Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), the It’s a Good Life segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Gremlins (1984), Explorers (1985), Innerspace (1987), The Burbs (1989), Gremlins II (1990), Matinee (1994), Small Soldiers (1998), Loony Tunes: Back in Action (2003), The Hole (2009) and Burying the Ex (2014). 

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Dante usually put Miller in blue-collar roles: security guard, pizza delivery guy, garbage collector, truck driver, taxi driver and in the case of Murray Futterman, his harassed character in Gremlins and Gremlins II, snowplough driver.  In the first Gremlins movie, Futterman and his wife Sheila (played by Jackie Joseph) are supposedly killed when a couple of the diabolical title creatures drive Futterman’s snowplough into their living room.  Happily, in Gremlins II, it transpires that they weren’t killed, just traumatised.  And there’s a marvellously cathartic scene where a gremlin with wings (which it acquired during some genetic tampering in a laboratory run by Christopher Lee) swoops down and attacks Futterman on a New York street.  This time, rather than cringing, Futterman mans up and sorts the little bastard out.   

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Furthermore, in honour of his starring role in A Bucket of Blood, three of Dante’s movies – Hollywood Boulevard, The Howling and The Twilight Zone: The Movie – had Miller playing a character called Walter Paisley.  Indeed, other filmmakers were quick to continue the in-joke.  Subsequently, Miller played someone called Walter Paisley in Jim Wynorski’s 1986 horror-comedy Chopping Mall (which was produced by Julie Corman, Roger’s missus); someone called Walter in Fred Decker’s 1986 sci-fi horror Night of the Creeps; and someone called Officer Paisley in Allan Arkush’s 1994 rock ‘n’ roll TV movie Shake, Rattle and Rock

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And according to IMDb there is a just completed, not-yet-released horror movie called Hanukkah wherein Dick Miller plays a Jewish character called ‘Rabbi Walter Paisley’.  So though the great man has left us, we’ll at least get one more opportunity to play ‘Where’s Walter?’    

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The quotes by Dick Miller contained in this post come from an entertaining interview he did in 2012 with the AV Club, which can be accessed here.

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(c) The Geffen Company / Warner Bros

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Actors and Directors

 

An exchange between Johnny Depp and Ricky Gervais, from the first series of Gervais’s TV show Life’s Too Short:

“You know, I’m working with a great director just now.  A guy the name of Tim Burton.  You ever heard of him?”

“Of course.”

“And the film itself is really brilliant…  And, um, I’m playing a very interesting character.  Do you have any idea who my leading lady is on this film?”

“In the Tim Burton film?

“Yeah.”

“Helena Bonham-Carter?”

“How’d you know?”

“Stab in the dark.”

“She thinks you’re an idiot.”

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It’s hard to believe now but there was a time when Depp made films for directors who weren’t Tim Burton.  However, of late, his partnership with the tousle-haired, black-clad director of all things gothic has increasingly dominated his career.  Some would say it’s made Depp’s career rather stale.  Yes, he was great in the 1990s when Burton gave him roles in Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow.  However, having been force-fed Depp-Burton versions of Willie Wonka, Sweeny Todd, the Mad Hatter and Barnabas Collins in quick succession since the mid-noughties, I suspect modern audiences hope that Depp and Burton, like a married couple whose marriage has lost its magic, might want to spend a little time apart from each other.

 

Anyway, this has made me think about regular collaborations between other actors and directors.  Back in cinematic history, of course, Humphrey Bogart and John Huston were a prominent acting / directing duo, as were John Wayne and John Ford.  More recently, we’ve had Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese and more recently still, Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino.  Here are a few of my own favourite actor (or actress) / director team-ups.  Note that I’ve excluded performers who appeared in numerous movies directed by their spouses, which means there’s no mention of Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes or, for that matter, Mr and Mrs Tim Burton.

 

Dick Miller and Joe Dante.

 

Craggy New York character actor and former middle-weight boxer Dick Miller made his name in the 1950s and 60s appearing in films directed by the human B-movie factory that is Roger Corman – for example, It Conquered the World, Little Shop of Horrors, The Premature Burial, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, The Wild Angels, The St Valentine’s Day Massacre, The Trip and most famously 1959’s A Bucket of Blood (in which he played a very bad avant-garde sculptor called Walter Paisley who starts faking his art by murdering the annoying Beatniks at his local café and covering their bodies in clay).  When Corman moved into producing and encouraged young, up-and-coming talents to do the directing for him (on low salaries and with low budgets), Miller got passed on like a family heirloom to Corman’s prodigies – Jonathan Kaplan (1973’s Student Teachers), Jonathan Demme (1975’s Crazy Mama), Paul Bartel (1976’s Carquake), Allan Arkush (1979’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) and James Cameron (1984’s The Terminator – Miller is the hapless shopkeeper who furnishes Arnie with his weaponry).

 

However, his longest and most prolific partnership has been with Joe Dante, who by my calculations has cast him in 13 movies, from 1976’s Hollywood Boulevard to 2009’s The Hole.  Dante usually puts Miller in blue-collar roles – security guard, pizza delivery guy, garbage collector, truck driver, taxi driver and in the case of Murray Futterman, his memorably harassed character in Gremlins and Gremlins II, snowplough driver.  Furthermore, in honour of his most famous role, three of Dante’s movies – Hollywood Boulevard, The Howling (1981) and the Dante-directed segment of Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983) – see Miller playing a character called Walter Paisley.

 

Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog.

 

Unstoppable sex-crazed schizophrenic German force meets unmoveable insane-dream-obsessed German object?  The relationship between Kinski and Herzog could be euphemistically described as ‘tempestuous’ and it was that way from the very beginning.  Their first collaboration, Aguirre, Wrath of God, saw Kinski lose his cool so spectacularly that he fired a gun at a film-crew tent and blew a fingertip off one of the extras.  Herzog, in turn, was said to have held a gun on Kinski to force him to continue filming, although Herzog denies this.  Meanwhile, 1982’s dragging-a-steamship-through-the-Peruvian-rainforest epic Fitzcarraldo was right up Kinski and Herzog’s street – they eschewed the use of special effects and did it using real steamships in real rainforest.  By this time Kinski was so off his head that supposedly one of the local Indian chiefs approached Herzog and offered to kill him.

 

(c) Werner Herzog Filmproduktion 

 

Kinski and Herzog’s other collaborations were Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), in which, miraculously, Kinski managed to keep his cool during the four-hour make-up sessions required to turn him into the bald, toothy, Spock-eared and talon-fingered nosferatu of the title, Wozeck (1979) and Cobra Verde (1987).  Herzog was so unbearable during the filming of that last movie that original cinematographer Thomas Mauch ended up walking off the set and Herzog himself didn’t employ Kinski again.

 

Shelley Duvall and Robert Altman.

 

The huge-eyed, gangly and charming Shelley Duvall was rarely absent from Robert Altman’s movies during the 1970s – she was in Brewster McCloud (1970), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), Thieves like us (1974), Nashville (1975), Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976) and Three Women (1977).  With her distinctive appearance, it was inevitable when Altman agreed to direct Popeye for Disney Studios in 1980 that he asked Duvall to play Popeye’s girlfriend, Olive Oyl.  (Indeed, Duvall was initially reluctant to accept the role because ‘Olive Oyl’ was the nickname she’d been tormented with at school.)  Afterwards, the actress and the director went their separate ways.  Duvall devoted herself to producing television adaptations of fairy stories and children’s books, though not before she got pursued around the Overlook Hotel by an axe-waving Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980).

 

Oliver Reed and Ken Russell.

 

The pugnacious and permanently-pickled legend that is Oliver Reed had been making swashbucklers and horror movies for Hammer Films and swinging-sixties comedies for Michael Winner when Ken Russell – a director best described by the adjective ‘unrestrained’ – gave him a leg up into arthouse cinema.  Reed had small parts in Russell’s Mahler (1974) and Lisztomania (1975) but it was in Russell’s three best remembered films – Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971) and Tommy (1975) – that he excelled.

 

Women in Love is famous for its saucy nude wrestling scene between Reed and Alan Bates – even now you have to ‘sign in to confirm your age’ to view it on youtube.  Of major concern to Reed and Bates before they filmed it, apparently, was the question of whose member would look bigger and whose would look smaller.  (To their relief, when they compared lengths, it was a draw.)  Two years later, Reed played Urbain Grandier in Russell’s hugely controversial The Devils, based on John Whiting’s play of the same name and The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley – such passions did the film arouse that in a TV debate Russell walloped critic Alexander Walker over the head with a rolled-up copy of the Evening Standard (the paper that Walker wrote for) when the latter described the film as ‘monstrously indecent’.  In Tommy, Reed held his own as the title character’s brutal stepfather – holding his own was no mean feat in a movie that included Tina Turner as the Acid Queen, Keith Moon as the detestable child-molesting Uncle Ernie and Ann-Margaret writhing in a morass of baked beans.

 

(c) Warner Brothers 

 

Both Reed and Russell’s careers went into freefall in the 1980s and thereafter their paths didn’t cross again.  It might’ve been fun, though, to see Reed in Russell’s Lair of the White Worm (1988) – you could almost imagine him fumbling to open his trousers whilst bellowing, “You call that a giant worm?  This is a giant worm!”

 

Stephen Rea and Neil Jordan.

 

Irish director Neil Jordan’s films seem to need the presence of Stephen Rea.  Whether he’s in a main role – Angel (1982), The Crying Game (1992) – or a supporting one – Michael Collins (1996), The Butcher Boy (1997) – or just turning up in a cameo – The Company of Wolves (1984), Breakfast on Pluto (2005) – the lugubrious-faced Belfast actor apparently adds some talismanic luck to the artistic success of Jordan’s work.  The Rea-less Mona Lisa (1986) is an outstanding exception; but, looking at the likes of High Spirits (1988), We’re no Angels (1989) and The Brave One (2007), none of which had him on board, the general rule for Jordan’s films seems to be, no Rea, no good.

 

Sheila Keith and Pete Walker.

 

A combination of exploitation cinema and social commentary, British director Peter Walker’s 1970s horror movies were memorably grim – serving up (for the time) disturbingly graphic violence, attacking institutions like the judiciary and the Catholic church, and generally showing how depressingly grotty life was in 1970s Britain.  What helped their impact immeasurably was his repeated casting of Scottish actress Sheila Keith, familiar to several generations of British TV viewers for her appearances as prim ladies of a certain age (often aristocrats or nuns) in cosy situation comedies like The Liver Birds, Some Mothers do ‘Ave ‘Em, Rings on their Fingers, The Other ‘Arf, Bless Me Father, Never The Twain, A Fine Romance and The Brittas Empire.  But there was nothing cosy about the chilling harridans whom Keith played for Walker, in House of Whipcord (1974), in House of Mortal Sin (1975) and most subversively in Frightmare (1974), in which her Dorothy Yates character shifted gears between being a confused, pathetic, middle-aged housewife and a demented brain-eating cannibal.  Apparently, she found these roles liberating compared to her normal acting fare.  And the now-classic stills of Keith in Frighmare, wielding a Black-and-Decker drill, grinning, and splattered with a victim’s cerebral tissue, suggest an actress who enjoyed her work.

 

(c) Miracle

 

Walker cast her in two later horror movies, 1978’s The Comeback and 1982’s House of the Long Shadows, but neither was to the standard of their earlier work.  The Comeback at least has an interesting idea – an elderly couple (one of whom is Keith) take gruesome revenge on a faded rock star whom they believe induced their daughter to commit suicide.  Confronting the rocker at the end, Keith admonishes him in a hate-filled voice for his decadence and depravity and even his lewd bodily ‘contortions’ onstage.  This would’ve worked if the rock star had been played by someone properly decadent like Mick Jagger or Iggy Pop but, laughably, he’s played by Jack Jones, housewives’ favourite and singer of the Love Boat theme.  Jones’s performance was likened by one critic to a ‘hibernating bear’.

 

Roy Kinnear and Richard Lester.

 

The portly and eternally flustered-looking comic actor Roy Kinnear was a fixture in the films of American-based-in-Britain director Richard Lester during most phases of Lester’s career.  Kinnear turned up in the second of the movies Lester directed with the Beatles, 1965’s Help!, then accompanied Lester when he moved on to directing the surrealist black comedies 1967’s How I Won the War and 1969’s The Bed Sitting Room, and then provided comic relief in Lester’s The Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers in 1973 and 1974.  Around this time too, Lester cast Kinnear in his British disaster movie Juggernaut (1974), giving him a role with more depth than usual – he played Curtain, the luckless entertainments officer who has to keep a cruise-liner-load of passengers amused after it transpires that a terrorist has placed six bombs on board the ship.

 

Only during Lester’s box-office peak – 1980’s Superman II and 1983’s Superman III – did Kinnear fail to make an appearance in his old friend’s films.  The two were reunited in 1988 for a belated second sequel to The Three Musketeers, The Return of the Musketeers, but tragedy awaited.  During filming in Spain, Kinnear was thrown from a horse and suffered a broken pelvis.  The following day, in hospital, he died of a heart attack.  Lester was so upset by the experience that, apart from a concert film for Paul McCartney, 1991’s Get Back, he hasn’t directed a movie since.

 

(c) United Artists