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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