“I really never got excited about the size of a part. I didn’t realize the staying power of stars, when you got top billing, and then you’ve got to go a little lower, a little lower. But maybe that’s why I’ve been around so long.” – Dick Miller (excerpt from 2012 A.V. Club interview, Caelum Vatnsdal)
I’m excited to take part in the What a Character Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club. Be sure to check the blogathon roster for profiles of classic character actors who occupied little screen time but made a big impression.
Roger Corman is credited with discovering a wealth of talented actors and filmmakers over the years – the list is a veritable who’s who of Hollywood’s cream of the crop. Perhaps Corman’s greatest find, however, is a name that’s frequently overlooked – the incomparable Dick Miller. He possesses one of the most recognizable faces in film, yet few associate the face with a name. His relative anonymity has enabled him to work consistently in movies and television for well over half a century in nearly 200 roles, while keeping a low profile.
The Bronx native arrived in Hollywood under the auspices of becoming a screenwriter,* but earned a living through his myriad of brief but memorable character roles.** In his first outing for Corman, Apache Woman, Miller was called on to play a Native American and a cowboy in the same movie.*** Miller became a mainstay among Corman’s voluminous stable of performers in the 50s and 60s, which included Jonathan Haze, Beverly Garland, and a young Jack Nicholson. Over the years, he appeared in numerous Corman films, but with few starring roles. One notable exception was the Corman-directed cheapie, A Bucket of Blood. That underrated film, which skewered the beatnik scene and avant-garde art world, introduced audiences to Walter Paisley, a nebbish turned accidental artist. The Walter Paisley character name would prove to be a durable running gag, reappearing in many of Miller’s subsequent film appearances.
* Miller co-wrote the screenplay (with Ken Metcalfe) for the 1974 Corman-produced blaxploitation flick TNT Jackson , but the less said of this, the better.
**Witness Miller in The Little Shop of Horrors as the scenery and flower-chomping Burson Fouch
*** According to Miller, “So I played a cowboy and Indian in the same movie and just about shot myself in the end because I was part of the posse that was sent out to shoot my Indian.” (from How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman with Jim Jerome)
Arguably no one utilized Dick Miller to such great effect as Corman protégé Joe Dante, who referred to him as a “good luck charm.” A Dante film just didn’t seem complete without Miller’s ubiquitous presence. His first collaboration was fast-talking Hollywood agent Walter Paisley in the micro-budgeted Hollywood Boulevard. My personal favorite is the cantankerous, xenophobic Murray Futterman in Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Some great runners up are skeptical occult book shop owner Walter Paisley in The Howling, and resort owner/entrepreneur Buck Gardner in Piranha (“What about the goddamn piranhas?”). Rumor has it (from one source, at least) that Miller has been coaxed out of retirement to appear in another soon-to-be-announced Dante movie. Hopefully, we haven’t seen the last of this decades-long partnership.
While his name is forever associated with Corman and Dante, he wasn’t a commodity exclusive to those filmmakers. Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, he appeared for other prominent directors as well. Some notable examples are the doomed gun store proprietor in James Cameron’s The Terminator, and a junkyard owner in Pulp Fiction (although he didn’t make the final cut). Miller also made his mark on the small screen, with a recurring role in the Fame television series.
What defines a Dick Miller performance? Although Miller would likely scoff at the suggestion he has a specific technique, his no-nonsense approach demonstrates his knack for getting a lot from very little. Most of his characters are unpretentious, irascible, working class individuals, with whom the audience can easily relate. You can always sense his humanity, even if the role he’s playing is unsavory. The roles have a past and a present, and seem three-dimensional, despite the lack of screen time.
I never get tired of spotting Dick Miller in a film. Even if the movie is crap, he’s always a welcome presence. More often than not, he elevates the material of whatever he’s in, simply because he doesn’t differentiate from the size of the parts. Big or small, he leaves an indelible mark. I’d like to think the final chapter of this venerable character actor hasn’t been written. The upcoming Elijah Drenner documentary, That Guy, Dick Miller should help increase the visibility of this fascinating, versatile performer, so he can take center stage, where he belongs.