A Salute to Character Actors
How Hollywood Screwed Up My Life Before I Even Got There
On November 20, 1944, the whole world changed for me. At 2 am I reluctantly departed the womb and came face to face with … well, I’m not sure what you call it, but certainly NOT the stuff dreams are made of. My highly acclaimed modesty makes me reluctant to credit my emergence with the ending of WWII, but, facts are facts and less than a year later both Germany and Japan had surrendered.
The week before my birth Hollywood released BLUEBEARD, a film noir thriller starring John Carradine as a wife murderer. A week after my birth, Judy Garland introduced us to the musical ditty “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” in the movie MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, co-starring noir darling Mary Astor. The insidiously seductive song has always seemed profoundly sad and filled with an impossible longing for the illusion of a better time. I was not even a month old when Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney and John Carradine starred in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, which I see as the most charmingly optimistic film of those winter months — with The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula and The Wolfman all working together for the common Bad. Plus Mary Astor returned in BLONDE FEVER, introducing noir super star Gloria Grahame.
Why do I bring up all this ancient history? Partly because I’ve been laid up chug-a-lugging codeine cough syrup while watching TCM (Turner Classic Movies). And partly because I’m fairly certain that my mother took her infant son to see those films. And those films subliminally turned me into the grotesque creature you now see before you (if you could actually see me). Yes, my life’s path — or at least my aesthetic tastes — were opened to me by John Carradine, the master of the eccentric and diabolical; Judy Garland, the feminine face of the destructive artist; those masters of miserable monstery, Karloff and Chaney; and two legendary star-crossed beauties, Astor and Grahame. I could never imagine hanging out with Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier, Spencer Tracy or Clark Gable; but Chill Wills, Slim Pickens, Ben Johnson or Jack Carson maybe? I’m more comfortable with Falstaff than Hamlet.
My mother loved movies and took me to many. She had no clue that eccentric character actors and queens of noir would brand my brain. My father despised movies and correctly predicted that going to movies and watching television would make me a less valuable member of society. He preferred to limit his value with tequila.
We were the last family on our block to own a television set, but the first to own more than ten firearms. My father was an accurate prophet. I would stare mesmerized at the bright box until it went off the air, or he turned it off. I loved it all: Pinkie Lee, Red Buttons, old Bowery Boys movies, Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Sid Caesar, Burns and Allen, Red Skelton, Milton Berle, Jack Benny, “Playhouse 90”, “Gunsmoke”, “Have Gun Will Travel”, “Two Gun Playhouse”, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, “The Twilight Zone” or even “The Loretta Young Show”.
Reading might have vanished from my life if my grandmother, Ada “Mamie” Medlin, had not provided what used to be called “Classic Comics.” She made me realize that “Treasure Island,” “The Three Musketeers,” “Ivanhoe,” “Swiss Family Robinson” and other delightful tales were WRITTEN by someone. And so were the movies and the television shows and the books my father wanted me to read. How obvious. How life changing! Am I the only one who failed to understand that concept from the very start? Hello Dickens! Hello Twain. Hello Hemmingway. Hello Peter Devries, Ian Fleming, Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, Joseph Heller, Hunter S. Thompson, Terry Southern, the creators at Mad Magazine and the zanies at the Texas Ranger humor magazine. But even with the wonders of literature, it’s safe to say that Movies “captured” my imagination as surely as Marlon Brando was held prisoner by Slim Pickens in ONE-EYED JACKS.
The first film I can actually recall attending was THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Why would anyone take an eight-year-old to a horror movie? As I hid my face behind the seats of the tiny theater in Santa Anna, Texas, I learned the meaning of fear (not a bad lesson to learn while eating popcorn). THE THING, as the 1951 flick is generally known, was created by A-Listers like Howard Hawks, and writers Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer (who was raised by his aunt, Marion Davies). James Arness played The Thing four years before becoming Matt Dillon on GUNSMOKE.
Hawks directed one of the great westerns, RED RIVER, in which the wispy Montgomery Cliff is able to stand up to the always-imposing John Wayne. He also mastered the screwball comedy with pictures such as HIS GIRL FRIDAY, MONKEY BUSINESS and BALL OF FIRE. Which would seem to have made him an unlikely candidate to direct a Film Noir classic like Raymond Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP, or a drama from Hemingway’s TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (with William Faulkner getting a writing credit). But Hawk’s greatest contribution to my world view was the way in which he brought us strong, interesting female characters portrayed by Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall, Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. Watching those films on “The Late, Late Show” made me comfortable with taking orders from women.
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE was in theaters about the same time as THE THING, but I didn’t see it until years later at an art house revival. John Huston directed the underrated classic of existential futility starring the always overwrought Sterling Hayden. It also featured a newcomer named Marilyn Monroe, with a brief appearance by the man I consider to be the greatest actor of all time – Strother Martin. Besides delivering one of cinema’s most iconic lines (“What we have here is a failure to communicate,” in COOL HAND LUKE), Strother (I don’t think he’d mind if I call him Strother) appeared in five other Paul Newman films and six John Wayne movies. Mr. Martin inspired me to celebrate the outsiders, and the seemingly irredeemable members of society.
John Huston had two screenwriting nominations (DR. EHRLICH’S MAGIC BULLET and SERGEANT YORK) before he directed his first film, THE MALTESE FALCON starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and, of course, that brilliant team of character actors Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Elishah Cook Jr. and Ward Bond.
BAM ! The Detective Drama had a prototype!
I recall watching Huston’s other classics: THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, KEY LARGO (Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Claire Trevor) and THE AFRICAN QUEEN in Austin. Where? I think at either The Matchbox bar or on campus at Cinema Forty. Thanks to Huston, every movie-going male of the fifties and sixties and beyond wound up with at least a tiny bit of Bogart in him. And hopefully the female audience wound up with more Katherine Hepburn or Lauren Bacall, and less Mary Astor.
I also love some of Huston’s later films like THE MISFITS, THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and PRIZZI’S HONOR. What a list of credits!!!! But by the time I saw those films, I was a bit less impressionable.
In the interest of time and space, I am not going to dwell on how much time I spent watching the work of John Ford and all the great character actors he cast over and over (except to salute him for casting Strother Martin in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE). He’ll get plenty of words when (and if) I do an article on Greatest Westerns (like STAGECOACH featuring John Carradine and Andy Devine, with the wonderful Claire Trevor billed above John Wayne).
Ford’s image was as a master of macho, but he directed actresses Ava Gardner, Edna May Oliver, Jane Darwell, Sally Allgood and Grace Kelly in Oscar-nominated parts. Like Hawks, Huston and Ford, the directors Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, the Coen Brothers, and Quentin Tarantino have made maximum use of eccentric character actors and, occasionally, classic femmes fatales.
In THE KILLING, Kubrick cast Sterling Hayden in a role as doomed as the one Huston created for him in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. The noir novel master Jim Thompson is credited with writing “dialogue” for THE KILLING. The always vampy Marie Windsor does her thing, as does Elisha Cook Jr. Timothy Carey provides his unique creepiness, which served him well in Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY as well as in films as diverse as ONE-EYED JACKS, BEACH BLANKET BINGO, THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE and ECHO PARK (written by my ol’ pardner, the Bronx Brainiac — Michael Ventura).
According to Wikipedia, Marlon Brando and Kubrick, along with Sam Peckinpah, worked together on a project that became ONE-EYED JACKS. But in the end, Brando directed it and the writing credit went to Guy Trosper (THE PRIDE OF ST. LOUIS, BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ). ONE-EYED JACKS is one of my favorite films, but imagine Brando, Kubrick and Peckinpah collaborating on a film? Oh, what might have been!!
Among Kubrick’s many talents was the ability to get the most out of character actors. Think of Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov in SPARTACUS, Shelly Winters and Peter Sellers in LOLITA, Sterling Hayden, Peter Sellers and George C. Scott in DR. STRANGELOVE, the entire cast of CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Patrick Magee in BARRY LYNDON (a film I used to bash, but now love), Scatman Crothers in THE SHINING and, of course, R. Lee Ermey and Adam Baldwin in FULL METAL JACKET.
Perhaps, no movie ever made better use of character actors than Sam Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH. Recently back from Vietnam, I was reluctant to see the film. But Mike “Moondog” Bellamy persuaded me. Moon said, “There are two teams. One team is mad up of bad guys. The other team is really, really bad guys.” He was correct! Team A led by William Holden consisted of Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, Bo Hopkins and Edmond O’Brien — a gang of outlaw hall-of-famers. But Team B managed to take morality and human decency down another notch with Robert Ryan ostensibly in charge of Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones and a crew of “two-bit gutter trash.”
I once spotted L.Q. Jones standing outside the Screen Actors Guild office on Wilshire Blvd. I approached him and said, “Help me get his boots, T.C.” — a line spoken to him by Strother Martin in THE WILD BUNCH. Jones immediately took a step back and hurried quickly into the safety of the SAG office . . . a totally appropriate reaction to a maniac accosting you on the street. On another occasion I met Ben Johnson. When I mentioned THE WILD BUNCH to him, Johnson said, “ I even scared myself in that one.”
Now that Super Hero comics and Video Games have become the source for the most popular movies, Computer Graphics has become more important than Character Acting. How long can this trend continue? I enjoy some of them, but even ones I like (WONDER WOMAN, AQUAMAN, BLACK PANTHER) are basically about the preservation of monarchy through mortal combat. No need for an unruly caucus or a boring election — just grab a sword, a shield, a pitchfork or other sharp object and vanquish the hell out of your opponent. Not sure how Bernie or Liz would do against the hulking Trump. Schwarzenegger would soon be King! But I digress.
Hooray for Joel and Ethan Coen for putting character back into acting! From BLOOD SIMPLE to FARGO to THE BIG LEBOWSKI to NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN to TRUE GRIT (their excellent films are too numerous to mention) the Coens have provided us with colorful, flawed human beings doing colorful, flawed things. Emmet Walsh, Holly Hunter, William Macy, John Turturro, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, Timothy Blake Nelson, Josh Brolin — the list of brilliant character actors in brilliant parts goes on and on. And it is headed by the Coens’ foremost muse: Frances McDormand. They even turned George Clooney and Brad Pitt into character actors.
Quentin Tarantino also saw the value of Pitt as a supporting character in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. His decision was rewarded by the Academy. If you want to see an interesting character, watch a Tarantino film.
Beginning with his brilliant use of Joe Roth, Harvey Keitel, Lawrence Tierney, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi and Chris Penn in RESERVOIR DOGS, Tarantino showed us that the world is made up of more than super heroes and super villains. And I must admit that I have recorded the Uma Thurman/John Travolta dance scene from PULP FICTION and play it when I’m feeling blue.
Before ending this way too long breathless babble, I want to include the late Austin filmmaker Eagle Pennell. His films A HELL OF A NOTE, THE WHOLE SHOOTIN’ MATCH and LAST NIGHT AT THE ALAMO are little gems. And through the efforts of the Austin Chronicle’s Louis Black, those films have been restored. They present us with a rarely seen view of working class Texans superbly acted by Sonny Carl Davis, Lou Perryman and Doris Hargrove, who provide characters that’ll jump off the screen and bum a ride home with you. Their work is equal to Hollywood’s finest.
Sonny Carl brought his talents to another film shot in Austin, one that I also worked on. It was called ROADIE. Sonny and I were pretty full of ourselves in those days. We thought we were the funniest cats on the street. But on the set of ROADIE we met a character actor named Gailard Sartain, who actually was the funniest guy on the street. Although a legendary character actor who worked on that film, Art Carney, might have been funnier.
That’s the way hyperbole works. It may sound grand, but it ain’t absolute. Anyway, I fulfilled a dream by hanging out with some characters who were amazing, whether the camera was rolling or not. Good times on that set back when Hollywood came to Austin.
James BigBoy Medlin © 2020
James BigBoy Medlin was the sports writer for the original Austin Sun. His column was called "Why Not?"
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