Thursday, January 31, 2019

Dick Miller 1928-2019

I generally don't write about famous people who have recently died. In fact the only time I've done it in the past was when I found myself surprisingly affected by Leonard Nimoy's passing in 2014. No matter how rich and famous they are, one thing we will always have in common with celebrities is that they are human--and therefore mortal. Just like us they grow old and will eventually die. The older I get the more I hear the news of famous people I've admired over the years passing away.  Sometimes this news is more surprising and hits harder than other times. This morning I heard the news that Dick Miller died on January 30 at the age of 90. Dick Miller certainly wasn't as big of a name as Leonard Nimoy or David Bowie (two of the celebrity deaths of the past few years that have impacted me the most), but the news hit me hard nonetheless. Despite the fact that there is plenty of media coverage of most celebrity deaths I still feel it's worth writing about Dick Miller. As a result of the kind of career he had there isn't as much out there about his passing as there would be with a bigger name star. You kind of have to look for it. The only reason I even heard the news myself is because I saw a post that a friend wrote on Facebook about the death of someone else. In the comments somebody mentioned the fact that Dick Miller had also passed away. I was surprised to hear the news and went straight to Google to find out more. As an indication of how heavily the news of his death was (or more accurately WASN'T) reported, I didn't see any mention of it on Yahoo!'s home page when I signed out of my email a little earlier in the morning. Here's the top 10 list of "Trending Now" items from that page. Note that among the usual collection of celebrity names the number 10 item is the search term "Cleaning Bathroom Tile". At that moment more people were searching about how to clean bathroom tile than were interested in Dick Miller's passing. Welcome to the world of being a character actor.

Dick Miller probably wasn't what most people would consider to be a household name in the world of entertainment. To me that's all the more reason for me to be writing about his passing. He had a very long and very successful career as a character actor and, even if you don't recognize his name (or even his face), you have probably seen his work in a number of movies and TV shows. I don't know when I first saw Mr. Miller, but it was most likely when I was a kid watching monster movies on the WLVI Channel 56 (Boston) show Creature Double Feature on Saturday afternoons in the 1970s and 80s. While he was never a big name or a big star I definitely would recognize him when he'd pop up on the screen by the time I was a teenager. I probably didn't know exactly WHO he was yet, but I did know him. At some point (even though this was in the days before the Internet and IMDb) I did learn who he was and I became a fan for life.

The first time I saw Dick Miller may very well have been on TV in Roger Corman's "It Conquered the World" (1956)
Character actors are pretty much by definition NOT going to be big stars. You can't really be a versatile character actor if you're particularly well-known for your work. Because of this many of the best character actors generally don't become well-known, but they can become very popular among people who love movies and appreciate the work they do in so many different roles. This is especially true when a character actor does the majority of his/her work in a specific genre (comedy, film noir., sports movies...). Fans of that genre will embrace someone who appears in many of their favorite movies and TV shows. Dick Miller appeared in many different kinds of films, but was mainly associated with the horror/sci-fi genre. And that's probably why I have/had such an appreciation for his work. The roles he played were small, but they always seemed to be very memorable. And he appeared in a lot of my favorites over the years.

Mr. Miller also had the good fortune to be associated with a number of great directors who would use him frequently in their films. At the beginning of his career he was lucky enough to be a part of Roger Corman's stable of actors that he would use in all of his quickly-made, low-budget "B" movies in the mid- to late-1950s. For someone so well known for NOT being a star it's interesting to note that early in his career Dick Miller WAS the star of Corman's cult classic "A Bucket of Blood" (1959). His work in that film, and his association with Roger Corman had a lot to do with him becoming a regular in the films of fellow Corman "graduate" Joe Dante (who made a point of casting him in all of his movies). He also appeared in films by James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and many others. I think it's a testament to Dick Miller's greatness that a lot of people (famous and otherwise) have taken to Twitter to note his passing. Here's just a few:

There's enough love out there for Dick Miller that I don't feel I really need to add any more. He appeared in so many roles over the years that it's not worth chronicling his entire career (a look at his IMDb page will fill in all those details). So I think I'll finish this piece by just listing just a few of my favorite Dick Miller roles--the ones that really mean the most to me personally. Like any good character actor, in most of these roles Dick Miller only appeared in one (or maybe two) scenes. But some combination of his presence and the fact that these films are among my favorites causes me to associate him with them nearly as much as the stars and directors do.

Gremlins (1984). While I'm listing this as one of my favorites, it's probably my "least favorite" of those favorites. But nevertheless the part of Murray Futterman in Joe Dante's "Gremlins" (and 1990's Gremlins 2: The New Batch) remains one of his most well-known roles.

After Hours (1985). "After Hours" is one of Martin Scorsese's lesser-known films, but ever since I first saw it on cable in late 1985 or early 1986 it has remained one of my favorites of his works (probably second only to "Taxi Driver" truth be told). It's very funny, quirky and rather dark, and Dick Miller fits perfectly into the late-night world of the film. While his role is simply listed as "Waiter" I've always thought of him as the owner of the diner rather than simply a waiter. Small quibble sure, but a good example of how "unimportant" a character actor can seem that they don't even need to have an actual name assigned to them, and the role can be called simply "Waiter".

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). I'll admit that this was an even smaller role than usual for Dick Miller, but "Twilight Zone: The Movie" was a very important film from my early teen years, so his small role as Walter Paisley in the "It's a Good Life" segment ranks right up there. Walter Paisley was the name of the character Miller played when he starred in "A Bucket of Blood" and was a recurring name that he's been given in many roles for the rest of his career. It's an acknowledgement of what he meant to so many filmmakers that they'd give a subtle nod to him that most people wouldn't even notice in the days before IMDb (myself included). In this case this Walter Paisley is a textbook Dick Miller role. This character could have very easily been the same one who was found in the diner in "After Hours" above, or in any of the other roles I'm listing here.

 The Terminator (1984). Simply having a small role in such a great movie and being associated with it has to be a good thing. But Dick Miller really steals his scene with Arnold Schwarzenegger in James Cameron's classic film when he can't offer the Terminator a "phased plasma rifle in the 40 watt range". He responds with "Hey, just what you see, Pal." Again, it's another oddly named character. He actually has no name, but is simply listed as "Pawn Shop Clerk". While again I see him more as the owner of the store rather than simply a clerk (like the issue with the "Waiter" role in "After Hours"), the biggest problem I have with it is that it's clearly a gun store rather than a pawn shop. Maybe it was a pawn shop in the original screenplay or something like that? Whatever, it's another small quibble with a great role--and a great death scene too when Arnold loads up the shotgun and quips "Wrong." after Dick Miller tells him "You can't do that."

The 'Burbs (1989). These films have been listed more or less in order of my favorites (least to most). And "The 'Burbs" does indeed rank pretty high among my all-time favorite films. There are too many "favorite" moments to mention (though I have written about the film before back in 2010, if you'd care to read more about it). But the scene where Dick Miller and Robert Picardo show up is quite hilarious. They are simply billed as being "Garbagemen", though Dick is referred to as Vic by Picardo a couple times in the scene. Most of the film centers around a small group of core characters, so Miller and Picardo are very much outsiders. Dick Miller's best line comes when the tensions rise and Bruce Dern tells him "Who's picks up this mess? Why, you're going to pick up the mess because YOU are a garbageman." He responds with "I pick up garbage in cans, not from the street!" It's a great scene in a great (IMO) film!

Of course my list here is just the tip of the iceberg of a long and fruitful career. I could go on writing about his small roles in movies and on television for hours. But the point is that he was a great character actor who did a lot of great work and will be missed. Here's a trailer for the documentary about Dick Miller from 2014, "That Guy Dick Miller" (which I still haven't seen myself):

And here's one more tweet that I think is the best way to finish up this little tribute to Dick Miller. While he only had a small role in Scorsese's "After Hours", co-star Rosanna Arquette remembered him with this touching tweet referencing a specific scene:

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