Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Character Analysis

One possible topic that Marty and I had discussed as a potential episode of the podcast was a tribute to veteran character actor R.G. Armstrong. As this episode did not, or at least has yet, come to fruition I felt compelled to give the man an honorable mention of sorts here on the blog page. The more I thought about what accolades to bestow upon R.G. the more I thought about how much I and probably most fans of genre films appreciate character actors on the whole. You know the actors I’m talking about, the ones who won’t ever be leading men (or women for that matter) but who always seem to be able to rise above the material they are given to work with. So bearing that in mind I will endeavor to bestow the aforementioned accolades on the the entire class of actors who never seem to be the ones who get the girl or get that final kill shot at the villain, but who invariably lend a level of authenticity to even some of the most low budget productions by bringing that earthy naturalistic style of acting to the party. Without question the list of actors who fall into this category is a long one and I could never, in the space available here, be able to give the much deserved kudos to every one of them, so I will try to narrow my focus by concentrating on a few of the actors who have always impressed themselves upon me through the years.

I am sure that Warren Oates would probably be considered a character actor by Hollywood standards, but he is an example of exactly what this post is meant to reflect. If you go back and watch some of the films that Oates was the lead in, the performances he gives are as complex and multi-layered as anything that Jack Nicholson or Robert DeNiro have done. In frequent collaborations with Sam Peckinpah he always invested his roles with the tough macho core that was the staple of Peckinpah's thematic universe, yet he also was able to allow the character he was playing to have a certain humanity, frailty even. For me the definitive Warren Oates performance is in "Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia" although his portrayal of G.T.O. in "Two Lane Blacktop" is pretty damned impressive too.

While we are on the subject of "Two Lane Blacktop" I would be remiss not mention Harry Dean Stanton, in which he plays the hitch hiker that apparently follows the book that George Carlin refers to in "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back". I can so clearly remember the first movie that I took real notice of this fine actor in, it was one of my all time favorites to this day "Escape From New York". Stanton plays Brain a.k.a. Harold Hellman, an ex-associate of Snake Plisken's who had bailed on Snake and Fresno Bob in the middle of a robbery to save his own skin. This is an example of how an actor can take what would have been a throw away part in other less capable hands and craft it into a character that you remember long after the movie is over.

In the realm of actors who have labored in the low budget trenches even further from mainstream success, a couple of names come immediately to mind. Sid Haig and Dick Miller both appeared in indie films from the likes of Roger Corman and Jack Hill and in episodic television appearances throughout the sixties and seventies. Although neither of them are really household names (well maybe in Marty's or my house they are) they have both turned in so many memorable performances through the years that they surely deserve more praise than either of them has ever received. Haig's turn as Ralph in Jack Hill's manic bizarre "Spider Baby" is hugely entertaining. I have very fond memories of "Galaxy of Terror" which also had Sid Haig although Marty has assured me that memory does not serve me correctly on that one. Dick Miller is such a staple player in the genre that Joe Dante, director of "The Howling" and "Gremlins", has said that when he receives a new script, the first thing he does is read through and figure out which role Miller will play. Starting in the mid to late fifties Miller fell in with fledgling director Roger Corman and it was indeed a fruitful collaboration. The pair worked on many films together including future classics "Little Shop of Horrors" and "Bucket of Blood" the film in which Miller acquired the character name that he would portray in at least four more films over the following years, Walter Paisley.

R.G. Armstrong started acting when he was attending the University of North Carolina, performing with the Carolina Playmakers. After graduation he moved to New York to pursue his career and was met with great success. His ability to use his physically imposing stature to convey a kind of quiet stoic strength, or alternately a menacing threatening presence quickly garnered him a string of roles in both film and television westerns. He, like Warren Oates, became a part of a group of actors that Sam Peckinpah respected and would use in many of his films. Armstrong's appearances in genre movies are almost too numerous to list. He played Sarge in 1981's "Evilspeak", a grossly underrated little movie I think. He was Doc Schoonmaker in "The Beast Within" which I revisited recently and feel that it totally held up after all these long years since seeing it in it's initial release. It has a wonderful sense of place, that small oppressive southern town environment, which lends the proceedings a real feeling of tension. As a side note, "The Beast Within" is filled with many other great character actors who absolutely belong on the long list mentioned previously.

As the list is so long, I am going to end here for now. If any of you who may read this have a favorite actor who you feel doesn't get the notoriety he or she deserves, shoot us an e-mail. Maybe we can compile a list of the 10 greatest character actors in cinema history. We would love to hear who your nominees would be.

-Mike

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