A lot of words have already been written this week, and hopefully a lot more will be written in the next few weeks, months and years, about the great and beloved character actor Dick Miller, who passed away on January 30th in Burbank, California at age 90. A quick look at his bio page on IMDb will give you the basics about his early life— born in The Bronx, he served in the US Navy and, despite his diminutive stature, even won a prize title as a middleweight boxer. But that’s not why several generations of movie fans know him, love him, or get such a kick out of seeing him pop up, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere, in the over-180 films and TV episodes in which he appeared.
Miller made his way out to Los Angeles from New York in the mid-50s and thus assured said multiple generations of movie fans of many hours of happiness by getting himself noticed by producer-director Roger Corman, who cast him in his first role, the Indian warrior Tall Tree, in Corman’s low-budget western Apache Woman (1955), starring Lloyd Bridges. Miller soon became one of Corman’s favored actors, appearing in some Corman’s most notable early pictures, including It Conquered the World (1956), Not of This Earth (1957), The Undead (1957) and Sorority Girl (1957). After doing some TV work, it was Corman again who really put Miller on the map and cemented his place in movie history by casting him in the satirical horror comedy A Bucket of Blood (1959) as Walter Paisley, a shiftless busboy who finds acclaim in the art world when his dead cat gets dunked in plaster and is subsequently praised as a significant piece of sculpture. The sudden fame goes to Paisley’s head, bringing out his more sociopathic tendencies, and soon more ex-lifelike sculptures of decidedly more human subjects begin appearing as part of Paisley’s increasingly grotesque portfolio. Comedy and horror ensue.
Walter Paisley turned out to be such a memorable character, and so defined the benignly irascible persona that Miller would perfect over the 50+-year movie and TV career to follow, that even the name would be a hard one to shake, if the good-natured actor ever even had a mind to disregard his legacy in such a way. Director Joe Dante cast Miller in every one of his movies, beginning with Hollywood Boulevard, co-directed by Allan Arkush, in 1976, and in that movie he played an energetic, somewhat shady agent by the name of… Walter Paisley. He was Walter Paisley again for Dante in The Howling (perhaps one of Miller’s most memorable roles, as an occult librarian, also reportedly Miller’s favorite) and in the director’s episode from Twilight Zone—The Movie (1983). He also appeared under that name for other Corman vets, like Arkush (Shake, Rattle and Rock!; 1994) and Jim Wynorski (Chopping Mall; 1986), and as recently as 2015 for writer-director Michael Schlesinger in the Biffle & Shooster short Schmo Boat. The way Walter Paisley followed Dick Miller around from picture to picture, for several different directors over several decades, has to be one of the most unique tributes to any actor in the history of movies.
Corman apparently offered Miller the lead in his follow-up to Bucket of Blood, another horror comedy you may have heard of called The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), but Miller demurred, believing the role of the nebbishy young man who nurtures a bloodthirsty plant by feeding it human meals was too close to that of Paisley. Miller settled instead for his customary supporting role in that picture, and in the doing, as the writer and critic Phillip Dyess-Nugent recently observed, forever denied us the spectacle of seeing the pointy-featured soon-to-be legend squatting on a dentist’s chair, yanking teeth out of the maw of yet another soon-to-be legend, a hysterically, erotically excited pain freak played by Jack Nicholson.
Dante cast Miller in every picture he made, yes, but not always as Walter Paisley, of course—he was Murray Futterman, the apoplectic Kingston Falls citizen haunted by holiday hellions in Gremlins, and then on vacation in New York with Mrs. Futterman in the brilliant hellzapoppin’ sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch. His scene in the first film, when he drunkenly emerges from the bar followed by a concerned Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates, hops in his snowblower and warns about how “they” put gremlins in our cars, our radios, our TVs, may not have the subversive notoriety of Cates’ Santa monologue in that picture, but it’s a quiet, understated, memorable and very funny moment, nonetheless. One can imagine it being used if Miller had ever gotten the Oscar that some of us believe he deserved.
But whether he was Walter or Murray or someone else, Miller was always building on that persona, and in Dante’s terrific, criminally undervalued 1985 picture Explorers, in which the director and screenwriter Eric Luke undercut their own Spielbergian framework more subtly than in the dismantling, crash-bang cacophony of Gremlins, Miller got his chance to deepen that persona and tug a few heartstrings in the process. In Explorers, three young boys (Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix and Jason Presson) begin receiving mysterious encoded messages in their dreams which they soon realize are beings bent by alien beings who are providing them instructions for creating a method of space travel to be used for their very own interstellar close encounter. They finally get airborne, using a rusted Tilt-a-Whirl car as their ship (which floats inside an electromagnetic bubble that enables the actual flying), and buzz the town drive-in movie theater in an evocative, ecstatic and hilarious sequence which introduces Miller as Officer Charlie Drake, who, along with Meshach Taylor, gets on their tail in a sheriff’s department helicopter.
The two adults don’t know what to make of this weird ship, which zigs and zags across the gorgeous night sky with no adherence to conventional physics, but they get close enough for Drake to realize, with a mixture of panic and awe, that there’s someone or something inside after glimpsing Phoenix in one of the gas masks the kids are using to provide oxygen during their flight. It’s also an occasion for a great Dick Miller comic moment, the sort he did so well, when, after excitedly explaining to Taylor what he thinks he saw, he stops suddenly, gives a perturbed glance back in the direction of where the Tilt-a-Whirl has just disappeared, and says without looking back at his partner, “I swallowed my gum.”
The encounter sparks Drake to his own investigation of what exactly is going on, and as he inches closer to the truth about what the boys have constructed, and what they intend to do with it, Drake seems at first to emerge as yet another version of the pursuing adult who can’t or shouldn’t be trusted, someone for whom the only reasonable reaction, if you’re covertly building a spaceship in a creek bed out behind your backyard, is quick flight in the other direction. But instead, something has been stirred inside of Drake, and when he confesses to Taylor that he’s lately been dreaming about the ship, he also admits that the dreams remind him of ones he used to have as a kid. In one wonderful scene, Miller takes Drake from potentially unsympathetic cop giving chase to somewhere in the vicinity of Spielberg’s haunted Roy Neary from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, creating the bond of a kindred spirit who would probably like nothing more than to ride along with the kids on whatever adventure they undertake. The subtle shifts in the way Miller plays the moment, with a degree of erosion of the tough exterior he’s probably had to cultivate as an officer of the law, sensitize the viewer in an unexpected way, calling hairs on the back of the neck to attention.
When Drake discovers the hidden Tilt-a-Whirl in the creek bed and deduces what might be going on, he confronts Hawke’s character, Ben, who is understandably freaked out and not even slightly tuned in to the register of panic and desperation beneath Drake’s authoritarian demand for an explanation. Ben runs away, toward his rendezvous with the other two boys, who are at the ship preparing for the ultimate takeoff, but Drake sticks close to him, close enough to be there to see the Tilt-a-Whirl launch from amidst the underbrush and toward… who knows what. Dante completely hands the frame over to Miller here, and as he gazes up to the sky, first with frustration at having missed them, and then with admiration for what they’ve managed to do and wonder at what they’ll see, Drake says to himself, to Ben, “Nice goin’, kid.” It’s a beautiful moment and, watching it this week, knowing that Miller is gone, one for which tears are finally the only and best response.
Yes, there will be many words written about Dick Miller, and there should be, and most of them will be far more eloquent than mine. (For words and pictures about the great man, you could hardly do any better than Elijah Drenner’s nifty and heartfelt documentary, That Guy Dick Miller, which will, in these days after his death, likely both cheer and sadden those of us who loved his work in equal measure. It’s available right now on Amazon Prime.) I’ve only seen what amounts to a handful of Miller’s appearances in movies—sometimes it feels like he’s been in more movies, numbers wise, than I’ve sat through in my 58 years. Yet it’s impossible to diminish the impact he’s had on me in terms of appreciating the consistent delight he always seemed to supply, stealing scenes left and right in almost every picture he ever appeared in, but also in the way he himself seemed to delight in owning his little corner of character actor posterity. The Bronx native was not a particularly versatile actor, nor was he, beyond Explorers and Bucket of Blood, ever given much of a chance to be. But one of the special pleasures of experiencing a Dick Miller performance is realizing that though he was always good, he didn’t have to be versatile. We loved him anyway, because he was always that guy, Dick Miller.