The character actor who has worked in dozens of films for legendary schlockmeister Roger Corman speaks to Torontoist about his new documentary, and his career as an exploitation cinema all-star.
Twenty-four minutes into Roger Corman’s Not of this Earth (1957), an alien invader staked out in a Los Angeles house answers the door for a vacuum cleaner salesman. “Mornin’,” says the salesman in a thick Bronx accent. “I represent the Airway Vacuum Cleanin’ Company—you da gentleman of da house?” “This is my house,” says the alien. “Crazy,” replies the salesman.
He goes on with his pitch, telling the alien, “Dis, as dey say in da vernacular, is da darling of da vacuum cleaning woild.” When the alien shows some trepidation, the salesman says, “Ya wanna poichase, ya poichase; ya don’t wanna poichase, ya don’t poichase. I ain’t gonna force ya to poichase.” Even Roger Corman has admitted that, in this ostensibly serious alien invasion film, the vacuum salesman is one of the high points.
Such is the magic of Dick Miller, a character actor who, once you’ve seen him, you tend to remember. He made his bones as a lively, distinctive presence in the low-budget drive-in movies of Roger Corman—a scientist in War of the Satellites, a bartender in The Oklahoma Woman, a leper in The Under, a man-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors, and a butler in The Terror (to cite just five)—before becoming a beloved, steadily-employed fixture in films of all sorts. Maybe you’ve seen him sell a gun to Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, or get killed by a robot in Chopping Mall, or advise a wily gremlin, “Don’t mess with Murray Futterman!”
According to IMDB, Miller has appeared in 175 movies and TV shows covering every genre, but only a handful of times as a leading man. He has his biggest showcase yet in That Guy Dick Miller, a documentary opening at the Carlton on Friday that traces his career from no-budget ‘50s exploitation to Reagan-era blockbusters and beyond. At 86, Miller’s New Yawk twang has dried into a throaty rasp, and his angular face—partially hidden behind a salt-and-pepper goatee—seems ready to collapse into itself. But when I meet him via Skype, Dick Miller looks and sounds more like Dick Miller than I ever dreamed possible.
“Are certain roles more difficult to play than others?” I ask.
“I dunno, I think they were all fairly easy to play. If you’re honest, if you’re truthful, the character just kinda unfolds itself.”
“Even the pedophile priest?” asks Lainie, his wife of 50 years (who assures me that she’s seen almost every one of her husband’s credits).
“That was a kind of strange thing. They sent the script and I slowly watched it unfold, and I realized, this man is a pedophile—he brags about it!”
“I don’t think that thing ever opened,” says Lainie. “Did it ever open?”
“Yes it did, yeah…”
Though Miller had relatively few vehicles of his own, one of them gave him immortality: A Bucket of Blood (1959), a five-day wonder that accidentally became one of Roger Corman’s best films. Miller starred as Walter Paisley, the dweeby busboy at a beatnik café who breaks into the art world, thanks to his gruesomely realistic sculptures of dead bodies. You know—sculptures that are a little too close to the real thing.
A Bucket of Blood benefits from the warped humour of screenwriter Charles B. Griffith, and from Corman’s potent evocation of the beatnik milieu, but the soul of the film is Miller, whose seriocomic performance should strike a nerve in anyone who has felt just outside of an in-crowd. Among filmmakers of a certain age, Miller became so closely identified with this role that he played “Walter Paisley” (in name only) in a half dozen movies, including The Howling, Hollywood Boulevard, and Twilight Zone: The Movie.
“Are people surprised to find out that you’re not much like Walter Paisley?” I ask.
“Yeah, sure, ‘cause he’s a moron, and I’m supposed to be so smart.”
“Did you identify with him at all?”
“Only as an actor. I remember when I first got the part, I read through it and said, ‘This guy’s not too bright.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, how are ya gonna play him,’ and I said, ‘Well, we’ll see.’ I just played it straight.”
“I read that you had the nickname ‘One-Take Miller.’ How did you get that name?”
“That’s because of Roger. Roger only ever did one take. The only time we ever went for a second take was when the camera fell over.”
That Guy Dick Miller traces Miller’s career across three distinct eras: the initial burst of activity with Corman; the work Miller found from Corman’s starstruck protegés in the ‘70s (including Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Candy Stripe Nurses, and Cannonball!); and the steady jobs Corman’s disciples and fans gave him once they graduated to the studio system. You can see Miller pop up in films by Martin Scorsese (After Hours), Robert Zemeckis (Used Cars), Steven Spielberg (1941), Joe Dante (all of his films, but especially Gremlins, where he played the xenophobic WWII vet Murray Futterman), and almost Quentin Tarantino (his role in Pulp Fiction ended up on the cutting room floor), as well as TV shows ranging from E.R. to Star Trek, and exploitation fare like Night of the Creeps, Demon Knight, and Evil Toons.
The documentary also chronicles Miller’s stop-and-start career as a writer—his byline turned up on such unlikely projects as TNT Jackson and Jerry Lewis’s Which Way to the Front? (he had to sue Jerry for credit)—and his sometimes-shaky relationship with his father. The film’s spine is Miller’s marriage with Lainie, a sharp-tongued sparring partner who is his rock during long stretches of unemployment.
“I expected to be another talking head filling in the blanks about Dick’s career,” says Lainie Miller. “I never imagined he would turn it into a love story. I’ve had people calling me right and left and saying, ‘This isn’t just a documentary.’”
That Guy Dick Miller includes testimonials from the likes of Corman, Dante, Allan Arkush, Leonard Maltin, and Fred Olen Ray articulating the peculiar magic of a Dick Miller cameo. I ask Miller what he sees as his greatest strength.
“It’s a word that doesn’t mean too much—you gotta figger it out—but it’s honesty. You gotta play the part honestly. You don’t try an’ create another character, but if you play your personality in that character, it should be pretty good.”
“You can always find the part of the character that is you?”
“Oh yeah. Except for the first picture where I played an Indian. Couldn’t get it straight!”
Miller will be in Toronto on Friday and Saturday for Q&A at the Carlton Cinema, and can be glimpsed in Joe Dante’s upcoming Burying the Ex. After an appearance at the Chiller Expo in October, he anticipates that he’ll retire for good.
“What will you do as a retiree?” I ask
“Oh… I’ll probably lay around until the phone rings…”
That Guy Dick Miller with Dick and Lainie Miller Q&A
Carlton Cinema (20 Carlton Street)
March 27 (with screening of A Bucket of Blood), March 28 (with screening of Little Shop of Horrors), 7 p.m.