As news of the death of Dick Miller was breaking yesterday, screenwriter Larry Karaszewski tweeted, “Right now, God is in heaven saying, ‘Hey—it’s that guy! You know—what’s his name?’” It’s a variation of a joke that follows scores of character actors throughout their careers, but in the case of Miller, who turned ninety this past Christmas Day, it was such a ubiquitous utterance any time he appeared on screen that when Elijah Drenner made a documentary about him in 2014, he practically had no choice but to call it That Guy Dick Miller.
Miller had a dozen or so film and television credits to his name—and he’d eventually rack up nearly 200—when Roger Corman cast him in the lead role of his 1959 horror comedy A Bucket of Blood. Miller’s Walter Paisely, a character Miller would periodically revive as a sort of inside joke, starts out as a busboy, not terribly sharp, who stumbles into success as a sculpture when his plaster-covered corpses become a cause célèbre in the art world. Reviewing the film for Not Coming to a Theater Near You in 2013, Jonathan Foltz called it “a gruesome satire of beatnik hipsterism that scorns the romance of being an ‘Artist’ simply by showing the absurdity, and the menace, of taking art seriously to begin with.”
Miller worked with Corman in over forty films and worked alongside Jack Nicholson in The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and The Terror (1963), a film that, for RogerEbert.com’s Odie Henderson, “has one of my favorite Miller moments, where he recounts for Nicholson the entire plot of the movie so that the audience can catch up with its extremely confusing, barely coherent narrative.” Miller “was able to take what was written and reach the deepest depths of the character while still injecting humor into each role,” Corman tweeted last night. “I will remember the brilliance of his acting talent, but more importantly his humanity and kindness as a friend.”
Another of Miller’s close friends was Joe Dante, who cast him in nearly every one of his projects and gave him some of his strongest supporting roles in such films as The Howling (1981), Gremlins (1984), and Innerspace (1987). “I always looked for a role for Dick,” Dante tweeted yesterday, “not just because he was my friend but because I loved watching him act!” So did Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Robert Aldrich, James Cameron, Ernest Dickerson, Jonathan Demme, and John Sayles, all of whom turned to Miller when they needed an immediately relatable face that’d leave an impression. “Miller’s appeal isn’t mysterious,” wrote Chuck Bowen at Slant in 2015. “In a manner reminiscent of many of John Ford or Howard Hawks’s stock players, he’s a beautifully rumpled everyman who suggests an audience member who’s somehow wandered into the movies, interacting with icons or informing his films’ often ridiculous situations with a notion of how someone from the ‘real world’ might react to them.”
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