RIP Dick Miller
I am not the type, generally, to go comic book or science fiction conventions to get autographs or my picture taken with famous people. Heaven knows I am a GIANT fucking nerd. I watch movies based on comic books, for the love of God. But I’m not that particular kind of fanboy. I mean, yes, I will pay fifty bucks to put myself in a position where I can be photographed with the Southwest Strangla himself, Shaggy 2 Dope, and I’ve gone to a few conventions for professional reasons, like one memorable one where I began to moderate a panel with Val Kilmer before he essentially said “Fuck it” after a few questions and then had audience members ask questions to him directly but the convention scene is not my bag.
I was going to make an exception about a year or so back when Dick Miller was going to be in town with a small comic book convention with a documentary about his life. THIS, I vowed, was worth overcoming my indifference towards conventions. Miller was one of my very favorite actors, a quintessential character actor who brightened every movie he appeared in.
I wanted to shake Miller’s hand, get my picture taken with him and tell him how much his work meant to me. I did not end up going to the convention for whatever reason. Maybe I was too depressed. Maybe I just didn’t plan for it. But I disappointed myself by not going because I knew I probably wouldn’t have an opportunity like that again.
Sure enough, Miller just died at 90 and the world is mourning a true original, one of the all-time great characters. He was “That Guy!” to borrow the phrase of a documentary about him, one of those familiar faces, faces with personality, faces with character, that you recognize instantly, whose mere appearance produces Pavlovian shivers of delight because we associate it with so many wonderful moments in so many wonderful films like A Bucket of Blood, which gave Miller a lead role as rare as it was unforgettable and inspired in Walter Paisley, a dimwitted busboy at a beatnik cafe who slaughters his way to success in a literally kill or be killed art world! Miller was equally unforgettable in the original Little Shop of Horrors.
Then came Miller’s decades-long collaboration with Joe Dante, which kicked off on a high note with Miller’s glorious, hilarious turn as a sleazy agent in Hollywood Boulevard and leaped from peak to peak. No filmmaker understood Miller’s genius the way Dante did. Nobody got more out of the actor than Dante. The roles might not have been big but the impact always was. Miller was the king of the one scene wonders.
Joe Dante’s The Burbs, for example, is a goddamn delight and it’s never better than when Miller pops up as a garbage man to grouse, “I hate cul-de-sacs. There's only one way out, and the people are kind of weird.”
Miller’s characters didn’t always have names, let alone arcs or big scenes. Sometimes they just had professions and a couple of lines of dialogue. Thankfully that’s all Miller needed to create something special, something enduring, something that gave joy to b-movie lovers and trash cinema aficionados the world over.
Dick Miller belonged to us. He was a character actor’s character actor, a guy who appeared in lots of movies that everybody loved without ever threatening to become a household name. Miller wasn’t just Joe Dante’s eminently dependable mascot and repertory player and a veteran of many a Roger Corman production; he was something close to the spirit and soul of b-movies.
Miller didn’t have to appear in the flesh to make movies better through his presence. It seems fitting that the final Miller performance I took in during his nearly century-long lifetime was as a low-level mobster who gets snuffed out by a mysterious villain in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
The feature film adaptation of Batman: The Animated Series is revered as arguably the best Batman movie in no small part because it understood the value of a guy like Dick Miller, the way casting him even in a voice role automatically made the character several thousand times more interesting and compelling.
Miller was a seeming anachronism: a humble scene-stealer, a consummate character as well as a character actor who also seemed like a nice, modest, down to earth follow who just so happened to be magic on the big screen.
I’m bummed I did not get to meet Miller even briefly and tell him how much he meant to me. I’ll try to make more of an effort to pay homage to my heroes when I can in the future, because even lives as long and happy and productive and full of joy and creativity as Miller’s end eventually and it’s important to let the people we admire know just how much they mean to us while they’re still around to appreciate our words.
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