I was introduced to the A to Z Challenge by the invaluable Craig Edwards, who blogs about his movie faves at Let’s Get Out of Here. Craig posted his appreciation of character actor Dick Miller on D-Day, April 4. But as Dick’s former colleague at New World Pictures, I decided I too was entitled to salute this tough little guy with a heart of gold. So here goes.
Many love Dick (and so do I) for his wacky roles in early Roger Corman films, like the grisly but comic A Bucket of Blood. According to Dick, his poignant performance as would-be artist Walter Paisley led Roger to call him the best actor in Hollywood. But, Dick continued, “He probably took it back afterwards!” Dick has insisted to me that five years after he started making Corman quickies, there appeared in France a book titled Corman avec Miller, praising their artistic collaboration. Roger was not amused: “It burned his ass. Because he resented that the French -- I was like Jerry Lewis over there; I could do no wrong. . . . He didn’t like the idea of sharing that kind of credit.”
Dick is both pugnacious and highly versatile. And, at 5’5”, undeniably short. When I was at New World Pictures, he played a bumbling lawman in Big Bad Mama and a gangster in Capone. I confess I was amused by his role as a most unlikely gym teacher-turned-rapist in The Student Teachers. Though Dick’s performance was as convincing as always, his victims -- like statuesque Brooke Mills -- tended to tower over him. Reflecting back on that shoot, Dick told me, “I was so naive that any time they yelled cut, I would cover her [up]. I’d say, ‘Are you all right?’ She’d say, ‘Yeah, will you stop that?’ I was more protective than naive, I guess.” He also found himself required to assault director Jonathan Kaplan’s sister Nora in a locker room shower scene: “Same movie. Nobody said we were really going to do this in the shower. And we started slipping. We were both badly bruised. Bloody knees and elbows and everything. I was wearing sneakers or something, Barefoot, she was just sliding. We were slamming into the wall. It was a brutal scene. They’re yelling, ‘Rape her! Rape her!’ This was ridiculous, but we went at it.”
Dick stopped being Roger’s go-to guy after a spat that severed ties between them for many years. It occurred during my New World tenure, over a script Dick had written for a blaxploitation flick called TNT Jackson. Here’s Dick’s account: after a shouting match during which Roger ripped up Dick’s submission, “I finally said, ‘Shove it!’ He got up -- without his shoes -- and kicked a lamp, and broke it. I heard years later that his biggest bitch was that he had broken the lamp.” Dick’s audacity quickly won him respect among all the Hollywood underlings who had been dying for years to tell their producers to go to hell.
No question, Dick was fun to have around the office. After we returned from a location shoot in then-rural Temecula, California, I requested a signed headshot for my office wall. It’s tucked away among my souvenirs, but I still remember the gist of his inscription, telling me how much he would miss our special time together, out in the boondocks, where I’d nibble on his ear and say those three magic words, “What’s for lunch?”