Back in 1973, when I started at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, I quickly met a feisty little guy named Dick Miller. We instantly hit it off. As a literary young lady more knowledgeable about art films than genre flicks, I didn’t realize at the time that Dick was a B-movie celebrity of sorts. He had made his first Corman film, Apache Woman, in 1955, playing both an Indian and cowboy, and nearly killing himself off in the last reel. Later he played in something like 45 Corman cheapies, as everything from a heroic astronaut (War of the Satellites) to a jive-talking vacuum cleaner salesman (Not of this Earth) , a carnation-munching gourmand (Little Shop of Horrors), and a would-be bohemian who accidentally becomes a serial killer (Bucket of Blood).
Not knowing these early films, I simply enjoyed Dick’s company. But I also came to admire his versatility in the movies we made at New World. Somehow he was convincing as a rapist gym coach in The Student Teachers, even though his victim was probably six inches taller than the 5’5” Dick. And he was hilarious playing an inept lawman in Big Bad Mama. As Roger Corman’s assistant story editor, I was well aware of the brouhaha that developed when Dick (who’d started out with writing aspirations) was hired to write as well as perform in a blaxploitation martial arts flick, TNT Jackson. Years later, when I was researching Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires,Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, Dick reminisced about that shouting match with Roger, during which his old mentor ripped up Miller’s script submission. In Dick’s words, “I finally said, ‘Shove it!’ [Roger] 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.” Miller’s audacity swiftly won him respect among all the Hollywood underlings who had been dying to tell their producers to go to hell.
Though Dick could be pugnacious, he also won the hearts of many Corman protégés, among them Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and James Cameron. That’s why he’s featured in films like Scorsese’s New York, New York, and Cameron’s The Terminator. (He jokingly takes credit for the success of the latter, saying that “thanks to me Arnold Schwarzenegger became a star, you know that.” ) Joe Dante considers Dick a good luck charm, and he’s therefore appeared in every Dante film, from Piranha to The Howling to Gremlins to Looney Tunes: Back in Action. In Dante’s Matinee, he was paired on-screen with writer/director/Corman alumnus John Sayles, who has explained the Mutt-and-Jeff joke: “I’m 6’4”, and he isn’t.”
This Sayles quip shows up in a charming new documentary that scored a hit at the South by Southwest Film Festival. That Guy Dick Miller was directed by the highly inventive Elijah Drenner, and produced by Dick’s loyal spouse, Lainie (whose own claim to showbiz fame is her appearance as the multi-talented stripper in The Graduate). Through Kickstarter, Dick’s many fans helped with funding. Last Friday’s Hollywood debut of That Guy Dick Miller revealed lots I didn’t know about Dick: his talent for making sketches (particularly of nekkid ladies), the spiffy pink jacket that has seen service in several of his films; the fact that Quentin Tarantino – without explanation -- excised his entire performance from Pulp Fiction; his surprise discovery of the need, while on set in Manila, to “bite the monkey.”
After such a long and strenuous career, is 86-year-old Dick Miller now officially retired? As he said on Friday, “If the phone rings, I’m answering it.”