Friday, February 1, 2019

Dick Miller: A Little Man Who Made it Big

Yesterday I woke up to the sad news that Dick Miller had left this world. Dick—pugnacious but lovable—had reached the ripe old age of 90, but was appearing in B-movies right up to the end. Dick, of course, got his start with Roger Corman, back in the heyday of American International Pictures. His first Corman film was Apache Woman, in which the budget was so low that he was hired to play both a cowboy and an Indian. (As a member of the posse tracking the Indian, he almost killed himself off in the final reel.)  Later he played a jive-spouting vacuum cleaner salesman in Not of This Earth (1957) and a good-guy astronaut in War of the Satellites (1958) before taking on the leading role of would-be artist Walter Paisley in Corman’s ghoulishly hilarious A Bucket of Blood.

I knew none of this when I went to work at Corman’s New World Pictures in 1973. I only knew that this very short, very feisty fellow emblazoned with sailor tattoos was often seen wandering through our office suite, kibitzing with everyone who came his way. He and I hit it off immediately, and he gave me a signed  headshot I tacked up on my office wall. Referring to the location week we’d  both spent in a small California town shooting Big Bad Mama (he played a comically inept lawman), he joked about nibbling on my ear and asking me the all-important question, “What’s for lunch?”

Though Roger had started Dick on his acting career, they didn’t always get along. When Roger decided to make Kurosawa’s classic Yojimbo into a kung fu movie called TNT Jackson, he hired Dick to play a friendly bartender and also to write the screenplay. Accounts differ as to what happened next. Dick felt that one too many free rewrites had been demanded of him; the office scuttlebutt was that Dick incurred disfavor by padding his own role. In any case, there was a shouting match, during which Corman ripped up Dick’s submission. Dick has described for me what happened next: “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.” Miller’s audacity swiftly won him respect among Hollywood underlings who had been dying to tell their producers to go to hell. But it came at a price: for years afterwards, the two men barely spoke.

Over the decades, Corman alumni have delighted in casting Dick in colorful character parts. For Martin Scorsese, he played a nightclub owner in New York, New York. For James Cameron, he was a pawnshop clerk in The Terminator. When, with Piranha,  Roger turned trailer-cutter Joe Dante into a director, Joe gave Dick the plum role of a crass resort owner whose lake just happens to be stocked with man-eating fish. Dick quickly became Joe’s good-luck charm, appearing in virtually every Dante film, most memorably as the hapless Murray Futterman in Gremlins.

When I started working on the biography that became Roger Corman:Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, Dick was one of the very first people I chose to interview. I knew he’d be both funny and honest—and he was. I last saw him in 2014, at the Hollywood premiere of an affectionate documentary called That Guy Dick Miller. One of its producers was Lainie Miller, Dick’s wife of nearly fifty years. Lainie too is quite a talent: you can see a great deal of her as the well-endowed stripper in The Graduate.

Farewell, Dick, wherever you are!

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