McMillan was one of those guys who casting agents loved, someone who looked, walked and talked like an average Joe, a regular working man type that audience members could identify with in one way or another. He could be a cop or a mobster, someone’s dad or your asshole boss, though never the romantic lead. But he had a power about him, an ability to give any role he played a sense of authenticity about them; in Milos Forman’s RAGTIME (a beautiful film) he was the racist Willie Conklin, whose actions against Howard Rollins, Jr. set the second half of the story in motion, and he was a right rat bastard. He shares a memorable scene with James Cagney who insults him right to his face (as only Cagney can) and McMillan goes straight into a fit, lunging at Cagney with such force that you’re momentarily afraid that he may actually do something. It was around the release of RAGTIME that I started seeing McMillan in several films, from that to Allan Arkush’s HEARTBEEPS, John Badham’s WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY?, Peter Yates’ EYEWITNESS and I became aware of what a “character actor” was. He wasn’t the leading man, he wasn’t just a supporting player, but he was the glue of a movie, the kind of actor who would play a pivitol role in making the movie and his fellow castmate all the better. In short, a Kenneth McMillan type.
If you were to site some of the best McMillan performances, his work as the safe cracker Barney (OK, I had to go to the IMBD to look up the character’s name) in THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE instantly comes to mind (providing you’ve seen the film) and it’s a marvelous piece of work. But for many it will no doubt be his work as Baron Vladimir Harkonen in David Lynch’s DUNE and I think they’re right. DUNE has long had a reputation as a notorious flop, but the tide has been turning over the last few years and I’m happy to see that happen because I’ve long been a fan of it, with McMillan being a big reason why. The Baron (or “That floating fat man”, as Jose Ferrer’s Emperor calls him) is this spectacularly over-the-top villain in the grandest sense and it would have been so easy for McMillan, or any actor, to go so overboard that they would do nothing but eat scenery; however, McMillan walks the line so perfectly that I consider it to be a classic performance and a textbook example for all actors of how to give a proper exaggerated performance. To be honest, the film lights up whenever he appears, because McMillan is one of the few “fun” elements of this fairly serious film and he delivers one wonderful scene after another: admiring his nephew Feyd a little too much (“Oh, Feyd. Lovely Feyd.”); wanting to spit on the face of Francisca Annis (“Just one tiny piece of spittle on your face”); his exuberance over defeating his enemy, Duke Leto; just about every scene with McMillan is marvelous. He also fit into the David Lynch style of acting very well and it’s a shame they never worked together again, as he could have more than been amazing asset for this great filmmaker, but oh well, we do have DUNE to look back on. This role couldn’t have been more different than THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE, but if you look at the two (which were both released in 1984), you’ll see an actor who knew how to build a character, no matter what character it was. Amazing stuff.
Though Kenneth McMillan is sadly no longer with us, it turns out his daughter, Alison McMillan, has followed her father into the acting profession. I can't say I've seen her work, but she's obviously got good genes, so I'm sure we'll be hearing from her soon enough. Good luck to her.