Talent - you've either got it or you don't and Darwin Joston had it. Not that many noticed.
Joston was an actor who started in the late 60s with roles on numerous TV shows like RAT PATROL and bounced around the industry like a lot of other actors, sometimes popping up in small roles in low budget movies but mostly sticking to the TV scene until he retired from acting to work behind the scenes (in film transportation) until his death from leukemia in 1998. Joston probably would have gone on to be another one of many forgotten actors if fate hadn't placed him into the starring role in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, the first real feature from writer/director John Carpenter (DARK STAR was a student film stretched to feature length). Joston happened to have been Carpenter's neighbor in the same apartment complex, where the two became friends, and Carpenter wrote the role of Napoleon Wilson specifically for Joston, who Carpenter claims had inspired the character. You hear a lot of times about certain roles being written for certain actors, but that doesn't mean they're always perfect fits; however, Napoleon Wilson turned out to be the role that Joston was born to play, and even though the film lead to big things for Carpenter, whose next film ended up being HALLOWEEN, Joston went back to being another actor waiting for his big break. Although Carpenter gave Joston a small role in THE FOG and planned to cast him as John Rainbird in his proposed film version of Stephen King's FIRESTARTER (which obviously never happened), Joston never had a role that good again. But god damn if he didn't make something out of it when he did.
While the actual star of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 is Austin Stoker (who is also very good), Joston gets the best role, a villain with a set of principals who may not be the nicest guy in the world but is certainly the person you want on your side when your police station is under siege by street gangs (which happens to me more often than not). The entire film is Carpenter's homage to Howard Hawkes' RIO BRAVO, with Joston sort of in the Dean Martin role (he sure ain't Ricky Nelson), but the whole film is also Carpenter's tribute to the entire western genre and the Children of George and Steven should take ample note of it because this is what a fucking genre homage is supposed to be like. Carpenter is a big time Hawkes devotee (and why shouldn't he be?) but ASSAULT is unquestionably a John Carpenter film: the memorable score, the widescreen lensing, the sparse, economical scripting (a real benefit here), some great tongue-in-cheek humor, and the fine acting of the leads (Joston, Stoker and Laurie Zimmer) make this the first of several Carpenter classics. I saw the film again the other night at BAM as part of a J. Hoberman retrospective and found the sizeable audience (tempted by free beer) as into it as I was (unlike the disrespectful crowd at the DAWN OF THE DEAD screening last August) and all of them suitably impressed by Joston. This is one of those performances that, no matter how many times I see it, I cannot get over how cool this guy is. Carpenter has written some great tough guy dialog that could have sounded phony from those without any natural cool, but for Joston it's natural and wonderful. He's also a great badass, so therefore a convincing criminal, too; violent only when he feels its necessary (Joston would have made a great Parker), he's also pretty smart (though not smart enough to not get caught) and a man of surprising character, someone who probably would have been more at home in the old west than in 1976 L.A., which I guess was Carpenter's point. Joston's rapport with Stoker and Zimmer (and, let it be said, the great Tony Burton) is another great part of ASSAULT; it's not just that these characters go through this siege together, but that they all happen to be three people of equal character thrown together at just the right time. Joston and Zimmer have a wonderful moment that involves the lighting of a cigarette that is one of my favorite moments in any movie. It's Carpenter aping Hawkes' romantic comedy work, but god damn if it isn't wonderful.
With Tuesday night's screening it seems like many new Darwin Joston fans were born, but they're going to be awfully disappointed that this is all they're going to have to go on. It wouldn't be the first time that cults are born after actors who had only one significant role, but I always tend to get a little bit sad when thinking about Darwin Joston and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. The guy was obviously good, so why didn't he get more opportunities like this? ASSAULT wasn't a hit at the box office (though it did well in Europe), not gaining much recognition until after the success of HALLOWEEN, but even after it became a cult hit Joston was never able to take advantage of it. Did he ever get offers, though? Did Tarantino or someone like that seek him out at some point before he passed away? If Joston were alive today he'd probably be doing autograph shows and possibly bits in low budget movies, but the guy certainly had it in him to be another Harvey Keitel or Tommy Lee Jones. This kind of part is not easy by any means; it requires the actor to have that coolness in them and since Carpenter was inspired by Joston in writing the role, there's no doubt that he certainly did. Roles as good as this one don't come around too often, either, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised but I still can't help but feel that something good was wasted that shouldn't have been. I suppose like Napoleon Wilson himself Darwin Joston got a bum rap in life and as he's been gone for about ten years now there isn't much else that can be done. Wilson's a classic tragic hero in a way - his skills were never utilized properly and not enough people saw him for what he was - so for Joston to never get anything this good again is an excellent example of art imitating life. But for what it is, a definitive performance in an terrific movie, it's a hell of a thing. A hell of a thing.