Happy birthday, Dick!
Why Dick Miller is my favorite actor I don’t think I’ll ever know. There are plenty of other actors I love and admire – Burt Lancaster, Harrison Ford, Sam Neill, John Payne – but Dick Miller trumps them all. I see Dick Miller in a movie, usually not for very long, and I’m momentarily very happy, no matter how awful the movie can be, because there’s my guy, my favorite actor. I suppose you can look upon Dick as a guy who comes in, does his thing and does it well, and then gets out, like a true character actor, but there has always been something about Dick to me that has made him more than a mere actor. Dick Miller has a natural quality to him, the appearance that he’s not actually acting but that he’s that guy, a real guy who happens to be in this movie. I’m not talking method acting here, but I’m when I’m watching THE TERMINATOR and I see Dick playing the gun shop owner who tells Schwarzenegger that any one of his machine guns are “ideal for home defense”, I don’t see the actor, I see the gun shop owner, and not just any gun shop owner, but the guy who owns my local gun shop, a next door neighbor or friend of my dad’s who I’ve known in one way or another all of my life. I see Dick Miller on screen and suddenly I get very comfortable. In a rather odd way, I see an old friend up there.
It’s not quite like Dick Miller is an actor who dominates a film with an astounding presence, because he has the look and feel of a character actor, which he unquestionably is. He’s only had one leading role in his entire career, in Roger Corman’s great black comedy A BUCKET OF BLOOD, and though he was terrific in it, Dick didn’t have that “leading man” aspect to him, so he never got those parts. BUCKET apparently did well, but it wasn’t like they were breaking Dick’s door down, so he continued on doing small roles mainly in Corman productions and eventually films made by graduates of the Corman system, people like Jonathan Kaplan, Alan Arkush, Steve Carver and, of course, Joe Dante, the man who has probably done more to grow the Dick Miller legend than Miller himself. I suppose some actors might be bitter about it (and it’s possible Dick has been), but Dick has had a career that’s spawned over 50 years and not a lot of actors can say that. And if you ask me, what a career it’s been.
Dick’s forte has been mainly exploitation and genre films, with the occasional drama or western and a lot of TV work, but so many of those films are among the best of their genres and Dick easily stood out in them. Can you imagine LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, GREMLINS 1 & 2 or HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD without Dick Miller? Don’t even try. A lot of Dick’s films happen to be classics of their genres and that’s no doubt led to his respectable following over the years. I think one of the reasons I like Dick so much is because I discovered him at around the same time I discovered the great drive-in and exploitation movies of Corman and New World Pictures as a kid and so I guess I associate my love of Dick with my love of those films, which is pretty vast. Dante also has a big part in this, as he’s another one of my idols and someone who I think is one of the great underrated American filmmakers (and a Jersey boy, too), so they all go together like peanut butter and jelly, and as far as I’m concerned they’re with me for life. You can’t always choose the things you love, because sometimes they just find you. I think this is one of those times.
I was lucky enough to meet Dick Miller once. It was in January 1995 at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors in NYC; Dick was there to promote DEMON KNIGHT the TALES FROM THE CRYPT movie that he had a sizeable co-starring role in. He doesn’t make a lot of personal appearances, so this was a pretty big deal for me and I got a big kick out of watching the man do his Q&A, even asking him some questions (I can’t remember what they were, though) and it was very fucking cool as far as I was concerned. DEMON KNIGHT was screening later that evening and when I was leaving the hotel with my friend Michael Gingold (Fango’s managing editor), we bumped into Dick and his lovely wide, Lainie, as they were getting ready to attend the show. We suggested that we share a cab, as they didn’t know where the theater was and also because it was ass-freezing cold outside. I can’t begin to tell you how psyched I was on the cab ride up, to be sharing a cab with one of my idols (yes, one of my idols!) but I have to say I never lost it. When we got to the theater (I can’t recall its name then, but it’s the Imaginasian now) there was already a small line to get in, but Mike got the theater to let Dick and Lainie wait inside while I had to freeze it out in the bitter January cold (and trust me, it was really, really cold). Apparently, while they waited inside Mike informed Dick of how excited I was about meeting him and Dick then suggested that Mike and I join them for breakfast the following morning with journalist Tom Weaver (also a friend of Mike’s)! Breakfast with Dick Miller was too good to be true (this shows how big a fan I am – and how big a geek) and to top it off, DEMON KNIGHT was a pretty good little movie and Dick was great in it, so I couldn’t be happier about the entire thing. The breakfast was wonderful indeed; we got stories about the early days of working with Corman, Dick’s pre-stardom friendship with Jack Nicholson, tales of working on DEMON KNIGHT, but even better was just getting to know the man a little and discovering that not only was he a great actor, he was also a terrific person, too. I attended his second Q&A the following afternoon and afterwards did something I rarely, if ever, do with actors or celebrities – I got my picture taken with him. I still have the picture to this day, although I don’t have a scanner or else I would have run it here, and it’s a prized picture not so much for the photo itself (if I could do it over again I would not have worn the sweater I was wearing) but for what happened when it was taken: Dick put his arm around me and said, “This one is special”. The guy knew who I was. He knew I was a real fan and he knew I was serious in my appreciation of him and his work. It remains the best experience I’ve ever had with a celebrity or a person I admire because it was special. Dick Miller is special. I can’t explain why, but he just is.
Dick Miller will be 79 next Tuesday, Christmas Day (a more fitting day for my favorite actor to be born I can’t even fathom), and even though this Blog-A-Thon has not received many fellow contributors (the only other commitment I received was from Ed Hardy of Shoot The Projectionist), I couldn’t be happier to write about Dick Miller. I wish him a Happy Birthday and many, many more years on this planet and hopefully many, many more movies for him to appear in. He’s the best.