By MICHAEL GINGOLD
I believe it was during my first viewing of THE TERMINATOR that I made the connection. When the eponymous robotic killer walked into a pawn shop to pick up some guns and the man behind the counter quipped, “Any one of these is ideal for home defense,” I had one of those “I know that guy!” moments. I realized I had seen him as Mr. Futterman in GREMLINS earlier that year, and as the occult bookshop owner in Joe Dante’s previous THE HOWLING. And at that moment in my teens, I became a fan of Dick Miller.
Back then, there was no Internet handy to immediately research an actor’s background, so there was no way for me to realize I had also seen him in a few other films. But he kept turning up in older flicks I watched on cable TV and VHS, and in new ones I caught in theaters. There he was again in Dante’s EXPLORERS, as a waiter in Martin Scorsese’s AFTER HOURS, in a sort of homage to his TERMINATOR role in NIGHT OF THE CREEPS. And wait…was that him in Rod Stewart’s heavily rotated “Infatuation” music video? After a trip with my family to see Off-Broadway’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, I had my much-belated first viewing of Roger Corman’s original movie, and was introduced to the indelible flower-eater Burson Fouch. And soon after that, the inimitable Walter Paisley, whose art redefines the term “body of work,” in A BUCKET OF BLOOD.
Dick Miller, who passed away today at age 90, never had a leading role, but he was a true star in the genre-film scene. He could play anything, and did. It’s been oft-recalled that he played both a cowboy and an Indian in his first movie, the Corman Western APACHE WOMAN, and he also portrayed cops, military men, an opportunistic schlock filmmaker (in Dante and Allan Arkush’s HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD), a reluctant music-club hero (in Corman’s undercelebrated ROCK ALL NIGHT), an amusement-park owner (in Dante’s PIRANHA) and many others. He was a sort of good luck charm to Corman, Dante and other directors, and kids who watched his earlier movies grew up to be filmmakers who cast him in theirs. There was always something innately likable about Miller that always shined through even when he was playing thugs and other questionable types. He developed an ever-growing fan base, and was celebrated in FANGORIA and other genre publications.
Miller became a beloved guest on the convention scene, and one of my favorite memories from those events is when my friend Matt and I shared a cab ride with the actor and his wife Lainie from the Manhattan hotel hosting the January Fango Weekend of Horrors to a theater showing a special preview of TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT, in which Miller plays Uncle Willie. It was a chilly late-night screening, and the Millers were bundled up just like the Futtermans in GREMLINS. The next morning, thanks to Fango’s classic-horror expert Tom Weaver, we got to join him and Miller for breakfast, over which the actor regaled us with wonderful stories of his many and varied roles.
Miller never slowed down even into his 80s, and in 2014 he was finally honored with a feature-length documentary about his life and career, Elijah Drenner’s THAT GUY DICK MILLER. He was one of the all-time great character actors, and he leaves behind a legacy that will no doubt continue to win new fans for decades to come.