A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Some years ago, I wrote a piece on “White Dog”, Sam Fuller’s excellent, totally messed-up adaptation of Romain Gary’s novel. At the end of the article, I posted a picture of character actor Dick Miller, who appears briefly in the film holding a monkey. Miller looked happy to be in the scene with Kristy McNichol; the monkey not so much. I captioned my picture with the question: “Who is this actor?” I cannot count the number of responses I received that said “it’s that guy Dick Miller!”
“That Guy Dick Miller” is the perfect title for Elijah Drenner’s wildly entertaining documentary chronicling the 50-plus years of Miller’s career. It is filled with an affection for its subject that not only nourishes lifelong fans of Miller but convinces those unfamiliar to immediately seek out his work. Finding Miller is easy, as he’s appeared in nearly 200 roles. In all of them, Miller was always the memorable Everyman, efficient in the creation of a character who, with very little screen time, always left an impression. He could play the lead, as he did in early films like “War of the Satellites,” but Dick Miller was more often seen as the “very special guest star” of directors who grew up with his work and loved him unashamedly for it.
“That Guy Dick Miller” isn’t afraid to point out that Miller was often the best thing about the movies that utilized him. “They prayed and hoped that Dick would, once again, pull them through a crappy movie,” says Mary Woronov of Joe Dante, Allan Arkush and Jonathan Kaplan, three of the young directors who joined Roger Corman’s New World Pictures back in the early 70’s. Prior to those raunchier flicks, Corman directed Miller in many of Corman’s American International Pictures features. (Miller gives the count as 49.) His most famous role in the AIP era, and possibly the one that endeared him to Kaplan et al., was in 1959’s “A Bucket of Blood.” As the lead, Miller played Walter Paisley, a goofball who longs to impress his beatnik club colleagues. Paisley eventually scores with his sculptures, which are actually people he murdered then covered in clay. How he gets this idea, and the ingredient in his first sculpture, are worth the price of renting “A Bucket of Blood.”
Miller and Corman followed “A Bucket of Blood” with “The Little Shop Of Horrors,” a film Blood’s screenwriter, Charles B. Griffith, had written with Miller in mind for its famous lead, Seymour. Miller opted instead to play a supporting role as a man who came to Mushnik’s flower shop to eat the flowers he bought. (“They tasted like they were from the funeral parlor,” Miller tells us.) Also in that film was a young Jack Nicholson, whom Miller speaks fondly of in “That Guy Dick Miller” and who also shared the screen with him in “The Terror.” That film has one of my favorite Miller moments, where he recounts for Nicholson the entire plot of the movie so that the audience can catch up with its extremely confusing, barely coherent narrative. It takes him a minute and a half, which Drenner mercifully speeds up for us.