The life of a character actor is a curious one indeed. They don't always get the best scripts, the choicest roles or the most screen time. When average moviegoers discuss them, they tend to be referred to solely as "that guy who was in that thing." If they are recognized, it tends to be because of a striking resemblance to someone's uncle. And yet, there are some actors of this type who manage to break through these obstacles and connect with audiences in ways that many conventional movie stars could only dream of approximating. One fine example of this kind of performer was Robert Loggia, who passed away today at the age of 85 following a five-year-long battle with Alzheimer's disease. Over the course of a career that spanned nearly 60 years, his cheerfully gruff persona, which he could transform into pure malevolence with frightening ease when required, allowed him to rise through the ranks until he became a much-loved actor in films and on television.
Born on January 3, 1930, on Staten Island to parents who were immigrants from Sicily, he graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a journalism degree in 1951 and also served a hitch in the army. In his early twenties, he was bitten by the acting bug and decided to try to make a go of it, studying at the Actors Studio under Stella Adler before appearing first on Broadway and then in the blossoming medium of television, where he would make appearances on shows like "Studio One in Hollywood," "Playhouse 90" and "Wagon Train" before making his first real impact in 1958 as real-life lawman Elfego Baca on "The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca," a miniseries developed by Walt Disney that was aired as part of the enormously popular "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color." (In 1966, Disney would edit together several episodes and transform them into the ersatz feature "Elfego Baca: Six Gun Law.") In 1956, he would make his film debut in a unbilled bit part in "Somebody Up There Likes Me" and would make appearances over the next few years in films such as "The Garment Jungle" (1957), "Cop Hater" (1958), "The Lost Missile" (1958) and George Stevens' all-star Bible epic "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965), where he portrayed Joseph.
Over the next decade or so, he would make appearances on practically every television show of note and many that weren't—a partial list of his credits during this time include such titles as "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Ben Casey," "Route 66," "Gunsmoke," "The Wild Wild West," "Then Came Bronson," "McMillan & Wife," "Mannix," "Cannon," "Quincy," "Charlie's Angels," "Little House on the Prairie" and "The Rockford Files," where he would appear in three episodes in three different roles during its six-season run. There was even a lead role as reformed cat burglar Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat in the short-lived series "T.H.E. Cat." During this time, he made a few appearances on the big screen as well in such films as "Che" (1969), "Two Missionaries" (1974), "First Love" (1977), "Raid on Entebbe" (1977) and "Revenge of the Pink Panther" (1978). The latter title would mark the first of five collaborations with director Blake Edwards that would also include the brilliant Hollywood-based black comedy "S.O.B." (1981), "Trail of the Pink Panther" (1982), "Curse of the Pink Panther" (1983) and "That's Life" (1986).
As the 1980s dawned, Loggia finally managed to luck into a string of higher-profile films that allowed him to show what he was capable of. He played Richard Gere's drunken lout of a father in the smash hit "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982), the well-meaning psychiatrist of none other than Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in "Psycho II," the ill-fated mentor/betrayer of Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in Brian De Palma's controversial remake of "Scarface" (1983) and a sensible high-ranking member of a powerful mob family in John Huston's dark comedy "Prizzi's Honor" (1985). This spate of strong films culminated with "Jagged Edge," (1985), a hit courtroom thriller where his performance as canny private investigator Sam Ransom was celebrated by audiences and critics alike and which earned him his lone Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
For the next decade of so, he would be a familiar and welcome face at the multiplex and while the films may not have always been up to snuff, he could still manage to breathe some life into the hackiest material. There were comedies such as "Armed & Dangerous " (1986), "Amazon Women on the Moon" (1987), "Hot Pursuit" (1987), "Big" (1988), where he shared an oversized piano keyboard with Tom Hanks in that hit's most memorable scene, "Opportunity Knocks" (1991) and "I Love Trouble" (1994) as well as dramatic turns in the likes of "Gaby: A True Story" (1987), "The Believers" (1987), the inexplicable Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling vehicle "Over the Top" (1987), "Triumph of the Spirit" (1989) and "Smilla's Sense of Snow" (1997) and an meaty supporting performance in the worldwide blockbuster "Independence Day" (1996). On television, he appeared as FBI agent Nick Mancuso in the highly-rated miniseries "Favorite Son" (1988) and not only did he receive an Emmy nomination for his performance, the character was popular enough to be spun off into its own short-lived series, "Mancuso, FBI" (1989-1990). He also appeared in the much-discussed Oliver Stone-produced miniseries "Wild Palms" (1993) and in a 1998 commercial for Tropicana orange juice that remains one of the most endearingly odd ads that you will ever see. (At this point, we will pause this article so that you can look it up for yourselves on YouTube.)
As good as much of this work was, it was during the 1990s that he turned in my two personal favorite performances of his career. In 1992, he co-starred in John Landis' horror-comedy "Innocent Blood" as Sal "The Shark" Macelli, a fearsome mob boss who becomes even more powerful and terrifying when he is accidentally transformed into a vampire by a beautiful bloodsucker (Anne Parillaud) who deliberately preys on the worst of the worst and then turns his henchmen into the Cosa Nosferatu. Although a box-office failure at the time of its release (when it got swallowed up in the hype for Francis Coppola's then-upcoming "Bram Stoker's Dracula") and generally overlooked today, it has stood the test of time as a nifty blend of the horror, comedy and gangster genres and much of that is due to his full-throttle performance as Sal, a guy so monstrous in his human incarnation that his vampiric self almost pales by comparison. In 1997, he appeared as another crime boss for David Lynch in the mind-melting "Lost Highway" and while one could debate many aspects of that particular film (such as what it was supposed to be about) but his lacerating work as the hair-trigger Mr. Eddy was a thing of terrifying beauty that could not be denied—when lists of the greatest scenes in the Lynch oeuvre are composed, space must be made for the hilarious and horrifying bit where his character waylays a rude motorist and brutally beats him while explaining the rules of the road regarding the dangers of tailgating.
The remainder of Loggia's career would see him once again going back and forth between films and television, where he would receive a second Emmy nomination for an appearance on "Malcolm in the Middle" and appear as Feech La Manna in a few episodes of "The Sopranos." He would even lend his distinctive growl of a voice to such videogames as "Grand Theft Auto III" and "Scarface: The World is Yours." Loggia would continue to work steadily and indeed, IMDb lists no less than three more completed films that he will appear in. While there is no telling yet how good or bad they may be, it can almost certainly be said that, as was the case with most everything he worked on, they benefitted mightily from his contributions. He will be missed.