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Charles Napier: Overnight success at 50

Los Angeles -- In January of 1975, I received a postcard from Charles Napier:

Rog, old buddy. Things are looking bleak. I'm living in my pickup truck in Russ Meyer's parking lot. No jobs, no cash, no agent. This looks like the end of my acting career. Chuck.

In June of 1985, Napier loomed over the barbecue grill next to the pool in the backyard of his home in Tarzana. The cast and crew of his new movie dipped their corn chips into the salsa bowls being passed around by Napier's wife, Ann. Napier's assistant, a man-mountain named Travis, presided over the wet bar in the little Hawaiian shack At poolside, Sylvester Stallone's stunt double was talking with the girl scheduled to be next February's Playmate, while two agents complained about taking the redeye to New York.

Hollywood loves stories like Napier's. Here's a guy who is an overnight success at 50, with a big role in the summer's hottest movie. He walks into the 7-Eleven, and the kids at the video games drop everything to get his autograph. He drives his battered old van down the street, and at stop signs everybody recognizes him - half of the people give him a thumbs-up and the other half give him the finger. Napier loves it.

He plays the bad guy in "Rambo," the Stallone thriller that is dominating the movie box office this summer. He's the guy named Murdock who sends Stallone on a dangerous mission to look for American POWs in Southeast Asia, and then cynically aborts the plan and abandons Stallone to Soviet torturers and Cambodian assassins. It's a good role; Napier is not only the villain, he has all the lines that explain the plot. When Stallone beats the odds and comes back, he takes a machinegun and blasts Murdock's office into tiny little pieces, but he does not kill Murdock, and that gives Napier reason for hope.

"I figure in the sequel, Murdock could see the light and team up with Stallone," Napier says. "Maybe they could go in after some hostages, or clean up South America. Hell, man, there's no end to the possibilities."

Does Stallone want to use you in a sequel?

"I haven't talked to him about it. But my character is too popular to waste, don't you think? Murdock's famous. I can't go out of the house without people shouting Murdock! at me."

This kind of success had to come to Napier eventually, I always thought. He has an unadulterated, he-man, redneck image that's hard to duplicate, and an unshakable authority in dialogue scenes. But it took a long time for lightning to strike; Napier turned 50 this summer, as "Rambo" was turning into a national phenomenon.

For most of his career, he has been on the fringes of success. If you watch a lot of television, you've seen him dozens of times. He's always macho - the guy with the steel jaw, the gravel voice and the mean squint, and when he smiles you see 47 teeth. He plays the heavy, the killer, the trucker, the cop. In commercials, he plays TV repairmen, plumbers, roofing experts. In the movies, he has the unique distinction of being the favorite actor of two completely different directors. Russ Meyer used him in "Vixen," "Cherry, Harry and Raquel," "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" and "Supervixen." Jonathan Demme used him in "'Citizens' Band," "The Last Embrace," "Melvin and Howard" and "Swing Shift." He was also the hillbilly singer in John Landis' "Blues Brothers."

"They're always trying to nail me with those Russ Meyer films, as if I ought to be ashamed of them or something," Napier told me. "They ask me if I wasn't in porno. Hell, no, man. Russ Meyer doesn't make porno. He makes great action pictures with a little comedy thrown in. Working on his movies has given me some of the most fulfilling moments of my life, because we worked, man, until we were utterly exhausted.

"I remember on 'Supervixens' we were out in the desert, shooting some additional shots and carrying the camera up the mountain by ourselves, and finally Russ was laying on top of a bed in a cheap motel and saying, 'That's it. My legs don't work. It's a wrap.' All of the luck I've had came out of those movies. Jonathan Demme saw me in 'Cherry' when he was in the Army and told himself he wanted to use me if he ever directed a film. Landis saw 'Supervixens' and put me in 'Blues Brothers.' In fact, 'Supervixens' saved my ass."

That was the movie where Napier resurrected the character of Harry Sledge, the mean, violent sheriff, from "Cherry, Harry and Raquel." In a memorable opening sequence, he grew so enraged at the movie's heroine that he stabbed her through a locked bathroom door, knocked the door down, threw her in a bathtub and electrocuted her. When Meyer was honored at the British Film Institute, the scene was praised as brilliant action satire. Many American critics were more aghast. But nobody who saw the film forgot Napier.

"I finished 'Supervixens' in the summer of 1974," Napier remembered, "and by the end of the year I was flat broke, living in my truck. For a couple of years previous, I had a job as an on-the-road correspondent for Overdrive, the magazine of the independent owner-operator truckers. I drove around to truck stops and wrote a column about all the truckers' bitches and gripes. Then there was a truck strike, and I got fired. By that winter, I was sleeping in the truck and spending all day walking up and down Hollywood Boulevard. My big objective every morning was to find a restroom where I could wash up.

"I had no agent, no money, I hadn't worked in years except for Meyer, who always stood by me. I figured this was it: 39 years old, pounding the pavement, just another failed actor. Then Meyer released 'Supervixens.' It did great at the box office. The big shots over at Universal borrowed a print for a screening, and Alfred Hitchcock heard about it. He asked for a private screening. The next thing I knew, some flunky was pounding on the window of my pickup, telling me Mr. Hitchcock wanted to see me.

"I put on a clean shirt and went over to Universal. I was so discouraged by then I regarded the whole thing as a bad joke. I walked into Hitchcock's office and he had a light behind him, so I could hardly see him. I stood there. Hitchcock said, 'Don't say anything.' I didn't say anything. Hitchcock said, 'Have him turn around.' The flunky said, 'Turn around.' I turned around. Hitchcock said, 'Sign him.'

"I walked out of the office, and the guy says, 'I don't know who the hell you are, but you're one lucky son of a bitch.' They signed me up and gave me a check for $5,000, and I went out and rented a little apartment and just sat there for two days, I was so happy to be indoors. Then I looked in the mail, and there was an $8,000 check from Meyer, who had given me a piece of 'Supervixens.' And from that day to this, I've made a living as film actor. That was the turning point."

At Universal, Napier never saw Hitchcock again. But the studio used him in dozens of episodes of the TV programs being shot on the lot. He was in "Kojak," "Baretta," "The Oregon Trail" and "The Rockford Files." He made seven pilots, but none of them was picked up. He even joined the long list of Joan Collins' TV lovers on "The Cartier Affair."

"It was fun working with Collins. I made a lot of money on overtime, waiting for her hair to be done. She was nice and cordial to me."

It was on an old "Kojak" episode that he met Stallone for the first time.

"Sly was in the same boat I was, playing bit parts and heavies on TV. He told me he was in the depths of despair: 'I'm gonna be playing these goons for the rest of my life." Then he went out and made 'Rocky' and became a big star. When I heard he was casting for 'Rambo,' I wanted that role, man. I knew about 10 guys were up for it. Typically, if you're known in this town, you don't read for a role, you just go in and chat with the guy. But I got the script and learned the lines, and I got a haircut and went to the Thrifty Drugstore and bought those glasses Murdock wears. I went in and read. And I got the role."

Napier said they shot the movie in Acapulco, where the beachfront resorts are only a few miles by road from the mountains and the jungle.

"Every night, we'd get back to town, beat to hell, and there'd be 10,000 secretaries screaming for Sly. Desperately Seeking Sylvester. See, these broads spend five years saving for their big Acapulco vacation, and when they get down there; they want an affair. It's been a dream since childhood. They think it's part of the package. If nothing has happened in three days, they get desperate."

Working with Stallone was easy, Napier said, "because if something needs to be changed, he goes in his dressing room and writes out the changes, and that's that. You don't have to consult six dozen writers and producers and agents. He's the boss. Not many stars have that kind of confidence in themselves."

The Rambo character is so strongly acted, he said, that not once has he heard anyone confuse it with Rocky Balboa, Stallone's other series hero. "The momentum of 'Rambo' is so incredible, man, that they don't even spot the big glitch in the movie, which is that Rambo's face is scarred with a red-hot knife, and three scenes later, the scar is gone."

"Rambo" probably will lead to other good movie jobs for Napier. Hollywood works that way. You starve for 20 years, and then it's steaks by the swimming pool. In the meantime, Napier is working on a movie he started before "Rambo" was released, a thriller named "Striker." He plays a killer cop in a plot he describes as "Dirty Harry meets the Terminator."

Then he hopes to appear in his own original screenplay, "Rednecks in Love."

"It's a cross between 'Grapes of Wrath,' 'God's Little Acre' and 'Supervixens,'" he explained. "How can it miss?"

He surveyed the pool area, where the Southern California sun was reflecting little waves of light off the pool and onto the eyes of Miss February, who was talking to a large Yugoslavian with a bushy mustache - the actor who played the Russian torturer in "Rambo."

Travis, Napier's assistant, wandered by with a quart Mason jar and explained, "I'm drinking Diet Pepsi from my designated glass." Music drifted out from the den.

"I'll tell you how well things are going, man," Napier said. "An agent just bought one of my watercolors. I'm so popular they're buying my f------ watercolors, man. And he's not even my agent."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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