* Originally published in the Bainbridge Island Review.
The recent death of renowned character actor (and genuine character) Rip Torn has got me thinking about those movie stars that shine brightest just outside the spotlight.
Not the icons or the poster fixtures, their accolades are readily available elsewhere, their immortality assured. No, I’m talking about the gritty, cool, kooky, sultry, colorful characters who appear here and there, in this scene and that, throughout careers that often span many decades and include some of the most memorable performances of all. The mortar that holds Tinseltown’s ivory towers together.
Some occasionally break on through to mainstream recognition (Dick Miller, Harry Dean Stanton, Karen Black and John Cazale leap to mind), but most toil on insufficiently celebrated.
No more, says I.
Here are six particular stars who deserve to be better known and the roles I recommend as perfect introductions. Some checked out tragically early, others are still hard at work, but all are worth a closer look.
* Spoilers ahead.
1. Len Cariou (b. 1939)
For being the guy who pioneered the role of Sweeney Todd in the original 1979 production (for which he won a Tony Award), Cariou is weirdly underappreciated. Though he has been more in the public eye of late (he plays Tom Selleck’s dad on CBS’ “Blue Bloods”) it is toward two very different portrayals that I direct those curious to see more of the man’s incredible skill, an almost uncanny ability to channel a captivating combo of alternating warmth and menace.
“Lady in White” (1988) would not be the last horror movie Cariou appeared in, but it is the one in which he is scariest. An unusual, distinctive flick about nostalgia, perception and threats both otherworldly and all-too-human alike, it sees him playing an on-the-surface warm and supportive uncle-type to the movie’s main child protagonist. He is genuinely likable in a realistic non-saccharine way, which only makes the unveiling of his true nature all the more terrifying. The moment he realizes the boy is on to him, while they’re alone in the woods target shooting with bows and arrows, is truly unnerving.
Also, he’s wonderful as secret agent Michael Hagarty in all seven of the character’s appearances on “Murder, She Wrote.” Angela Lansbury had many would-be suitors throughout the show’s decade-plus run, but Cariou’s roguish MI5 bad boy seemed to hold her interest longer than most.
2. Laird Cregar (1913-1944)
A giant in more ways than one, Cregar, who rarely weighed less than 300 pounds, was on the way up when he became obsessed with chiseling himself down into a more traditional leading man. An amphetamine-fueled crash diet ended his life at 31, but not before he cemented his place in film history with about a dozen memorable roles in movies that ran the gamut from screwball comedy to noir to horror.
Though probably most famous for playing “Mr. Slade” in 1944’s “The Lodger,” I recommend the curious investigate two other entries in the man’s tragically short filmography.
“I Wake Up Screaming” (1941) sees Cregar give a dynamic performance as an obsessive homicide detective determined to pin the murder of a beautiful woman on a young promoter who’d been boosting her acting career — never mind the guy is innocent.
One scene in particular, in which Cregar chats amiably with the man he’s looking to railroad while absently tying a noose with a long bit of twine, is mesmerizing.
Also, give “Hangover Square” (1945) a chance. It was his last role, but Cregar is again on top of his game as a troubled composer prone to blackouts who meets a conniving dame determined to manipulate him.
3. Ted Levine (b. 1957)
For better or worse, the guy is forever cemented in the public mind as Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb in “The Silence of the Lambs.” That was a one-of-a-kind performance worthy of immortalization, but he’s so much more.
When he’s reigned in, Levine brings a fascinating type of stalwart gravitas to a role, the kind of tough but honest guy you want on your side. And when he isn’t, well, he’s in orbit.
How about one of each?
For the former, I recommend his portrayal of Captain Leland Stottlemeyer in the comedy-drama mystery series “Monk,” the final partner and perpetually loyal champion of the titular defective detective.
For the latter, I have to go with “Bullet” (1996). This nasty gem of a movie sees Mickey Rourke get out of prison and right back into a criminal feud with Tupac Shakur, who plays a drug kingpin nurturing an understandable grudge after Rourke stabbed him in the eye years before.
Levine plays Rourke’s older brother, a delusional Vietnam vet, who lives with their parents and organizes the neighborhood kids into a guerrilla squad in his spare time, when he’s not screaming nonsense philosophy or begging his mother to buy him paramilitary gear.
All that, plus keep an eye out for Donnie Wahlberg, Adrien Brody and Peter Dinklage — it’s worth seeking out.
4. Lori Petty (b. 1963)
Equally at home as tough cool surfer chick Tyler Endicott in “Point Break” (1991), and paranoid delusional prisoner Lolly Whitehill in Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” Petty is an authentic presence who adds sincere depth to everything she’s in.
To celebrate her properly I recommend two vastly different movies (and no, good as she was in “Free Willy,” it didn’t quite make the cut): “A League of Their Own” in 1992, and 1995’s “Tank Girl.”
In the former she’s Kit Keller, pitcher and little sister of Geena Davis’ Dottie Hinson, whose bitter resentment at being so often in her more skilled sister’s shadow at last boils over in the movie’s final game.
Based on the British post-apocalyptic comic series of the same name, “Tank Girl” sees Petty as the star heroine who, along with Jet Girl (played by Naomi Watts) fight Water & Power, an oppressive corporation led by Malcolm McDowell, in a drought-ravaged Australia years after a massive asteroid crashes into Earth.
It’s a crazy movie and Petty apparently got the job, according to the director, because “she is crazy in her own life and [the film] needed somebody like that.” Despite being a critical and commercial failure upon release, “Tank Girl,” like its star, has a cult following, and Petty’s character remains popular at cosplay events even today.
The BBC included the film in a 2015 list of the “ten weirdest superhero films,” a now-booming genre of which it was a kind of pioneer, and one critic said, “Chief among its strong points is Lori Petty, a buzz-cut fashion plate in a Prozac necklace, who brings the necessary gusto to Tank Girl’s flippancy.”
5. Joe Spinell (1936-1989)
Though you’ll spot him in several legit masterpieces (in the employ of the Corleone family, as Rocky’s “cheap second-rate loanshark” of a boss, giving Travis Bickle the namesake gig in “Taxi Driver”) it is for a couple of bravura turns in cult scary movies that Joe Spinell is most renowned.
“Maniac” (1980) remains one of the greatest cinematic depictions of madness ever. Spinell plays Frank Zito, a deranged serial killer attempting to form a normal relationship with a pretty photographer while trying, unsuccessfully, to quell his bloody urges. Rife with violence, gore and disturbing imagery, the movie remains highly controversial, though Spinnel’s sweaty, twitching, wide-eyed performance is typically offered at least begrudging respect even by otherwise dismissive critics. The man is palpably dangerous.
In “The Last Horror Film” (1982), Spinell is New York City cabbie Vinny Durand, an aspiring filmmaker obsessed with an international cult actress. Unbelievably, the movie was actually shot on location at the Cannes Film Festival, where Vinny goes in an attempt to meet the woman and convince her to appear in his directorial debut. Nothing is going his way, and there’s a killer stalking the festival besides, so he decides kidnapping is the best way to charm/protect her. In one particularly memorable scene, Spinell actually climbed up the side of a hotel, champagne bottle in hand.
Sadly, his own end was bloody as his most iconic movies. Spinell was known to heavily abuse drugs and alcohol throughout his life, which greatly exacerbated his hemophilia. At the age of 52, he died in his apartment in Queens after slipping in the tub, having cut himself badly on his glass shower door. He took a nap instead of calling for help and bled to death.
6. Tura Satana (1938-2011)
That Tura Satana did not go on to a butt-kicking, Pam Grier-type of career is a tragedy on par with the sinking of the Titanic.
OK, maybe not.
But it is a cinematic crime that ranks up there with some of M. Night Shyamalan’s lesser offerings. Harsh but true.
Tura Luna Pascual Yamaguchi was a Japanese American actress, cabaret star, exotic dancer (and by all accounts, force of nature) best known for starring in Russ Meyer’s masterpiece (sorry, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”) “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” in 1965.
She plays Varla, leader of a crazed trio of go-go dancers who take off across the California desert in cool sports cars looking for fun and trouble — not necessarily in that order.
The film is a beloved cult object known for its violence, provocative depiction of reversed gender roles (it has been embraced by many feminists as an important movie), eminently quotable dialogue — and also the powerhouse performance of Satana.
Besides the infamously sexy costume, which she designed, she did all of her own stunts and fight scenes, which becomes even more impressive when you consider the film was shot on location in the desert outside Los Angeles, when the temperature topped 100 degrees during the day and plummeted past freezing at night. She even supposedly came up with many of the film’s best lines.
Unfortunately, it was definitely a high-water mark for her career-wise.
She made some lesser films (appearing three times in the schlocky “Astro-Zombies” series) and survived a tumultous personal life, but never again got a true chance to shine. The world just wasn’t ready for her. Maybe we still aren’t.