What A Character! Shot and A Chaser: M. Emmet Walsh


Paula’s note: This post is one of several by movie maven Jack Deth that I have had the pleasure of hosting on this site. See the rest here.

Welcome Bloggers, Cinephiles, Film Fans, and Aficionados of “Just Plain Good!”

Having received an invitation from our hostess Paula to expand and illuminate that arena of young and unrecognized talent usually relegated to the back of a crowd or corner of a set before being noticed and given lines to speak and scenes to execute, I would be remiss to not give it my best effort and reach back to an unsung purveyor of the thespian craft, who literally started off in the background of Midnight Cowboy, Alice’s Restaurant, Little Big Man, and Cold Turkey in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Plying his craft while being one of many. Building up a body of work and a reputation for being able to fill any slot for any type of dumpy, balding, kind of slimy, local or municipal bureaucrat, guard, telegrapher, cop, or barber. Sometimes affixing a Southern accent, or sticking to his high-pitched, upstate New York pronunciations, while using whatever was at hand to enhance his many characters. Before crossing my path in a big way in a small, very personal cinematic gem ramrodded by Dustin Hoffman and directed by Ulu Grossbard. A film which also prompted the parole of recidivist convict, Edward Bunker (Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs), through his semi-autobiographic novel, No Beast So Fierce. Which makes up the two fingers of Rye for this…

Shot & A Chaser: M. Emmet Walsh

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31 Days of Oscar: The Films of 1987

hope and glory7-07-gBy Jack Deth

Greetings all and sundry!
Having taken advantage of the much-hyped East Coast Snow Storm, and watched from my 23rd floor balcony as the surface dwellers dug themselves out, I’ve had time to contemplate the films of 1987 and their standing with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

A year sadly near void of the earlier risk takers and “All In!” gamblers of the previous decade, with many of the Academy choices leading toward less controversial, more palatable fare. So, keeping that in mind, allow me a few moments of your time to explore, excavate, and investigate the confusing, sometimes annoying choices of…

The 60th Academy Awards: Playing It Safe!

According to Box Office Mojo, a neat little reference source which proves useful in this treatise, 1987 was a rather prosperous year for film. With 238 entrants through the year, from the sublime (The Princess Bride) to the ridiculous (Ishtar, Real Men, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown), lots of diversions and variants in-between, and a surprising number of films in its Top 25 films nominated for Oscars.

For those uninitiated, I’ll be laying out this amalgam in the same way I’ve presented earlier critiques of the Academy’s decisions, entailing “The Top Six” categories, taking a “Top Down” perspective, plus a few personal bones to pick in the lower tiers.

So, without further ado, let’s start with the contenders for….
Continue reading “31 Days of Oscar: The Films of 1987”

What A Character! 2014 – Chris Cooper by Jack Deth

It is once again my pleasure to post a What A Character! entry on behalf of guest blogger Jack Deth. Be sure to check out his other posts here and over at Flix Chatter.

Greetings all and sundry!

Several months have passed and it’s time to accept another gracious invitation from Paula to break out my miner’s cap and excavation tools. And add my perspective to the ever growing and exceptional list of hard-working, though often unknown, professionals who fill an essential niche in the fine art of story telling.

Those who work their way from the background of crowds and scene fillers. To the realms of comic relief. Or sidekick, best friend and selfless uniformed partner. Their numbers are legion. And are rarely recognized at first glance. It take a few moments of noticing how they move about a set or location. The furrow of a brow. A smile. Until it all comes together with the addition of spoken words. Often not loud. Sometimes conspiratorial. Often friendly. And the light bulb of recognition glows brightly. Rarely giving up a name. But subtly revealing the presence of a Character Actor!


And into the deep end of the diving well we shall plunge. Reveling in the decades long work of one such master craftsman. Who started out on stage. Became a “discovery” of John Sayles and his film, Matewan. Went on to Perform yeoman’s work on many episodic television series (‘Miami Vice, ‘The Equalizer’) of the later 1980s. Before filling the character of Kansas sheriff, July Johnson in ‘Lonesome Dove’ and ‘Return To Lonesome Dove’. Opposite Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall and Danny Glover. Where a sun-baked, deeply-lined face and a dust-dry, rasping voice gave presence and added immensely to a long riding, vengeance seeking lawman.

Supplying the confidence and wherewithal to take the lead in another small John Sayles project that put beaucoup talent on the map. So, allow me a few moments of your time. To wax poetic and meticulously into the inner workings of…

What A Character! Chris Cooper Easily Reaching Beyond His Grasp

People’s Exhibit 1: Lone Star (1996)
From 1996. Its director is proven past master of creating and executing vast, yet intensely intimate independent  tales for fractions of what larger major players would spend on a day’s catering, John Sayles.

And this offering has those virtues writ large! Focusing on a once strong and prosperous town and county of Rio. Southwest of Laredo and close to Mexican border. One-time recipient of many military contracts and training bases that have had funding pulled. While the community strives to hold onto its identity opposite the rising tide of Mexicans. Who staked their claim decades ago. Have prospered and wish to make names for themselves. As developers swoop in and wish to cash in on Uncle Sam’s abandoned tracts of land. Trading money for influence.

Chris Cooper as Sheriff Sam Deeds in John Sayles’ LONE STAR

In other words, an American Melting Pot. With all its attendant rivalries and small-scale deals and conspiracies just under the surface. Seen and acknowledged by Mr. Cooper as Sheriff Sam Deeds, son of the town’s beloved Deputy, afterwards Sheriff, Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey in a surprisingly quiet, humane, mature role). Who had spent his years keeping Rio’s racist, bigoted and flatout scary law-unto-himself, Sheriff Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson portraying evil incarnate. And rarely better!) in check through the 1960s.

There’s an election coming up. Sam’s a law & order kind of guy, and the townfolk like him. but he isn’t his father. And some in town keep reminding him of that, as there is a dedication of a county court house coming up in Buddy’s name. Creating the need to go out amongst the people and perform between pressing flesh and keeping interlopers busy. If not in check. And crossing the path of a long-lost and recently widowed high school sweetheart, Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Peña), whose mother, Mercedes (Maria Colon) is a rather affluent and influential pillar of the community.

Into this slice of Southern Texas Americana arrives Colonel Delmore Payne (Sayles stalwart Joe Morton), who is the estranged son of after-hours club owner and town historian, Otis “Big O” Payne (Ron Canada). The Colonel has the unwanted duty of going over the inventory, Table of Operations and Equipment (TO&E), of a closing Army base before housing contractors break ground. Creating a small, delaying hiccup when the excavation of one of its rifle ranges reveals skeletal remains, a Masonic ring… and a Rio County Sheriff’s badge.

Matthew McConaughey as Buddy Deeds in LONE STAR
Matthew McConaughey as Buddy Deeds in LONE STAR

Sending Sam to ask questions of the town’s elders. Otis and Hollis Pogue (Clifton James). Who would rather have sleeping dogs lie than go digging around bad history and childhood nightmares. Some answers are revealed as the badge is traced back to Charley Wade. And Sam starts exploring the legend of Sheriff Wade and his mysterious disappearance after being beaten and run out of town at the hands of dear old dad, Buddy Deeds, decades before.

Since there is statute of limitation for murder, Sam settles into his Gary Cooper niche of asking the right questions and being an extremely adept listener. As forensic evidence unearths a large caliber bullet from what could be his dad Buddy’s revolver. Or an Army .45 ACP.

Lone Star~4
Kris Kristofferson as Charley Wade in LONE STAR

Which sends the film into sublimely scarily edited flashback into the many sins of Charley Wade, who despised Mexicans, and went out of his way to torment, harass, shake down and brutalize them whenever the opportunity presented itself. The deeper Sam digs, the more is revealed about his father’s womanizing ways. And how they will intersect and insert themselves toward the tale’s denouement. Which I won’t reveal, for these details are the succulent meat upon which most of the tale hangs. As Sam takes in small morsels for deeper investigation. Letting his still, lined face speak volumes as clues are fleshed out. And dots are silently, sometimes tragically connected during a final sit down with the town elders.

I’ll leave it right here, for spoilers’ sake.

Now. What Does Mr. Cooper Bring To His Role?

The dust, dry grit and sweat-stained perseverance to work the case. No matter where the evidence and clues lead. Hesitantly at first. As the tossed net is expanded. And tales are told to expand the quest even further. Even if they initially point in the wrong direction. As the twists and turns of lies and legend slowly straighten out and lead back to past sins of the fathers.

And Mr. Kristofferson and McConaughey excel in their respective characters, with Kristofferson blatantly, frighteningly going over the top at times. While Mr. Conaughey sits in the background. Taking it all in and patiently waiting for the proper moment. Unaware that their actions will swing back decades later.

Elizabeth Peña as Pilar and Cooper as Sam in LONE STAR

Adding to the weight Mr. Cooper bears as old wounds are reopened. Amidst the busy and slowly expanding town. And sprawling outback near the border as Sam explores past windfalls and re-establishes his relationship with schoolteacher and administrator Pilar. Creating a solid foundation for an expansive tale that travels at its own speed. In a wide and neatly tucked in tale written, directed, edited and produced by Mr. Sayles. Backed by superb cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh. And a rustic, suspenseful soundtrack by Mason Darling. Creating the definition of a critically acclaimed and later, criminally forgotten personal project.


Which clears the decks for a small, compact and very worthwhile family tale and period piece, focusing on the world-changing events of 1959. Russia’s launching of Sputnik and its orbiting above post war U.S. soil. Witnessed by a young Homer Hickam as the gauntlet of what would be known as the “Space Race” was thrown down.

Peoples’ Exhibit 2: October Sky (1999)

The place: Coalwood, West Virginia. Coal Country USA, in the waning years of the Eisenhower administration. One of dozens of “company towns” throughout the state. Owned and operated by a large industrial corporation, profits of which provide the housing, police, fire department, schools and church. Producing a meager living for the families, whose men work in the mines.

A township in the valley of two mountain ridges. And a place where most would like to leave. Though the only way out for those young men coming of age is a sports scholarship. Not a great list of options for teenager, Homer (surprisingly good Jake Gyllenhaal), whose older brother, Jim (Scott Miles), has just won a football scholarship out of town.

Overshadowed by the launch, very early in the Cold War, of the first orbital satellite, Sputnik, property of the Russians, the ENEMY. And its ability to be seen in the night sky by Homer and other townspeople. Sending Homer to seek out his friends, math geek Quentin Williams (Chris Owens), inspired machinist Ray Lee Cook (William Lee Scott), and Sherman O’Dell (Chad Lundberg) to take the pulpy science fiction novels and illustrations they love to the drawing board and their next steps. First as a hit-and-miss hobby, as early launches blow up before launching from Homer’s front yard, to a later attempt that launches beautifully, then crashes miles away and sets fire to distant acres of forest.

And through it all, Mr. Cooper’s John Hickam watches from a discreet distance. Not sure what to make of his son’s latest fascination. As small accidents in the mines slow extraction and production. Going the extra mile to keep the workers together as the first whiffs of interest from Unions make themselves known. Uncovering and dealing with small, sometimes innocuous, acts of sabotage.

October Sky~6
Chris Cooper as John Hickam in OCTOBER SKY

One that may have caused a small cave-in. And sent John to the hospital after rescuing several men deep in the main mine. Looking toward a bleak future while trying to avoid arguments between his wife, Elsie (Natalie Canerday), who wants the best possible future for Homer. And Homer, who has the grades and the backing of his teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern). Who knows the ins and outs of academics and its scholarships. And supplies Homer with several books on advanced mathematics and aerodynamic design.

The books come in handy in helping Homer prove that his and his friends’ earlier rocket did not cause he forest fire. Calculating the exact location of the rocket in a stream miles from the disaster. Getting the town folk behind the team. While garnering a very positive story in the local paper. And beyond in the process.

The winning of a Science Fair propel Homer and his friends to new heights. And a much more sophisticated venue in Indianapolis, Indiana. Where their model’s thrust nozzle is stolen. And a new one is machined and delivered early the next morning after a tense all night refinement session. I’ll leave it right here. Lest I tip my hand on one of the better no-frills family films of the 1990s!

What Does Mr. Cooper Bring To This Role?

october-sky-cooperOne of the most complete and fully fleshed-out Dads of the 1950s. Hard-working and -loving. Though acutely aware of his family’s situations. And its slim odds of something, anything better, who goes to the mines every morning to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. Though, while convalescing after a cave-in, not really sold on the idea of his youngest taking up the baton and riding the cage down.

Pulled in several directions at once. Amidst anger from fellow miners, The disruption of life long friendships over a tragic mistake. And its following retribution. Mr. Cooper does what he does best!  Adds depth, shadow and presence to a roughly sketched character. Embodies it with his worn, lined visage and slow, never hurried gait. And makes it his own.

MSDOCSK EC001Creating a believable foundation for Mr. Gyllenhaal to lash out with teen angst in discovering he is good at and enjoys its pursuit, no matter how harebrained to may seem to his Dad. Also notable for how reined in and respectful Mr. Gyllenhaal’s Homer is in this regard. Explaining a future he and his father cannot fully comprehend. And how he wants to fit into it.

Very high marks for Joe Johnston for fluidly juggling the main story. Which is Mr. Gyllenhaal’s to carry. As well as so many subplots that swirl about. And reel themselves in so nicely long before the final credits. A capability that will pay off so well in later films, Hidalgo and Captain America: The First Avenger. Aided by cinematography by Fred Murphy. Editing by Robert Dalva. Superb hardscrabble and dirty art direction by Tony Fanning, making parts of Eastern Kentucky look so much like the smoky hills of West Virginia. Aided by a memorable, period-tinged soundtrack by Mark Isham.

getTV Mickey Rooney Blogathon: THE ATOMIC KID vs. BABY FACE NELSON by Jack Deth

As part of the getTV Mickey Rooney Blogathon, Paula’s Cinema Club is pleased to present this post by occasional contributor Jack Deth. He is also a regular contributor at Flix Chatter, so be sure and check out his posts there too.

Welcome, all and sundry!

When given the opportunity to examine, elucidate, and opine on Mickey Rooney, one of Hollywood’s busier actors of the 1930s and ’40s — opposite up and coming heavy-hitter Spencer Tracy in Boys Town, and countless young romantic musicals with Judy Garland, while being front and center in a string of shorts as very young man, “Mickey,” to a succession of lighthearted films about the travails of Andy Hardy — it’s the decade beyond that sparked my interest, in a quest to seek answers to the question: What now?

The 1950s presented Rooney with a string of offerings, some memorable, some not, which he took in a desire to put distance between himself and the characters most fondly remembered, cherished, and empathized with.

Two lesser-known films from this era caught my attention long ago, left their mark, and nearly demanded a second viewing, to see if that juvenile magic was still there. And for the most part, both films remain intact.

Without further ado. Allow me to proffer two distinct views of one of the more unsung character actors:
Breaking Away From Andy Hardy: A Mickey Rooney Double Feature
The first is a nearly forgotten, rarely seen, B & W post-Atomic Bomb comedy from 1954, directed on a miniscule budget by Leslie H. Martinson, and buttressed with the flimsiest of plots in and around the deserts of Nevada, New Mexico, and far southwest California.

ATOMIC-KID-finalThe Atomic Kid (1954)
Where Mr. Rooney plays amateur archaeologist, mineralogist, and uranium prospector, Barnaby “Blix” Waterford. Down on his luck financially and romantically, Blix and his partner and longtime friend, Stan Cooper (marvelously gravel-voiced and slovenly Robert Strauss, who played Sgt. Stanislaus “Animal” Kuzawa in Stalag 17) hear a rumor about a mineral lode deep beneath the sands of New Mexico. (Read: the outreaches of government-owned and -facilitated White Sands Testing Range.)

Atomic Kid~2 Blix and Stan approach the next-to-nothing town. Stan decides to wait and watch at a distance as Blix stumbles in, investigates, and eventually enters one standing clapboard home in the deserted, middle-of-nowhere “town,” sees mannequins fully dressed around a family kitchen table, feels hungry, and decides to raid the pantry for a peanut butter and sardine sandwich.

While far away in a sandbagged bunker, high-ranking Army officers and white-smocked scientists (amongst them, the always-reliable Whit Bissell) start the countdown for a Nuclear Test, then notice activity in the far-off rocks around mesas outside the “town.” Soldiers arrive. Stan tells them that Blix is somewhere in the “Test Town”. The countdown can’t be stopped or aborted. The bomb high atop a tower explodes!

A mushroom cloud rises. Winds gust and swirl dust and debris to all points of the compass rose. The dust settles and Jeeps and trucks arrive as guards set a perimeter. Stan and an entourage of scientists gather around outstretched Geiger counters.

Atomic Kid~3The site is hot. Just shy of leveled. Testament to the weapon’s destructive power. As a sound is heard, a pile of rubble and shingles shift. And Blix twists and inches out. Sandwich scorched on one side. Obviously unscathed. But speaking at about six times normal speed, and radioactively hotter than a three dollar pistol. Questions abound as Blix is taken to a lab and soaked in a heavy water tank to leech off some Roentgens.

Refreshed and his speech back to normal, Blix is introduced to Nurse Audrey Nelson (Elaine Devry, aka Mrs. Mickey Rooney at the time). And his luck changes. Though it’s kept in check, kind of, with a wristwatch-like device that points to different levels of danger when Blix gets excited. Which becomes often and obvious, as light fixtures in the immediate area that were turned off suddenly have brightly glowing bulbs.

Atomic Kid~4With the passage of time. Men in dark suits and hats arrive, announcing themselves as the FBI, and want Blix to roam around Vegas and other spots to help flush out a Communist spy ring. Blix obliges. With Nurse Audrey safely ensconced in a hotel room nearby at first. Becoming inseparable with time. As contact is made, and the Commies being just as sloppy and ill-focused as you would imagine in the 1950s. Led by stalwart Robert Emmett Keane as “Mr. Reynolds,” and Peter Brocco as “Comrade Mosely.” Blix plays dumb, once delivered to the spies’ hideout. Becomes excited as future plans are laid bare. Pulls off some razzle dazzle with lights, lab equipment and appliances. As the spies panic and run into the waiting arms of the FBI.

After all the excitement settles down. Blix decides to throw fate to the wind and ask Audrey to marry him. Audrey is standoffish at first. Yet slowly agrees. Sealing the deal with a kiss that lights up the romantically darkened room, to the point that the FBI agents covertly watching from across the cul-de-sac have a fair idea of what’s going on.

What Does Mr. Rooney Bring To This Role?
Not really a buffoon, but more of life’s recipients of sad to bad tidings, enriching a rather flimsy plot and heightening the writing of a young upstart named Blake Edwards, in a “bread and butter” Republic Studios film that clocks in at 86 minutes.

Mr. Rooney also produced the film and used its budget frugally. Pinching pennies, though not really cutting corners, when necessary, while director Lewison uses Mr. Rooney’s talents as an ensemble player, if not the continuous focus of attention. All of the stock players have their times to shine. Especially Robert Strauss and Ms. Devry (the only woman in the cast), bouncing emotions off Mr. Rooney, who has lovely timing, and a penchant for riding the roller coaster from sad to ebullient and back again.

Is ‘The Atomic Kid’ a great film? No. Though it is a worthwhile diversion.And not just for its rarity.
A fairly well executed and streamlined into the near absurd. Not to be taken seriously. Outside of a fairly decent attempt to switch and take on a character a bit older and wiser than one which was a meal ticket only a decade earlier.

Which brings us to another journey of exploration, and a bit of exploitation, in a low-budget B&W United Artists release, directed by up-and-comer Don Siegel. And a screenplay, courtesy of Daniel Mainwaring (Out of The Past) and Irving Schulman.


Baby Face Nelson (1957)
Which opens with the standard honorarium to the FBI and its agents, then shifts to the shadow-swept confines of Joliet Prison and the release of shabbiily-suited Mr. Rooney, as low-rent nobody and recidivist criminal Lester M. Gillis, to the tender mercies of 1933 Illinois.

Baby Face Nelson~2Fully expecting to follow the straight and narrow. Gillis is offered a ride within seconds of the prison gates closing. A ride to see “Mr. Rocca” (Ted De Corsia), leader of a small gang of bootleggers on Chicago’s south side, who may have had a hand in sending Gillis to Joliet originally. No love is lost, nor manly hugs exchanged, as Rocca explains the reason for Gillis’ early parole.

A Union bigshot is making too much noise and needs to be taken care of. Pointed out by Rocca as they share the back seat of a touring car. Gillis is given a silenced pistol to do the job. Gillis wants none of it. He takes the Rocca paid for hotel room, bathes, and is off to see his girlfriend, Sue Nelson (beguiling Carolyn Jones, long before “The Addams Family”). She watches the register and buzzer to the back-room offices of one of Rocca’s many pool halls.

Kisses are savored and a date is set for three hours later, when Sue goes off shift. In the interim, Gillis reads that his intended target has been murdered. Detectives bust in, and find the silenced pistol taped to the roof of the room’s flush box. A classic frame. Gillis is arrested. Booked. And gets to see Sue through a mesh screen before being shipped back to Joliet.

Sue finds out when and where Gillis is be loaded on the train to Joliet, and intervenes. Stumbling before two armed guards as Gillis knocks both unconscious and Sue wheels around with a getaway car, to ambush and seek revenge on Rocca and his hideout’s deserted staircase. With that task accomplished, Gillis decides to take Sue’s last name as they go to see if John Dillinger (Professional Bad Guy Leo Gordon) could use an extra gun hand. Dillinger nicknames the new arrival “Baby Face”. Gives him a Thompson. And explains their next payroll heist.

Baby Face Nelson~3Cleverly executed, with the main guns hiding in a plumber’s van as the armored car arrived at the factory. Dillinger and his crew have the drop on the guards. A steam whistle shrills. And Nelson cuts loose. Dropping the three guards as they head off to lick wounds and hide out at the out-of-season Little Bohemia Lodge, where unlicensed and lecherous, “Doc” Saunders (Cedric Hardwicke) works on Dillinger, and starts flirting with the recently-arrived Sue.

Dillinger doesn’t want the heat of three dead bodies and cuts Nelson and Sue loose. The two head west to Minnesota and a string of bank and payroll robberies. Courtesy of architect and engineer “Fatso” Nagel (Jack Elam), who supplies schematics and blueprints. One robbery goes bad, Nelson is wounded, and decides to return to the one place no one will look. The Little Bohemia Lodge.

A group of FBI agents decide to play a hunch after Dillinger is betrayed and removed from the spotlight of “Public Enemy Number One”, and are spotted shortly thereafter. An agent (Dabs Greer) is shot and killed. Baby Face becomes a worthwhile substitute, as Nelson and Sue begin putting together their own gang, among them, Homer van Meter (Perpetual Sap Elisha Cooke, Jr).

A final job is suggested by Nagel, with the help of the FBI — a bank job, whose execution catches the Feds off guard, with the addition of tear gas grenades. Van Meter and the rest of Nelson’s gang locked in the bank’s vault. And a hail of gunfire as Nelson and Sue slip through the Fed’s dragnet.

I’ll leave it right here for spoilers’ sake.

What Does Mr. Rooney Bring To This Role?
An apocryphal and tabloid-splashed take one of the Midwest’s lower-tier desperadoes, heightening the folklore while bringing creepy life to a short and shallow man with an enormous chip on his shoulder.

Mr. Rooney fills the bill quite well. With mercurial mood swings, especially when and where Sue is concerned. Taking his anger out in grisly and cleverly edited ways. Letting his long-smoldering sociopath out to play and be glimpsed by Sue, who still loves him.

Backed up by a satisfactory Rogues Gallery of solid character actors of the day, on both sides of the law. Especially Mr. Hardwicke’s drunken “Doc” Saunders, Leo Gordon’s arrogant John Dillinger. And the building, grounds, lakes and dusty roadways around The Little Bohemia Lodge, a very familiar backdrop for several gangster and desperado films of the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s. All under the touch of aspiring Don Siegel, adding another notch in his gun belt early on in his quest for greatness. And creating another noteworthy step towards branching out and away for Mr. Rooney!

This post is part of the getTV Mickey Rooney Blogathon hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen, and Outspoken & Freckled, taking place throughout the month of September. Please visit the getTV schedule for details on Rooney screenings throughout the month and any of the host sites for a complete list of entries. You can access the entire getTV schedule here and check to see if getTV is available in your area here.