Icon Of The Month: Dick Miller

That’s right, this month the fantastic Dick Miller, is my icon of the month.

Richard “Dick” Miller was born on December 25, 1928 in The Bronx, New York and lived through the Great Depression. He began his career in the world of entertainment at the age of 8 as a singer at a resort in the Catskill Mountains. At 15, he got a job painting scenery for a Summer Stock company. That is where he first tried his hand at acting. Despite being underage he lied about his age and signed up for Navy service in World War II in 1945, he was quickly accepted thanks to his then muscular built. The war was fought and won though before Miller could do much fighting, but he distinguished himself in the Navy as a middleweight boxer. 
After his Navy career, he attended the City College of New York and the Columbia University, supporting himself playing semi-pro football and working as a radio DJ. Miller also took jobs in the medical field and he started to perform on Broadway. In 1950, he had his first small breakthrough, when he along with Bobby Sherwood co-hosted the TV-show “Midnight Snack”, nowadays regarded as possibly the first late night television talk-show. More stagework followed, and slowly but steadily, Miller was building himself a reputation as an actor. When he moved to California though in circa the mid 1950’s, Miller was looking for work as a writer.
Once in California, Dick Miller quickly became friends with Jonathan Haze, an actor who had just been in a few films by Roger Corman. Corman was back then pretty much a newcomer to movie-producing and directing himself, being involved exclusively in making low budget drive-in schlock, but he had produced Haze’s screen debut – “Monster From The Ocean Floor” (1954) – and Haze was in his first film as a director, “Five Guns West” (1955), and all subsequent ones so far, even if his roles were usually rather small. Corman must have spotted Dick Miller’s potential almost immediately, because he made him a member of his stock ensemble almost on the spot.
Roles in Miller’s early Corman films were rather small though, in his debut “Apache Woman” (1955) he played a hat-wearing Indian called ‘Tall Tree’ and he also had an extra role as part of a posse of white men. In his next few Roger Corman films, Dick Miller’s roles were hardly any bigger, there were the Westerns “The Oklahoma Woman” and “Gunslingers” and the science fiction film “It Conquered the World”, all from 1956. A turning point came in 1957, when he was cast as a vacuum cleaner salesman in Roger Corman’s “Not of this Earth”. True, his role was not much more essential for the film’s plot than his earlier bit parts, but in this one he could probably for the first time demonstrate his almost uncanny ability to make an even pointless scene his own and make a lasting impression.
As a result, in his subsequent Roger Corman films, Dick Miller’s roles grew gradually bigger, and with a few exceptions he was constantly climbing up in the credits: There were “Naked Paradise”, “Carnival Rock”, “The Undead”, “Rock All Night” and “Sorority Girl” from 1957 and “War of the Satellites” from 1958, all directed by Roger Corman, and all basically typical Roger Corman fare. This all almost inevitably led to Dick Miller’s first lead in a film, Roger Corman’s “A Bucket of Blood” (1959), a horror comedy that also poked fun at the beatnik artist scene, with Miller playing a wannabe sculptor whose masterpieces are actually corpses covered in clay. 
A comedy was of course the perfect vehicle for Miller, he  had a natural talent for it, In all, A Bucket of Blood might be no bona fide masterpiece, but it’s a cheap but extremely enjoyable little horror comedy that over the years has gathered quite a cult following, plus in many of his later films, Dick Miller would be called ‘Walter Paisley’, a hommage to his role name in A Bucket of Blood – yet the film did not lead to more lead roles for Dick Miller, however Miller did often wonders with the roles he was given to play.
The 1960’s pretty much started just like the 1950’s ended, almost literally, with a horror comedy for Roger Corman, “Little Shop Of Horrors” (1960) – which in fact was shot back to back with “A Bucket Of Blood” and, according to legend, in no more than 2 days. Miller however did not play the lead in “Little Shop Of Horrors”, this role was reserved for Jonathan Haze, who plays a klutzy flower shop assistant who by chance discovers a rare plant which makes him rich and famous.
Unfortunately it tends to eat humans – and to not lose the fame he has gained and the adoration of shop assistant Jackie Joseph, he starts killing people to feed his plant – not at all unlike Miller’s character in “A Bucket Of Blood” actually. What makes “Little Shop Of Horrors” so special though and so endearing to its many fans is not only its main storyline but also its many scene-stealing appearances by Corman regulars, like Jack Nicholson as the masochist dental patient – or Dick Miller as a plant eating flower shop patron.
Even though Dick Miller’s roles didn’t get bigger in the Roger Corman films after these two comedies, the actor continued his association with the director throughout the 1960’s (and pretty much throughout Corman’s career as a director), appearing in Corman’s sword and sandal epic “Atlas” (1961), his Edgar Allan Poe adaptation “The Premature Burial” (1962) – incidently his only one that did not star Vincent Price -, the multi-director shocker “The Terror” (1963, Roger Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, Jack Nicholson), the sci-fi classic “X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes” (1963) starring Ray Milland, the biker-flick “The Wild Angels” (1966) starring Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra, the gangster film “The St.Valentine’s Day Massacre” (1967) – this one starring Jason Robards as Al Capone -, and the Jack Nicholson-scripted LSD-film “The Trip” (1967), once again starring Peter Fonda.
In the 1960’s, with “Capture That Capsule”/”Spy Squad” (1961, William Zens), Dick Miller also started to work for other directors but Roger Corman on feature films (he had done so on television since the late 1950’s). In “Capture That Capsule”, a low budget espionage flick, his role is actually relatively big, but soon enough, just like in the Corman-films, he would usually be only cast in small roles, and even most of his films weren’t that big.
There was the classic war film “The Dirty Dozen” (1967, Robert Aldrich), but for this film he didn’t even receive an onscreen billing, and it is more than outweighed by a bunch of beach party and ski party movies for various studios, like “The Girls On The Beach” (1965, William Witney), “Ski Party” (1965, Alan Rafkin), “Beach Ball” (1965, Lennie Weinrib) and “Wild Wild Winter” (1966, Lennie Weinrib), all harmless teen films with extremely thin plots and musical interludes.
Other films from the 1960’s include the Western “A Time For Killing” (1967, Phil Karlson) starring Inger Stevens and Glenn Ford, but also featuring a young Harrison Ford, the car race feature “The Wild Racers” (1968, Daniel Haller) starring Fabian and Mimsy Farmer, and another (uncredited) role in a Robert Aldrich film, “The Legend Of Lylah Clare” (1968), this one starring Peter Finch, Kim Novak and Ernest Borgnine.
The early 1970’s brought only little news to Dick Miller’s career. On one hand, he finally got the chance to write a handful of screenplays, on the other hand acting wise, it was just like before, small roles in mostly small films. These included several flicks by Roger Corman’s newly found company New World, like the sex flicks “Night Call Nurses” (1972, Jonathan Kaplan), “The Young Nurses” (1973, Clint Kimbrough) and “Candy Stripe Nurses” (1974, Alan Holleb)  – all three films quite obvious cash-ins on New World’s earlier success “The Student Nurses” (1970, Stephanie Rothman) -, the Filipino-co produced stewardesses vs martial artists-flick “Fly Me” (1973, Cirio H.Santiago), and more erotica in the form of “The Student Teachers” (1973, Jonathan Kaplan) and “Summer School Teachers” (1974, Barbra Peters).
All these films seemed to spell out that Miller’s career was going nowhere in big letters – yet Miller marched on and never gave a less than solid performance. And eventually, a few more interesting roles in a few more interesting films came along the way, away from New World, which at the time was strictly small time.
“The Slams” (1973) starring Jim Brown and “Truck Turner” (1974) starring Isaac Hayes are both blaxploitation flicks directed by Jonathan Kaplan, who knew Miller from his days with New World, who would go on to bigger things, and who would cast Miller again and again over the years. Then there’s “Executive Action” (1973, David Miller), a film about the JFK-assassination starring Burt Lancaster and scripted by Dalton Trumbo, “Capone” (1975, Steve Carver), a gangster film about, you guessed it, Al Capone, with Ben Gazzara in the title role and a young Sylvester Stallone, and the truck-driving film “White Line Fever” (1975, Jonathan Kaplan) starring Jan-Michael Vincent.
Even back at New World, Miller’s films and roles had improved a bit, with movies like the gangster films “Big Bad Mama” (1974, Steve Carver) starring Angie Dickinson, William Shatner and Tom Skerritt and “Crazy Mama” (1975, Jonathan Demme) starring Cloris Leachman and Stuart Whitman – both of course cash-ins on Corman’s own very successful “Bloody Mama” from 1970 starring Shelley Winters plus a young Robert de Niro -, and then there was “Darktown Strutters”/”Get Down” and “Boogie” (1975, William Witney), basically a totally over the top blaxploitation musical. In the mid-1970’s though, Dick Miller’s past caught up with him, and in his case, this wasn’t such a bad thing, as his luck began to change for the better.
Dick Miller originally went to Hollywood to become a writer. However, it did take him over 15 years to really write something for the screen. His first endeavour was to co-write the screen story (with scripters Dee Caruso and Gerald Gardner) for “Which Way To The Front” (1970), one of the later Jerry Lewis films in which the comedian directs himself. Unfortunately, writing Jerry Lewis comedies was a completely thankless job, as a director he couldn’t help but make himself the center of attention all the time, neglecting all supporting characters and subplots. 
One year later, Dick Miller wrote the story for “Four Rode Out”/”Cuatro Cabalgaron” (1971, John Peyser), a Spanish/US-American co-production starring Pernell Roberts of Bonanza-fame, Sue Lyon of Lolita-fame, Julián Mateos and Leslie Nielsen, which is a Western, shot in Spain.
It was in 1975 though that Dick Miller made his ultimate contribution as a writer to the ‘trash film’ pantheon, “T.N.T.Jackson” (Cirio H.Santiago), a blaxploitation flick he co-wrote with Ken Metcalfe, that New World decided to shoot in the Philippines and that features Jeannie Bell as a martial arts-wise sister in a very revealing role.
It’s the mid-1970’s now, Dick Miller has been in feature films for a good 20 years without his career ever getting a real boost, mainly because Hollywood bigwigs consider him a B-movie actor with AIP and New World and therefore not good enough for their A-movies. However, since Miller’s humble beginnings in the 1950’s a new crop of directors has taken over, and they remember Miller from their childhood and their teens when they saw him on screen and – not yet able to distinguish between A- and B-pictures – only remember him as a familiar face that popped up time and again in their favourite films.
The first of this new crop of directors was Jonathan Kaplan, who has regularly cast Miller from the early 1970’s (and “Night Call Nurses”) onwards, but the actual film that spells out Miller’s rediscovery best is probably “Hollywood Boulevard”, a film by Allan Arkush and Joe Dante from 1976. In itself, “Hollywood Boulevard” is a loving homage to 1970’s grindhouse movie making (ironically made by one of the main providers of grindhouse movies at the time, New World) about a naive girl (Candice Rialson) coming to Hollywood trying to make it big as a moviestar but starting out in cheapskate formula flicks with Dick Miller, playing Ms Rialson’s sleazy yet compassionate manager who in the end tries to get Robby the Robot to star in a remake of “Gone With The Wind” (1939, Victor Fleming).
Now casting Dick Miller has not been a coincidence, nor has he just been cast because he was on the New World-payroll, Miller is actually a part of the hommage-aspect of the film, which is also why he is called ‘Walter Paisley’ in this one, just like in his breakthrough film ‘A Bucket Of Blood’. Quite obviously, Joe Dante (whose directorial debut this was) was very pleased with Dick Miller as an actor,as he has cast him in each and every of his feature films (not all of his TV-movies and shows though) since then, and his career has really skyrocketed from the low budget depths of New World to multi-million Dollar special effects movies for Hollywood’s big production houses – which is of course a good thing,  “Hollywood Boulevard” was followed by “Piranha” in 1978 – in which Miller played a thick-headed and corrupt mayor -, “Rock’n’ Roll High School” (1979) – a musical comedy featuring the Ramones, the werewolf flick The Howling (1981) – in this one Miller plays the owner of an occult library -, Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983, segments directed by John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Dante and George Miller) – here Miller plays alongside genre veterans Kevin McCarthy and William Schallert in a remake of an episode of the series Twilight Zone from 1961, “It’s A Good Life”.
Then came “Gremlins” (1984) – possibly Dante’s most successful and most famous film up to date -, of course the sequel “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990), the sci-fi movie “Explorers” (1985) – starring a very young River Phoenix and a very young Ethan Hawke -, “Innerspace” (1987) – Dante’s hommage to “Fantastic Voyage” (1966, Richard Fleischer), starring Martin Short next to Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, Kevin McCarthy and William Schallert -, the episodic comedy “Amazon Women On The Moon” (1987, co-directed by John Landis, Joe Dante, Carl Gottlieb, Peter Horton, Robert K.Weiss), “The ‘Burbs” (1989) – a black comedy about life in the suburbs and distrust against all new influences starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern and Carrie Fisher, “Matinee” (1993) – a homage to science fiction double features and kiddie matinees from the 1950’s starring John Goodman as a filmmaker based on both William Castle and Bert I.Gordon with Dick Miller playing a phony legion of decency crusader -, “Small Soldiers” (1998) – a film about toys come to life -, and “Looney Tunes: Back In Action” (2003) – a film about the popular Looney Tunes characters coming to life.

Apart from those, Dick Miller also acted in several (but not all) of Dante’s TV-projects, like “The Second Civil War” (1997), “The Warlord: Battle For The Galaxy” (1998), one of Dante’s episodes for “Police Squad”, “Testimony of Evil” (Dead Men Don’t Laugh) (1982) and one of his episodes for “Amazing Stories”, The Greibble (1985).

Hollywood Boulevard co-director Allan Arkush also used Dick Miller time and again, in above-mentioned “Rock’n’ Roll High School” (1979), in “Heartbeeps” (1981, Allan Arkush), the musical comedy “Get Crazy” (1983, Allan Arkush) starring Malcolm McDowell as a punk-rocker, “Shake Rattle and Rock!” (1994) starring a young Renée Zellweger, as well as several episodes of the TV-series “Fame” (1985 – 1986).

However, Joe Dante and Allan Arkush were not the only ones who rediscovered Dick Miller, quickly others followed suit, like Paul Bartel, who cast Miller in his car chase movie “Cannonball!” (1976). Martin Scorsese, by then already a respected director cast Miller twice, in “New York, New York” (1977), a musical starring Robert De Niro and Liza Minelli, and in “After Hours” (1985) a comedy starring Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, Cheech & Chong, and Linda Fiorentino. Then there’s of course Steven Spielberg who used Dick Miller in his comedy “1941” (1979), Sam Fuller, who cast Miller as an animal trainer in his movie about a racist dog, “White Dog” (1982) starring Kristy McNichol, and James Cameron, who had Miller, playing a pawnshop clerk, shot by Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator” (1984).

There was also Jonathan Kaplan, whose career slowly but steadily gained momentum and who had the habit of casting Dick Miller every now and again, including the Terence Hill-starrer “Mr.Billion” (1977), the TV-thriller “11th Victim” (1979) – on which Miller’s old pal and former Corman-actor Jonathan Haze worked as associate producer -, the drag-racing drama “Heart Like A Wheel” (1983) starring Bonnie Bedelia and Beau Bridges, the science fiction “Project X” (1987) starring Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt, and “Unlawful Entry” (1992) starring Kurt Russell, Ray Liotta and Madeline Stowe.

On the other end of the cinematic spectrum, Dick Miller was also the subject of rediscovery by Fred Olen Ray. He has done a-lot for seasoned actors fallen from grace with the Hollywood bigwigs e.g. for Buster Crabbe, John Carradine and Ross Hagen, to name but a few. Miller made 3 films with Fred Olen Ray, the action “Armed Response” (1986) starring David Carradine, Lee Van Cleef, Mako, Ross Hagen and Michael Berryman plus Laurene Landon, the Mafia-comedy “Mob Boss” (1990) starring William Hickey, Morgan Fairchild and Stuart Whitman, and the wacky partly animated horror comedy “Evil Toons” (1992) starring once again David Carradine, Monique Gabrielle, plus the film has Michelle Bauer as Miller’s wife.

Miller also gave performances in a few films by lesser known directors, films like “Dr.Heckyl and Mr.Hyde” (1980, Charles B.Griffith – writer of both “A Bucket Of Blood” and “Little Shop Of Horrors”) – a horror comedy starring Oliver Reed in the lead role(s) -, the sci-fi flick “Space Raiders” (1983, Howard R.Cohen), Jim Wynorski’s  robot slasher “Chopping Mall” (1986) – this one also stars Barbara Crampton, Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov, Mel Welles and Angus Scrimm and has Miller once again playing a character named Walter Paisley.

There’s also the alien invasion hommage “Night Of The Creeps” (1986, Fred Dekker), “Dead Heat” (1987, Mark Goldblatt) – a cop/zombie movie with Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo in the leads plus Vincent Price, Keye Luke and Darren McGavin -, “Amityville 1992: It’s about Time” (1992, Tony Randel), “Attack Of The 5 Ft. 2 Women” (1994, Julie Brown, Richard Wenk) – a musical parody of both the (then current) affairs of ice skater Tonya Harding and penis chopper Lorena Bobbit starring Julie Brown -, and “Demon Knight” (1995, Ernest R.Dickerson, Gilbert Adler) – a spin-off of the then popular “Tales From The Crypt” TV series. 
Actually, Dick Miller was also to be in the film “Pulp Fiction” (1994 Quentin Tarantino), but unfortunately, due to the length of this movie, Miller’s scenes landed on the cutting room floor – which is a real shame.

Miller would of course also accept routine supporting roles in on-genre flicks , films like “The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood” (1980, Alan Roberts) the third of the Happy Hooker-films with Martine Beswick in the lead plus Adam West, “Smokey Bites the Dust” (1981, Charles B Griffith), “All the Right Moves” (1983, Michael Chapman) with a pre-superstar Tom Cruise in the lead, “Angel III: The Final Chapter” (1988, Tom de Simone), the earthquake thriller “Quake” (1993, Louis Morneau) starring Steve Railsback, and the thriller “Number One Fan” (1995, Jane Simpson) starring Steve McQueen’s son Chad McQueen, to name but a few. 

Sporadically, Dick Miller has been on television since the late 1950’s, in series like the crime series “M Squad” (1958), “Dragnet” (1958) as well as the newer version, “Dragnet 1967” (1967), “The Untouchables” (1959), “McCloud” (1972) starring Dennis Weaver, “Police Woman” (1974) starring Angie Dickinson (in the episode Seven-Eleven that also starred Larry Hagman of later Dallas-fame and Jeannie Bell of later T.N.T.Jackson fame), “Hunter” (1977), “Moonlighting” (1987) starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd, “NYPD Blue” (1999) and “Snoops”(1999), the Western series “Bonanza” (1963), “Wagon Train” (1964) and “The Virginian” (1964), the World War II-series “Combat” (1966), and the sitcoms “Soap” (1979), “Taxi” (1979, 1982), “Who’s the Boss” (1990) starring Tony Danza and a young Alyssa Milano and the movie-spin-off-series “Clueless” (1999), and the hospital series “General Hospital” (1982) and “ER” (1999).

However, it was after Miller’s rediscovery that he finally got bigger roles in series like the mini series “V: The Final Battle” (1984, Richard T.Heffron), “Tales From The Darkside” (1985), “Amazing Stories” (1986), “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1988) as well as “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” (1995), the Nightmare on Elm Street-spin-off “Freddy’s Nightmares” (1989), “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” (1994) and “Weird Science” (1996). Miller even had recurring roles in two series, “Fame” (1984 – 1987), a spin-off of the dance movie by the same name, and “Flash” (1990 – 1991), a short lived series based on the DC-comicbook. Dick Miller’s only directing credit was also for television, an episode for the second season of the hit series “Miami Vice” called The Fix (1986), starring Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, but also featuring Michael Richards in a supporting role.

In the new millenium, Dick Miller has slowed down his output, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since he by the turn of the millenium he was already 71 years old. However, with films like “Route 666” (2001, William Wesley) starring Lou Diamond Phillips, Lori Petty plus L.Q.Jones, the cyber-thriller “Maximum Surge Movie” (2003, Jason Bourque) and the wonderfully titled “Trail of the Screaming Forehead” (2007, Larry Blamire) and “The Hole” he still keeps going.

In 2014 a documentary of his life and career was released entitled “That Guy Dick Miller”.

“You can’t really describe it until you see it.” – Dick Miller

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