Dick Miller Top Ten

January 31, 2019
Dick Miller was one of the most beloved character actors in the second half of the Twentieth Century, particularly for aficionados of the work of Roger Corman and Joe Dante. Stephen Vagg runs his eye over his top ten Miller performances.

Rock All Night (1956)

Miller drifted into acting by accident – he was more interested in writing – but was lucky enough to be spotted by producer-director Roger Corman, who took a shine to Miller and frequently cast him in his films, starting with Apache Woman (1955) – and considering Corman was cranking out a couple a year, it added up very quickly. Rock All Night was Miller’s first lead, a low budget quickie directed by Corman, based on a TV play about a night spot held up by gangsters. Miller is a guy with a chip on his shoulder who becomes a hero – a James Cagney-esque style performance, and it’s surprising Miller didn’t play more Cagney-style cops and gangsters in his career, maybe he would’ve gotten more leads that way. He’s a lot more comfortably cast here than he was in Corman’s War of the Satellites (1958).

Not of This Earth (1957)

A modern day vampire film written by the legendary Charles B. Griffith and directed by Corman. Miller has a brilliantly entertaining cameo as a vacuum cleaner salesman killed by the vampire, setting the tone for the scene stealing he would specialise in throughout his career.

Bucket of Blood (1959)

Perhaps Miller’s best known lead role, this was a black comedy written by Griffith and directed by Corman. He plays Walter Paisley, a nebbish man whose lust for a woman leads him to kill people and pass off the corpses as sculptures. The film became a cult favourite – it was remade in 1995 – and prompted Griffith to rework the plot as The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), which became an even bigger cult sensation. Miller was offered the lead for that too but turned it down, feeling it was too close to Bucket of Blood, though he did play a support role. Personally, I prefer Little Shop (the writing is tighter, the lead is an accidental killer as opposed to a flat-out murderer), but Miller is superb as Paisley. He would go on to play characters called Walter Paisley in Hollywood Boulevard (1976), The Howling (1981), The Twilight Zone (1982) and Chopping Mall (1986).

The Terror (1963)

This film has one of the craziest making-of stories of all time: Roger Corman had sets left over from The Raven (1963) and decided to make a film around it, using a few days commitment from Boris Karloff and a crew of up and comers including Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill and Dick Miller. The film actually holds up quite well and is great fun. Miller and Nicholson are miscast as Frenchmen in the time of Napoleon but they’re part of the film’s charm.

TNT Jackson (1972)

Miller’s not actually in this film – a blaxploitation kung fu movie – but he did write it. It’s silly fun, and probably could have used Miller’s presence in the cast. Miller had ambitions as a writer, and did a number of screenplays, only a few of which were made. They include this and the Jerry Lewis film, Which Way to the Front? (1970).

Hollywood Boulevard (1976)

The best known of the “three girls” films produced by Corman’s New World Pictures. Starting with The Student Nurses (1971), they would tell the adventures of three (sometimes four) girls in the same profession (nursing, teaching, acting) during which they would take their clothes off, deal with some social issue and have a comic subplot. Many of the films starred Miller in a supporting role (The Student Teachers, Night Call Nurses, The Young Nurses, Summer School Teachers, Fly Me, Candy Stripe Nurses). Hollywood Boulevard was among the last of the cycle but is probably the best known, because it was the directorial debut of Joe Dante and Alan Arkush. Producer Jon Davison bet Roger Corman they could make the cheapest ever New World Picture, something they accomplished by using footage from other New World movies. The film is a delight for buffs, with Charles Griffith, Joseph McBride and Jonathan Kaplan in small roles, Candice Rialson giving a charming star performance, and Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel delivering fantastic support turns, along with Miller, who Dante and Arkush (and Kaplan) tried to use in pretty much every film they made from then on. The rape scene isn’t cool.

Rock n Roll High School (1979)

Another cult hit from New World Pictures, which Alan Arkush directed with some help from Dante. It’s full of great performances, including PJ Soles, Woronov and Bartel, the Ramones, and Miller. According to Joseph McBride, Miller adlibbed some of his role.

Gremlins (1984)

Joe Dante’s biggest hit remains a gloriously entertaining Christmas movie, with Miller given one of his best roles as the xenophobic repairman Murray Futterman. Miller reprised his role in the brilliant 1990 sequel.

The Terminator (1984)

There are so many memorable moments in this film, but Miller’s turn is among the best – as the gun store owner who sells the Terminator guns and is then killed by the Terminator using those guns. I think of this scene every time there’s a gun massacre.

That Guy Dick Miller (2014)

Proof of how beloved Miller was – they made an actual feature length documentary about him, which is amazing for someone whose career mostly consists of only playing a few scenes in films. But they are superb performances in great films which people love – and a great deal of that love is because of Miller. So why not? (The documentary does feel padded in places but is a lot of fun).

RIP Dick.

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