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R.I.P. character actor veteran Michael J. Pollard

Photo: Columbia Pictures (Getty Images)

Michael J. Pollard has died. A character acting veteran whose round cheeks and distinctively soft voice helped him project winning vulnerability in films stretching from Arthur Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde all the way up to Rob Zombie’s blood-soaked House Of 1000 Corpses, Pollard appeared (and, more often than not, stole scenes) in more than 100 films and TV shows across his 60-plus year career.

Hailing from Passaic, New Jersey, Pollard initially found his niche in the world of television, where his short stature and boyish face—combined with a penchant for tossing off the occasional bit of chilling menace—made him a regular on the Gunsmoke and Route 66 circuit. The most memorable of these early gigs came when he scored a guest-starring role on a then-little-known NBC science fiction show called Star Trek; as the oldest of the semi-feral children who serve as the major threat in the show’s first-season outing “Miri,” Pollard squared off against William Shatner as a sort of coldly malevolent (yet still strangely cherubic) cult leader.

The next year, Pollard would bring that same boyish enthusiasm for the darker side of human nature to the national stage, when he was nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting role in Penn’s celebrated Bonnie And Clyde. As gas-station-attendant-turned-getaway-driver C.W. Moss, Pollard served as a sort of audience surrogate to the antics of the title pair; through his clearly starstruck eyes, it wasn’t hard to understand how one might get swept away in the violent charisma of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s uber-stylish brand of thievery. (When Beatty made his brightly colored passion project Dick Tracy 22 years later, he was sure to give his old pal Pollard a part.)

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Now an established face in the Hollywood ecosystem, Pollard would spend the next few decades pursuing the life of the working actor. In the 1970s—an era that never met a charismatic actor with a distinctive brand of off-kilter energy it didn’t like—that translated into a series of high-profile starring roles along some of the biggest stars of the day. Pollard got a title role opposite Robert Redford in 1970 in Little Fauss And Big Halsy, and another (solo this time) in 1972's Dirty Little Billy, a ground-level biography of the early days of Billy The Kid. (Another fine entry in his long filmography of young men who are almost painfully sweet—right up until they snap.)

In the ’80s and ’90s, Pollard aged into the ranks of the truly great character acting oddballs. Appearing opposite the likes of Bill Murray, Steve Martin, and Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone—in Scrooged, Roxanne, and Tango & Cash, respectively—he remained endlessly capable of drawing the eye to himself, regardless of whoever he happened to be sharing the screen with. His performance in Murray’s Christmas Carol riff can serve as an especial gut punch, swerving as it does between some of the movie’s silliest moments, and directly into some of its darkest.

Pollard continued to work into the 2010s—most notably appearing as a foul-mouthed old-timer in the opening of Zombie’s 2003 cult classic. Meanwhile, his legacy crops up throughout the pop culture history of the latter half of the 20th century, in music (Jim Lowe’s “Michael J. Pollard For President”), in the memories of fans of his film, and even in the form of odd pieces of Hollywood trivia. (Did you know, for instance, that the “J.” in Michael J. Fox’s name is a direct tribute to Pollard’s work?) Throughout it all, he maintained a youthful, innocent grin—even while saying and doing occasionally horrible things.

According to Variety, Pollard died yesterday. He was 80 years old.

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