Dick Miller, character actor king—once dubbed “the best actor in Hollywood” by his old pal Roger Corman—has died. A blue-collar working actor with more than 180 credits to his name, Miller appeared in some of the most beloved films of multiple generations, including The Terminator, Gremlins, Corman’s A Bucket Of Blood, and dozens more. Talking to us in 2012—in a wide-ranging Random Roles interview that also covered getting pissed on by monkeys, having a priceless heirloom stolen by Jack Nicholson, and referring to Francis Ford Coppola as “what’s-his-name, who makes the wine”—Miller summed up his career like this:
When it was happening, it was again the old feeling of, “Ah, I’m working.” You know? I really never got excited about the size of a part. I didn’t realize the staying power of stars, when you got top billing, and then you’ve got to go a little lower, a little lower. But maybe that’s why I’ve been around so long.
Originally a writer (and a bit of a conman before that), Miller sold jokes to TV shows and stories to studios before getting absorbed into the Corman movie machine with 1955's Apache Woman. The two men ended up making more than 20 movies together, with Miller playing parts ranging from tiny—like the flower-eating weirdo who wanders into Mushnick’s in the original Little Shop Of Horrors, or the Ramones-loathing police chief in Rock ‘N’ Roll High School—to starring roles like murderous artist Walter Paisley in Bucket Of Blood. (The Walter Paisley name would haunt Miller throughout his career; Corman disciple Joe Dante later established the tradition that any unnamed Miller character was another Walter waiting in the wings.)
Through their collaborations, Miller made contact with pretty much everybody who made their way through the unofficial, low-budget, high-throughput film school Corman ran in ’60s and ’70s Hollywood; the list of directors he would eventually work with includes Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, Sam Fuller, Dante, Tarantino, and numerous others, most of whom owe some debt or another to Corman’s efficient-but-cheap aesthetic. One of the keys to that formula, of course, was knowing good actors who could serve as reliable, professional chameleons embodying everything from deranged murderers to regular-Joe everymen (while also—and this was the important bit—always remembering their lines). Time and again, Dick Miller earned his spot as one of those go-to guys.
No year was more high-profile (relatively speaking) for Miller’s career than 1984, when he scored some of his most memorable parts, including showing cybernetic hitman Arnold Schwarzenegger his stock of weaponry in James Cameron’s sci-fi hit The Terminator. (From the same Random Roles: “We had a little talk before the scene, with Schwarzenegger smoking his cigars, big stogies. We sat around, he said, ‘How you gonna play this?’ He says, ‘You’re in fear.’ I say, ‘These guys aren’t in fear, this is a gun shop.’ He says, ‘What about the size of the man?’ I said, ‘Happens every day. Motorcyclists, guys like that.’”) For people of a certain generation, though, Miller’s defining role came that same year, in a much stranger production: Walter Paisley is a name for horror fans, but if you grew up on Gremlins (or its even-more-bonkers sequel), Miller will always be bad-luck neighbor Murray Futterman to you.
Outside a few of those early Corman pictures, Dick Miller was never exactly a Hollywood star. Across nearly 200 credits, he never had top billing on a movie; rarely had his name in lights. (One exception: 2014's documentary That Guy, Dick Miller, which interviewed his numerous co-stars and directors in celebration of his very particular expertise.) What he did have, though, was the character actor’s gift for making just about every movie he showed up in a little bit better, and a little more real. Miller had a singular talent for taking small parts and making them far more memorable than those with a dozen more lines to their names, or imbuing empty characters with a grouchy twinkle that stuck with you well after his invariably single scene was done. He was funny, and laid-back, and never forgot that acting was, first and foremost a job—but one he clearly got one hell of a kick out of doing.
Miller died this week, at the age of 90. His last role was in the soon-to-be-completed horror movie Hannukah; he’s credited as “Rabbi Walter Paisley” for the part.