Remembering Character Actor Dick Miller

Feb 1, 2019
Originally published on February 4, 2019 10:45 am
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Dick Miller, the character actor who appeared in dozens of films by Roger Corman and his many proteges, died Wednesday. He was 90 years old. Corman cast him in such low-budget genre films as "A Bucket Of Blood," "The Terror," "The Trip" and the original "Little Shop Of Horrors."

Several of the directors who grew up watching Corman's movies or got their start working for him later paid tribute to Miller by casting him in their films. Martin Scorsese gave him the part of a club owner in "New York, New York." Miller had a small part in Jonathan Demme's "Swing Shift" and Joe Dante cast Miller in every one of his films, including "Gremlins" and "Gremlins 2," where he plays the neighbor who comes to visit just as the gremlin invasion begins.

Terry Gross spoke to Dick Miller in 1990. Before he made films, Dick Miller lived in New York, where he was writing, producing and directing for TV and theater. He went to Los Angeles hoping to write screenplays, but met Roger Corman, who offered him a film role instead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DICK MILLER: He was doing his - I believe a second film, picture called "Apache Woman" with Lloyd Bridges. The guy who introduced me said, Dick's a writer. You need any scripts? He says, I got plenty of writers. I don't need any scripts. I need actors. I said, I'm an actor. He said, OK. I'll stick you in the movie. I played an Indian in my first picture.

About halfway through, he asked me - he said, would you like to play a cowboy? I said, you're doing another movie already? He says, no, in the same movie. I said, you're kidding. He says, no. He says, come back next week and play cowboy in town. So I wound up playing a cowboy and an Indian in my first movie and darn near came close to shooting myself in the final shootout.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: (Laughter) Did anybody in the audience notice that it was the same person who was a cowboy and an Indian?

MILLER: I don't think so. Since it was so early, I mean, there was nothing to recognize. Nobody could say, oh, I've seen him before - a lot of dark makeup and some nose plugs. And the difference was - you could tell. If you look close - if somebody said, that's the same guy, you'd say, oh, of course it is. But I don't think anybody was looking that close.

GROSS: Did you have to learn how to ride a horse for the movie?

MILLER: Oh, yeah - the old Hollywood story. Can you ride? Yes. You know, can you jump out of an airplane? Sure.

(LAUGHTER)

MILLER: Without a parachute? Of course. You know, they ask you all kinds of things, and you got to lie and say, of course I can do that. I had ridden a little up to that point - horses in stables in Central Park and places like that and dude ranches, but nothing like cowboys and Indians. And I just figured, I've seen it done. I can do it. And that's pretty much how I learned. I learned on the first picture.

GROSS: You played the lead in the 1959 Roger Corman movie "Bucket Of Blood," and this has become a real cult classic. You - as the leading role, you were a waiter in a beatnik coffee house. And you become an artist by covering first at - your dead cat in clay, and then by killing people and covering the corpses in clay and passing it off as sculpture. And once this artist becomes really acclaimed, you also become quite the hipster. Was it fun to spoof the hipster in the movie?

MILLER: Well, it was made at the height of the coffee shop era. Everybody was going in for espresso...

GROSS: You mean a coffeehouse. Yeah.

MILLER: Yeah. And that was the basic idea behind the picture - was the hipster coffeehouse groupies at that time and the people who hung around and the no-talents and the talents of that era. I think later on, Roger Corman made a picture called "The Trip" about the first, you know, big psychedelic outings that were going on, which was a little more serious. But it was also meant to cover that genre of what was happening at the moment. I loved making "Bucket Of Blood." I think it still stands as my favorite picture.

GROSS: The movie was shot in, I think, five days. Can you give us an idea of how you made a movie that quickly?

MILLER: Well, five days was not as tight as it seemed. They were making TV half-hour shows in 2 1/2 days then. People who had that down had that type of a - that was a finger snap.

GROSS: Right.

MILLER: People who had that down at that moment could make movies that fast. We were - when I started with Roger, we were making Westerns, and we would make them in six days. And that was - it seemed like a fair amount of time. And later on, we got an extra day - a seventh day or an eighth day - and I thought, this is great. What a luxury.

So by the time we got around to making "A Bucket Of Blood," five days was kind of a press, but most of the picture was shot in two sets. So it wasn't that much of a push. It's a matter of learning a technique. I think later on, when he made the famous "Little Shop Of Horrors," which was supposed to be made in two days and - actually, two days and a couple of spare nights - that also wasn't too much of a push. The people who were involved in it seem to think, well, two days. OK, we'll try it. And if it doesn't work, we'll add another day.

GROSS: But I understand you were offered the lead in "Little Shop Of Horrors," but you turned it down. Why didn't you take it?

MILLER: I have a track record of turning down a lot of pictures for a lot of unknown reasons, even to myself. I think at that time - and I was hungry in those days. I would turn down jobs and say, I don't want to do it. I turned down "Little Shop Of Horrors" because I had just finished doing "Bucket Of Blood." And I thought I was being asked to do the same character again.

This was before they had sequels. If I had known it was going to be a sequel or a sequel character, I probably would've done it and been very happy. I kind of regretted it over the years. I turned it down kind of on an artistic level. I said, I've done this part. I don't want to do it again. Give it to somebody else.

GROSS: How come you stayed with Roger Corman for so long? And how long was it?

MILLER: Let's see. When I went to work for Roger, I was not that serious about my career. I still didn't know if I wanted to be a writer, although I had stopped writing. I mean, I worked as an actor in movies. I just said, this is kind of nice. I found it very easy to work for him. He was doing a lot of work - I mean, as many as five or six films a year.

So I stayed with Roger five or six years and wound up doing about 35 films for him in that period. The work was easy. It was constant. I didn't have to look for jobs, which is the most difficult part of being an actor, I think. And I found myself - every couple of months, I'd get a call from him and say, we're going to do another picture. And we got a nice part for you. And as the roles got better, it became easier and easier to stay in that position.

GROSS: Did he always write a role for you?

MILLER: I will always be grateful for Roger - to Roger for the fact that he didn't write roles for me. He let me do almost any part that came up. I think the opening picture was kind of the sign of which way we were going. I played a cowboy and an Indian. Well, you're not going to typecast me that way.

(LAUGHTER)

MILLER: You know? You're not going to say, this guy does - he does cowboys only or Indians only. I suddenly found myself playing rocket scientists, demented busboys, leading men, villains, everything. And he never said, you can't do that part, you know? He'd said, can you do this? Can you do that? I said, I can do anything. And I found myself in 35 pictures playing, practically, 35 different roles. I don't think many actors get that kind of opportunity.

GROSS: Well, Joe Dante has cast you in every one of the movies that he's made. And I think that a lot of the people who became well-known directors after working for Roger Corman ended up casting you in their films. You know, Joe Dante's an example. Allan Arkush, you were in his "Rock 'N' Roll High School." Help me out with this. What are some others?

MILLER: OK. Marty Scorsese.

GROSS: Yeah, "New York, New York." You played a club owner.

MILLER: Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Kaplan.

GROSS: So were you self-conscious about this...

MILLER: Steven Spielberg...

GROSS: Oh, really?

MILLER: ...Not to overlook Steven.

GROSS: Were you self-conscious about this, knowing that people were paying homage to you in a way? I mean, they'd seen you in all these movies. Do you know what I mean? And your parts were, in a way, an homage to yourself.

MILLER: I was flattered. And I think, probably - Scorsese was the first one who summed it up for me when he was doing "New York, New York." I went in to see him. And I said, what do you want me to read? And he said - he says, I've been watching you since I'm 13 years old. You don't have to read for me. You know, he says you got the part. Just - Bobby De Niro's going to come in here. And we'll try some ad libs and see how you, you know - if you got that feeling with each other, which we did. And that was it.

And I suddenly realized there were a lot of guys out there who started watching me when they were young teenagers and spent 10, 15 years watching me. And now they're grown up. And they're producing and directing and writing. And they want to use me. And I, really, was flattered. It took a while for it to reach me. But once it did, I was truly flattered.

BIANCULLI: Dick Miller speaking to Terry Gross in 1990 - the familiar character actor died Wednesday at age 90. Coming up, I review the new Amazon TV miniseries "The ABC Murders" based on a novel by Agatha Christie. It stars John Malkovich. This is FRESH AIR.

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