The movies are filled with familiar faces with seemingly forgettable names. They’ll never see themselves on a marquee or win an Oscar, but people like Bob Gunton, Paul Gleason, and Brion James always make their brief moments onscreen count. Their presence often raises the level of a film, if even for a few minutes, but while most viewers would agree with the sentiment the actors go unsung in the general consciousness.
Dick Miller is another one of those guys. He’s been in over 200 films, and while a couple of them saw him in a major or even leading role the vast majority found him simply as the clerk, the man behind the counter, the cop, the [insert generic occupation here] guy. If you’ve seen a Joe Dante movie then you’ve seen Miller in action, and the odds are almost as good if you’ve ever seen a Roger Corman film. Miller is pictured in Webster’s dictionary beside the word “ubiquitous.” That last one’s not actually true, but the guy gets around.
That Guy Dick Miller is a new doc that shines a light directly on Miller and his career, and it offers an affectionate and loving look at the man through his own words as well as those of the people who love him. His wife, brothers, and numerous actors and filmmakers share thoughts on what makes him stand apart even in the tiniest of roles.
Director Elijah Drenner initially set out to make a simple DVD extra for a film featuring Miller, but his initial interviews made him realize the wellspring of love for the guy as well as the atypical story behind his career. Turning it into a feature seemed only natural, but as is the understood curse of the character actor the film too frequently drifts away from Miller and threatens to focus on someone or something else.
Corman, Dante, Fred Dekker, Corey Feldman, John Sayles, and others talk about Miller, and his appeal, but Drenner gives precious minutes over to tracking some of their early careers and how they crossed over with each other before reaching Miller. It’s unnecessary and feels like a series of mini making-ofs, and ultimately they take time out of a ninety minute film for people that aren’t Dick Miller and aren’t talking about Dick Miller either. It’s striking, but perhaps not all that surprising, that Miller’s sheer force of character shines bright enough to lift the film above those flaws.
Miller’s personal life isn’t the central focus here, but his wife and two brothers offer some sweet insights into his persona, but it’s the film-related anecdotes that stand out. His first feature, Apache Woman, saw him cast as both an Indian and a cowboy, because why not? He originally came to Hollywood with plans to be a writer, but aside from a couple writing credits his fate found him resigned to be an actor. He continued to write though and currently has a drawer filled with unproduced scripts with titles like Help! There’s a Spy in My Bed. (His wife currently has custody of them and is considering various options.)
He’s also a delightfully straight shooter, and his comments on Jerry Lewis, the lack of true acting giants in today’s Hollywood, and Quentin Tarantino’s behavior in regard to cutting him out of Pulp Fiction show a man unafraid to speak his mind. One of the highlights though is seeing him tell Feldman to “Shut the fuck up kid, we’re trying to act here…” on the set of The ‘Burbs.
It’s clear that That Guy Dick Miller needs more Dick, but fans of the man will find enough here to justify the time investment. Most of us don’t need reminders of his many memorable roles, but there’s a joy seeing a reel of his greatest hits and forgotten bits while he’s still around to appreciate the attention. And if nothing else, you’ll walk away with a bit of wisdom too. It will probably be about biting monkeys, but you never know when that will come in handy.
The Upside: Miller is as charismatic and unassuming as you’d expect; his wife is equally charming; clips, home movies, and still paint a wonderful picture of a man; wide variety of talking heads
The Downside: Too frequently loses focus
On the Side: Lainie Miller played a stripper in The Graduate at the specific request of director Mike Nichols.