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Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Eugene Roche Approach

Live Like A Character Actor

I have known several dogs named "Brando."

A majestic malamute owned by a stormy, creative couple. A regal German Sheperd who rode shotgun in a friend's Lincoln. And the running mate of a college wrestler in-training.

No Anthony Quinns, but three Brandos? (though, on a side note: I did meet a great dane named "Robert Mitchum" walking the streets of Watertown, Mass. No lie).

And I come to this...

Marlon Brando would've made a terrible pet dog. Sure he would've come flying out of the gates, redefining the standby leaping through blazing hoops and luring girls at the dog park. But I imagine by his fifth birthday ( or 35th, as it were) he'd have found the whole dog-thing pretty boring, and would have sought contentment on a pillow or some remote part of the house, matted and snarly to the touch.

Maybe he could eke out a "Last Tango in Paris" moment of passion when a neighbor's cat stirs him, but his movements would be decidedly his, and for a dog or an actor and maybe even a man, such a temperament is a drag for everyone.

It seems that if you stumble upon a fitting best friend, one willing to sleep alongside you when others won't, who will fight the good fight when your honor is encroached upon and, maybe with limping gait but without surrender, will retrieve the tennis ball from the mucky pond, you might want to name him: Paul Dooley or Edie McClurg or Leo Gordon or Emmet Walsh or Gloria Grahame or J.T. Walsh, or of course, Eugene Roche.

Dogs likened after character actors would never disappoint.


Very simply, characters actors are never main-billing in the film; character actors are not known for being presented with a vehicle for them.

Again simply, they are subordinate to the piece but their role and how they play it brings authenticity to a character whose function is to move the story along; they play that role in a way that does not distract from the story. The story is bigger than them.

Not two-dimensional. Not cartoonish.

They are what every actor should be, and they do what every actor should works towards.

This is why improvy-types who are meant to steal the scene ( I'm thinking at this moment of the guy who gives up his car in the store parking lot in "Superbad") are not character actors: these types function more as, say, a keyboardist in a rock band called out of the shadows and introduced by the lead singer (in their case, the screenwriter or Director) for their power solo while the song meanders.

They are referred to as "that guy" by hipsters during drinking games and late-night TV sketches. But without that guy or gal, the scene doesn't work, and "that guy" is a mighty big compliment of a job well-done:

-That woman who asks Elisabeth Shue and Nicholas Cage to leave the desert motel with a twangy smile in "Leaving Las Vegas".

-That guy who insults Joe Pesci by asking him to shine his shoes in "Goodfellas."

- That woman in "Picnic" who drunkenly embarrasses herself by making advances towards William Holden and then exposes him so he has to leave town.

Without them, the scene acts as an interlude player tap-dancing their way across the stage with a card reading "End of Act I", or at home, a commercial...

-Why is Olympia Dukakis, though she fills the screen nicely and has a kinda funny New York accent,  talking to Melanie Griffith like she's a headhunter for an employment agency?

-I think it's great that Ben Affleck got a personal trainer and can do chin-ups, but I'd really like to get back to that story about bank robbers...?

And when they reappear, they masterfully apply their stamp to the performance while maintaining its integrity; like Coltrane's "My Favorite Things": it is both characteristic JC and unmistakably Oscar Hammerstein.

And yet, like a jazz musician, they don't play it the same way twice...

The aforementioned Paul Dooley in both "Breaking Away" and "Sixteen Candles" plays a working- class, no-nonsense father who loves his kids who happen to be in emotional flux. And yet, the characters are so distinctly different in ways I can't quite put my finger on that I needed to double-check IMDB to make sure it was the same guy before I wrote this.

The hey-day of early TV and Film owes so much to character actors who showed up on the Paramount Lot and convinced us that they were camped along the Ponderosa or new in Carson City (and up to no good).

And the few brave and artful who have carried their legacy forward have been quietly rewarding audiences for decades.


Paul Thomas Anderson's brief stay at NYU ended when an paper he handed in for Freshman Screenwriting was returned and he got a C.

Convinced that a program that would give such a paper such a grade was not a place that would get him where he wanted to be, he left soon thereafter.

The assignment had been to write a scene of action. No dialogue (no doubt, a herd of hissing Tarantinos made their break for Mercer St.).  It should tell the audience who the character was in a page or two.

PTA's scene was of a man driving home late at night, fighting to stay awake. From an overflowing dashboard ashtray he pulled a half-smoked butt. He lit it and held it between his fingers as he dozily drove. When the cigarette burned down, it would sting him awake just as the car was veering off the road. He lit another and continued the process until he got home.

End of scene.

That's a C? Anderson creatively conveyed a character who was inventive, more than a little reckless, hard-working, steadfast, etc. And that character, Anderson told us, was Jimmy Hoffa, and all we know of Hoffa's story indicates exactly such a character.

More, the scene had been written by Pulitzer Prize Winner, David Mamet. While it didn't make it to the film starring Jack Nicholson, PTA loved it so much that when pressed for time, he pulled it from the treasure trove of scripts you'd imagine the young Paul Anderson would have and handed it as his own.

Forgive me as I swat at the low-hanging fruit...

This fekokteh instructor:

Had he or she going into the course been handed the pages Anderson submitted and told it was the work of Mamet, I would bet dollars to donuts that they would hold it up as a piece to be emulated, admired and something that all writers should works toward.

But when presented with it a student attaining what the assignment's ostensible goal is they are threatened and indignant.

Sure, PTA lifted the work. What's it matter? Had he written such a scene as he would in the next year with his short films, would he have done better?

Maybe you think that the instructor was looking for steps ("It's all about the process..." yawn...)? Or maybe you think that it's PTA's grabbing the work of an established writer that should be in question.

What? Does PTA think he's better than his classmates and can't go through the same program?

The education of screenwriters and actors is a very different one from, say, lawyers: law school encourages each student to be competent and confident of their skills in dealing with anyone. Reasoning, critical thought should be what you all aspire to...

Not the few, the blessed, the great.

Screenwriters and actors are not taught to be journeymen, at least they seem to be reminded of the immaculate creations of the legends...

"The moment he took the stage, you knew there was magic..."

In J.T. Clark's "Bare Bones Book of Screenwriting," the author reminds the fledgling writer of who he or she is not. Sure the writer decided they wanted to be writer after seeing such and such a movie- "I want to make films like that...", but Clark is convinced that killing that spirit is the way to go.

Regarding non-linear storytelling that the reader might've picked up watching "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," he tells the aspiring screenwriter to dump those dreams "Unless your name is Guy Ritchie."

Sure, the good ones broke the rules...but you're not them, he says.

(Truth be told, as far as its instruction on format, the book is very good. In all fairness).

In the film class, the students carry the belief that going the steps will lead them to a role in the business. Paul Thomas Anderson was lucky enough by-pass because he's "talented."

Anderson claims that having grown up around the business allowed him to see what was possible; to pull down the curtain and see who was really at the controls...and that it was a more human endeavor than people would have you believe.

In a way, Anderson's using Mamet's scene was, as well as a vote of confidence that he could write such a scene, a plug for young people making films; the willingness to take the class, to pursue the career, put them all in company of Mamet.

Mamet himself writes of the "ideal democracy" created by a company actors and writers or the film set.

PTA's leaving NYU was an act of standing up against the pressure to follow the hierarchal route prevalent in entertainment: The legends, the middle-types (e.g., what such classes encourage) and those who are neither.

To further arm himself, the visionary director peopled his casts with a sea of the most loyal and uncompromisingly creative: Character actors.


Does Raphael Ravenscroft ring a bell?

If the name doesn't, then his saxophone riff from Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" most certainly does, and it's the best thing you've ever heard.

Admit it.

Whether it was over the PA during skating classes at the YMCA ice rink, or while you drove in your father's station wagon (for an odd moment, you both impulsively whistled to the same song), that solo has memorialized something in that head of yours.

And never do you lose track of the song's intent or the words (sad and ironic) that Raffertey almost hums out, they are framed by the sax riff:

                               "He's got this dream about buying some land
                                 Gonna give up the booze and the one night stands..."

Ravenscroft is essentially a character actor. Sure, you might be able to recognize his licks from UB40 or Pink Floyd, but he never danced in a video for a lesser (but wildly selling) song with a cartoon cat in a zoot suit or found his way to Jay Leno's bandstand.

And for the Rafferty session he was paid less that $50 (U.S.) by a check that bounced.

But you decide...

-I wrote the screenplay for the Cameron Diaz/Ashton Kutcher movie that you hated

-I was on that sitcom on ABC about the roommates


-Me? Oh yeah, well, I played sax on a song by Gerry Rafferty called "Baker Street".

Your call.


Had you ever bumped into Eugene Roche, you might have pointed and said: "Hey, the Ajax man!"

Roche probably would've said "Thanks...put my nine kids through college."

But to the TV director assigned to the episode where pathos interrupts the normal comic fare, he was a savior:

On the All in the Family episode entitled "The Draft Dodger", Roche plays Archie's equally salty pal, Pinky Peterson who's been invited over for Christmas dinner. Peterson's son has recently been killed in Vietnam.

Unbeknownst to Archie, stepson Mike has also invited a friend of his...who turns out to be a draft dodger.

After heated moments and discussions in the kitchen, Archie confronts the young man in front of Pinky, booting him from the dinner.

Pinky steps in and tells the young man that he would be honored to have dinner with him, and that he's sure his son would have wanted to sit with the man, also.

I'm tempted to say something like "Only a man with nine kids would be have the depth to convey that loss..."

But it's more than that: the average actor, it seems, is so encouraged to convince us that they are without blemish (or every blemish is deliberate; "part of getting into character") that when they do emote such feeling, one can't help but be a little distrusting.

 As David Mamet puts it in "True and False", there is no character, "only you": the person you are on and off the stage, and your craft allows you to present that honestly responding the author's words.

In George Roy Hill's "Slaughter House Five",  Roche's Edgar Derby is killed for "stealing" a clock while waiting release in Dresden. The hangdog Roche being led away with memento in hand, as it had been in Vonnegut's novel, is the centerpiece of war's absurdity.

And while many gush when Deniro has the courage to parody himself in "Analyze This" or "Meet the Parents"- the aging actor accepts his waning bite- Roche's comic turns as fumbling hard-boiled Private Eye, Luther Gillis, on Magnum P.I. presents a far richer comic possibility than the old-man-who-once-was great: The old guy who was always ridiculous.

Some say that they liked actors who "look like they'd be good to have a beer with."


Or those who look like they can't wait to get through check-out, eating the bag of chips as they roll the aisles of the grocery store.

Who knows if Roche did either, but he embodied something that demanded such humanity be kept alive, even as the business seeks to make it extinct.

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