That Guy Dick Miller – USA, 2014 – review

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‘ …After this movie, you’ll know Dick’

That Guy Dick Miller is a 2014 American documentary feature film directed by Elijah Drenner (RoboTalk; American Grindhouse), focusing on the career and associates of durable actor Dick Miller, a mainstay in early Roger Corman productions. In horror, sci-fi and drive-in exploitation, Miller amassed a six-decades-long career of bit roles and cameos in numerous genre films (and TV shows), sometimes cast out of pure affection from filmmakers who considered Miller a good-luck charm for a production.

Rewarding nostalgia buffs and movie cultists, director Elijah Drenner may veer towards the scrap-bookish in his affectionate tribute, but it’s nonetheless pretty much everything one would want to know about a familiar angular face encountered by virtually every horror/sci-fi film viewer: character actor/cameo star Dick Miller (who died in 2019).

Brooklyn-born son of opera singer Rita Miller, Miller went west to break into Hollywood as a writer but found more gigs as an actor, starting in 1955 in Roger Corman’s prolific low-budget features. Playing cowboys, Native Americans, astronauts, garbagemen, gangsters, cops, butlers and even a medieval leper (and sometimes writing scripts of his own on the side), Miller had a reliable regular-guy/hipster presence.

While best known for supporting parts and surprise-gag walk-ons, Miller registered a few solid leading roles in Corman quickies – a swaggering aerospace scientist in War of the Satellites and his virtual signature, Walter Paisley, the would-be beatnik artist who attains critical success only via homicide, in the darkly comedic A Bucket of Blood (1959).

Miller could have portrayed Seymour Krelborn, slave to a man-eating plant, in Corman’s mini classic The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), however because it was virtually the same role and dramatic arc as Walter Paisley, he deferred to his castmate friend Jonathan Haze (also interviewed).

The narrative uses Miller as a jumping-off point for a lot of Corman/American International Productions history (it’s almost an alternative cut of the 2011 Roger Corman documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel). A virtual drive-in reunion occurs, of actors Mary Woronov, Robert Forster, Robert Picardo, Corey Feldman, author Leonard Maltin, producer Jack Hill, directors Corman, John Sayles, Allan Arkush, Fred Olen Ray, and, of course, Joe Dante, who especially fancied casting Dick Miller again and again and again (most famously as a guy who gets run over by a snowplough in Gremlins). In all this, Dick Miller almost becomes just a bit player in his own saga (an oddly fitting fate).

Aside from pain over his parents’ divorce and his mother’s early death (and having his scene being cut from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction), Miller himself seems to have had few tortured regrets. A long, contented marriage to a gorgeous starlet, Lainie (Miller shows off a tattooed nude of her on his arm) cements the impression of a life and career well-lived, despite – or because of – being in some of the dodgiest material in B-movie creature-feature Late Show cinema. Only one commentator feels compelled to point out that Dick Miller always delivered the goods as an actor; thus he had the talent for much better roles than the disposable cops or weaselly underworld types he usually got.

My own oddest cameo with Dick Miller is, alas, not explained in the film. Don’t ask me for the title, but I once opened a student textbook about live plays, and there, in a near full-page illustration, was a photo of Dick Miller, in full makeup as Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Dick Miller’s last screen credit was in the comic horror film Hanukkah (2020), in which he played a rabbi, named Walter Paisley.

Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES & MANIA

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