Dick Miller was the kind of actor the phrase “no small parts” was made for. People remember his performances, no matter how brief or seemingly unimportant, simply because he made his character memorable.
Mr. Futterman is probably his canon performance: the one everyone knows. One of the reasons we remember it is because Miller sells us on the mortal terror of his character. It’s this crazed realization that he’s trapped in a Tex Avery cartoon — that he is about to be gruesomely murdered by something patently ridiculous. We identify with Mr. Futterman because we’ve all been hit by something out of the blue that we were not expecting. And there’s always that painfully human moment – pure existential horror mixed with borderline disbelief in the middle of an absolute bananas movie – that Miller captured perfectly in his performance.
My wife’s favorite – and a lot of other people’s – is The Howling, where he acted as friendly local plot exposition. Werewolves had been out of vogue for a while when The Howling joined the lycanthrope bumper crop of 1981, and Dante clearly felt a refresher on the basics were in order. And yet nothing is hoarier and creakier than “here’s how you kill a classic movie monster” dialogue, which can turn the scene into dead air.
Dante solved the issue by throwing Miller at the problem. Suddenly, a recitation of the rules turns into a cool character: someone who actually makes you turn on the movie just to watch him snarl the whole silver-bullets lingo like a surly mechanic explaining how to change a tire. It’s delightful… and it’s all Miller’s.
But my favorite performance of his comes in The Terminator: barely a minute long and serving no purpose other than reminding us that killer robots are super assholes. As he could do so well, Miller paints a complete character in almost no screen time. He winks at the camera just enough to relish the rich irony of a gun shop owner killed by his own merchandise. Yet at the same time, he makes the character human enough to let us feel for him. “This guy didn’t do anything to deserve a shotgun to the face. HE HAD THE PAPERWORK AND EVERYTHING!”
It’s a little piece of a great film that has plenty going on over and above that scene. But the whole thing was just a littler bit better because Miller was in it.
Sometimes, those little moments can add up to an amazing career… one that makes you miss the actor like nothing else once he’s gone.
RIP Dick Miller.