Now almost eighty, Dick Miller - a Bronx-born character actor who served in the navy and enjoyed a pre-movie career as a boxer - has been an enduring horror icon for several decades. His first burst of genre fame came with a series of prominent roles for Roger Corman in the fifties, playing a variety of shifty, rough-edged, lowly yet consistently likeable loser-types. Corman liked him so much that, as the antagonistic but endearing unlikely hero of the groovy one-set Rock All Night, Miller even got the girl.
A whole other generation knows him for significantly smaller, albeit no less eye-catching cameos in contemporary hits by directors like James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, and Joe Dante. The latter director has cast him in most of his movies, in roles ranging from adult lead to blink-and-you’ll-miss him walk-ons as a garbage man (The Burbs). Filmmakers who grew up relishing Corman’s nifty B movies have frequently paid homage by casting Miller themselves, including Quentin Tarantino, who gave Miller the role of Monster Bob in Pulp Fiction, though the only way you’ll see it is in the DVD’s deleted scenes.
Even if you don’t know his name, you’ve probably seen Dick Miller supplying weapons to folks in peril (he’s the guy that sells Bad Ahhnold the gun in the pawn shop in The Terminator and he provides handy flamethrowers to our heroes in Night of the Creeps) or cropping up on mainstream TV in the likes of Deep Space Nine, NYPD Blues and ER. His presence has enlivened many a duff movie and added a quirky edge to various good ones. Here are ten of the best…
10 .Sorority Girl (1957)
This hour long exploitation melodrama is a great example of Corman’s B-movie efficiency. Susan Cabot is jaw-droopingly bitchy as the co-ed with a nice shiny car, a super-rich mom and a tendency to behave like a lowly delinquent. Mom swiftly turns against her during her troublesome college years ("You were a brat the day you were born - it was in your eyes!") while Cabot amuses herself by bullying her overweight roommate - notably spanking her with a bat when she fails to do her exercises(!). A web of blackmail, beatings and hair-pulling draws Cabot in deeper when she attempts to manipulate local stud Mort (Miller), a love-em-dump-em rogue.
Mean-spirited right up to the (bitter) end, this movie is galvanised by Cabot’s monstrous turn, but Miller excels as the epitome of 50’s mean and moody cool. Miller’s "Mort" is a hip n happening bartender with a sixth sense for what the "kids" want ("Beer and laughs… beer and laughs!").
9 .Chopping Mall (1986)
A kind of malevolent, cheap and cheerful splatter twist on the Short Circuit movies, this light-hearted robots-amok flick is as amiable a 80’s relic as you’re likely to see, complete with kiss-off lines, bad perms, the prominent use of the words "bitchin’" and "bodacious" and the welcome on-screen return of Barbara Crampton’s breasts before her head explodes.
It’s also a typical 80’s example of fan boy horror filmmaking. Wynorski casts Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov in their Eating Raoul personas, and Miller’s role is among his best 80’s cameo appearances. Cast in his Bucket of Blood Walter Paisley persona, he’s a disgruntled janitor who acts like a typical horror movie janitor, lamenting "If I find the bastards that did this they’re dead meat" before being electrocuted by a psycho-robot that trills "Have a nice day".
8 .Piranha (1978)
Dante’s low budget, jokey riff on Jaws has a dream B movie cast of genre veterans, among them Kevin McCarthy, the divine Barbara Steele, and 70’s horror regular Bradford Dillman, who in the space of a few years had to deal with The Swarm,Bug, Pirahnaand Richard Chamberlain. The U.S. government’s dubious "Operation Razor Teeth" project goes predictably awry, causing a nasty bunch of Rob Bottin-designed rod-puppet carnivorous fish to head toward Dick Miller’s holiday resort and a kids’ summer camp presided over by authoritarian prig Paul Bartel.
It’s a very likeable mix of boobs, blood and deadpan acting, with Miller stealing it in the following dialogue exchange with assistant Shawn Nelson;
Nelson : "The piranha…" Miller : "What about the piranha?" Nelson : "Er, they’re eating the guests, sir…".
7 .Explorers (1985)
In his biggest role for Dante, Miller plays the helicopter pilot who discovers the adventures of sci-fi loving youngster Ethan Hawke and science geek best pal (River Phoenix). Their DIY junkyard-based spaceship enables them to meet aliens who have learnt all about Earth from watching American TV and movies, and have therefore concluded that Earth folk are happy as long as shit is blowing up.
Ignored at the time and barely remembered today, this is a big-hearted adolescent tribute to 50’s sci-fi movies, with an enjoyable array of pot-shots at U.S. pop culture. Robert Picardo steals it in the latter stages, playing all three of the story’s prominent aliens ("We watched all four episodes of Lassie before I realised why the little hairy kind never spoke…") though, in a far less showy turn, Miller brings an earthy charisma that cuts through the whimsy.
6 .Tales from the Crypt Presents Demon Knight (1995)
A key containing the blood of Christ - and crucial to repelling evil forces - is sought after by the handsome, villainous "Collector" (Billy Zane) and protected by William Sadler’s "Braker", both of whom wind up at a low rent motel in this underrated, hugely enjoyable Crypt spin-off movie. Rich with show-stopping gore, the movie has an infectiously loopy turn from Zane, but, surrounded by topless babes and carnage, a dry Miller steals it as the motel’s resident ageing drunk Willy.
Miller’s drunk routine, an echo of Mr Futterman in Gremlins, allows time for deadpan one-liners ("That is disgusting!") and delicious rants in between demonic face-offs: "God’s doin’ some serious thinking tonight… I bet he’s sayin’ 'On second thought, maybe I should have given it all to the monkeys…'".
5 .Gremlins (1984)
A signature Miller role, and one of his best-loved performances, can be found in this marvellously off kilter collaboration of monster movie fan-boy Dante and blockbuster-maestro Spielberg. Dante undercuts the sentimentality inherent in Chris Columbus’ script at every turn and finds space in a big-budget holiday season Hollywood movie for B-movie gags and cameos. Miller plays Murray Futterman, cynical town drunk with a heavy xenophobic streak manifesting in repeated rants about imported technology ("Goddam foreign cars” / “Goddam foreign TV…").
Dante’s generosity to his favourite character actor extends to Miller voicing the dialogue that justifies the film’s title - an extended paranoia speech warning of the "gremlins" that inhabit every element of our lives, from the planes in WWII to watches and walkmans ("You know they’re still shipping them here…"). Mr Futterman and his long-suffering wife (played by Miller‘s co-star in Little Shop of Horrors, Jackie Joseph), apparently bite the big one during a typically broad Gremlin home-invasion involving a snow plough. Such was the audience affection for his character, however, that the anarchic Gremlins 2: The New Batch contrives his return and turns him into an unlikely New York-saving hero.
4 .The Howling (1980)
Dante’s delightfully blends pastiche and straight werewolf horror in The Howling, the movie in which Dee Wallace turns into a lycanthrope live on TV while Dante cuts to assorted underwhelmed viewers who assume it’s a special effects gimmick. A wonderful cast of genre veterans in bit parts include Kevin McCarthy, Kenneth Tobey, John Carradine and Roger Corman.
Miller is hilarious as book store owner Walter Paisley, who just happens to be an expert on all things occultist. Reducing the movie’s central threat to the level of a common pest ("Werewolves? You can’t get rid of the damn things - they’re worse than cockroaches!"), Miller gets the movie’s funniest moments as he bemoans his customer base; "We get ‘em all… Sun worshippers, moon worshippers, Satanists. The Manson family used to hang around and shoplift! Bunch of deadbeats…".
3 .Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
A short, snappy, blackly comic companion piece to Bucket of Blood, this has since been turned into a big-bucks studio musical and a deliciously mean-spirited off-Broadway production, but its original tiny-budget B movie incarnation remains hard to top. Charles B Griffith’s witty screenplay has a host of throwaway bad-taste jokes (like a cop’s casual reference to the fact that his young son has just died after playing with matches) and odd-ball supporting characters.
Everyone remembers Jack Nicholson as the masochistic dental patient ("No Novocaine... it dulls the senses!") but Miller is just as fun in a loopy but underplayed comic turn as a weirdo who eats flowers and only visits the film’s Skid Row flower shop - with a salt-pot - for a tasty meal; "When you raise them for looks and smell, you’re bound to lose some food value…"
2 .Not of this Earth (1957)
A typically efficient and clever Corman no-budget sci-fi horror flick, with a memorable alien in the form of literally bloodless, immaculately dressed Paul Birch, afraid of loud noises and sporting Ray Ban sunglasses. Birch is on a mission to begin a planned takeover of Earth by enslaving its people and using their blood to save his home planet. Among the amusing array of satirically portrayed victims is Dick Miller, as a fast-talking, hard-sell, hip-talking Beatnik Vacuum salesman who just wont quit until he gets a sale.
Miller’s portrayal of this persistent, inevitably doomed furnace-bound character and his droll delivery of the wry dialogue ("No flip flops, please…") ensures the transformation of a throwaway role into comic gold.
1 .A Bucket of Blood (1959)
The quintessential Dick Miller role in a marvellous B movie, A Bucket of Blood proved so pivotal to the actor’s career that many of his later movies re-use the character name, Walter Paisley. (Martin Scorsese cast him as an older version of Walter still in the same dead-end job for his New York nightmare comedy After Hours).
Walter is a timid, put upon busboy at beatnik café The Yellow Door, forever attending to ungrateful customers while fruitlessly pursuing an artistic career. One night at home he is heartbroken when he accidentally stabs his cat but, when he coats it in clay and presents it as a "sculpture", people suddenly flock around him in awe of his talent ("You’ve got a hot light bulb glowing inside of you and I want to be warmed by it…" is a typical female come-on). When he unwittingly brains an undercover cop with a frying pan, the victim becomes "Murdered Man" and is acclaimed as "expressing modern man in all his self pity". With his new found fame, Walter is encouraged to kill and cover in clay anyone who threatens to expose him, but ultimately his guilt and his unfulfilled love for a customer (Barbara Morris) lead him to commit suicide.
Using a House of Wax-inspired horror comic plot outline later employed for Little Shop of Horrors, Corman neatly parodies the pretentious contemporary 'art' world, satirically nails horror movie clichés and shows a fine eye for clever dialogue and ironic plot turns. Miller perfectly embodies one of the most endearingly useless, unlikely killers in movie history - until the end, Walter doesn’t really think about the damage he’s done, he’s just thrilled to be getting so much attention from his 'work'. The surprisingly downbeat ending packs quite a punch because, thanks to Miller’s performance, Walter is the sole appealing character within a horribly pompous and shallow ensemble. A Bucket of Blood is an enduring tribute to this unique actor.