Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Dick Miller has been called “The best actor in Hollywood” by no less an authority than his frequent director Roger Corman. Miller’s debut in Corman’s cheapie Western Apache Woman signaled the beginning of a working relationship that would last for decades. He’s since worked repeatedly for directors such as Joe Dante, Jonathan Kaplan, and Allan Arkush, who seem to regard Miller as a sort of good-luck token. He’s also been directed by the likes of Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, Fuller, Zemeckis, Cameron, and Tarantino; been roughed up by Jack Nicholson in the famously confused production The Terror and shot by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator; and fought Gremlins, giant cucumbers, and Ramones. He is, in sum, less a character actor than simply a working actor, a blue-collar guy whose shop floor is a soundstage. Hanging in the 83-year-old actor’s home is a sign reading “Walter Paisley, Proprietor,” commemorating his greatest role in Corman’s 1959 beatnik classic A Bucket of Blood. (Many of Miller’s subsequent characters have also been given the Walter Paisley name.) Miller spoke to The A.V. Club about getting his start with Corman, eating flowers, and how sometimes, you just have to bite the monkey. (Miller’s wife of 53 years, Lainie Miller, was present for the interview and contributes a number of helpful interjections.)
Apache Woman (1955)—“Tall Tree, Indian wearing hat/Ed, Townsman”
Dick Miller: I was out here as a writer, of all things. Not too successful. I’d been a writer in New York. Did the Bobby Sherwood show, the Bert Parks show.
The A.V. Club: What sort of stuff were you writing? Sketches and that sort of thing?
DM: Sketches, funny bits, one-liners. Like, [Eagerly] “I got a joke!” I came out here, decided, “I’m gonna try my hand at California.” That’s another story, though. So Bobby [Sherwood] was saying to me, “You don’t want to go to California. It’s kind of rough out there, I spent my life out there.” I said, “I’m going to try it anyway.”
So I came out here, and I was out here about a year. Nothing much was happening. I was selling to a science-fiction show, I forget the name of it, outlines for stories. Three, four-page outlines. I had ’em all in my mind, I came out here, I had a hundred of ’em up there. I found this guy, I think his name was Schwartz. I don’t know anything about him now. But when I got to him I wrote a story for him, a little outline, and said, “You think you could use this?” He said yeah. And he paid me a couple hundred bucks for it. So I thought, “Jeez, I could turn out one of these once a week. I got ’em all up here, I got a hundred up here.” He said, “Make me as many as you can!” I said okay. So I was a writer. Sold him six or seven stories before it dried up.
A friend of mine, Jonathan Haze, was working for Roger [Corman]. Roger had done about two pictures, I think, at the time. Jonathan said, “Let’s go see Roger, let’s go see my boss. He’s in…” Oh, it was The Cock And Bull or The Tail Of The Cock…
Lainie Miller: The Tail Of The Cock.
DM: The Cock And Bull. It was on the Strip, it was one or the other. [Haze] says, “He’s over at The Cock And Bull, he’s sharing an office over there.” And we get up there, and he wasn’t sharing an office. He was sharing a desk. [Laughs.] So we get to talking, and he says, “Where are you from?” I say, “New York.” He says, “Uhh, so what do you do?” I say, “I’m a writer.” He says, “Ah, I don’t need writers, I need actors.” I said, “I’m an actor!” Just blurted it out like that, and that’s how it started. He said, “You want to play an Indian for me?” I said, “Yeah, sure, when do we go to work?” He says, “About two weeks.” I thought it was wonderful. And that’s how I met him.
AVC: What was your first impression of Corman?
DM: I thought he was a high-school kid! [Laughs.] He was a young guy, he was vibrant, he was always smiling. He was a charming guy. I didn’t know what directors and producers went through at that time.
AVC: Working for Corman, you probably learn those things pretty quickly.
DM: Oh yeah. So that first film turned out to be Apache Woman, and I was playing “The 10th Indian.” There was a German newspaper article that, when it was translated, called me the 10th Indian. And I wondered, “Why is it the 10th Indian? There weren’t even 10 Indians in the picture!” But they were thinking of 10 Little Indians, the old story. And they wrote an article on me in German. Nobody could read it.
So I was playing an Indian for [Corman]. No lines. There was a scene where a guy’s coming around the corner, and he says to [co-star] Lance [Fuller], “You got to shoot him!” Lance says, “I’m over here at that time with the girl. Let Dick do it!” And then there was another one like that. And it was one of these things where just by chance I wound up the killer. Killed about four people in it, you know, for no reason. And I got one line, and I never knew what it meant. Lance Fuller was playing my boss, and I say, “Good chief, you chief now.” And he doesn’t know what I’m saying either. We still don’t know.
About halfway through the picture, after we’d done the scene where they’re down in the gully and we get wiped out, all the Indians are killed and I get shot, and we never saw the other guys because we hadn’t shot their stuff yet, [Corman] says, “How’d you like to do a cowboy for me?” I said, “In your next picture?” He says, “No, in this picture!” I said sure, but the way the thing was worked out, I was supposed to kill myself. We never got around to it. I said, “I can’t do this,” and he said, “Oh, all right, we’ll take you out of the posse.”
Not Of This Earth (1957)—“Joe Piper”
DM: You’ve gotta understand that these things are very distant in my memory. To try to pull something out of that, like, “What’s a funny story that happened on the set?” It’s like, what the fuck are you talking about, “What happened on the set?” [Laughs.] You know, we’re in, we’re out, that was it.
Lainie Miller: He gets fan mail; people want to know if they can buy a picture of him in some garb he wore in some obscure thing he did.
AVC: Like they think he keeps all his costumes?
LM: Yeah, like we have a warehouse here and he’ll climb in and I’ll send the snap! [Laughs.]
DM: I just remembered a part in Not Of This Earth. Roger had me with a bowtie, and he says, “You’re a door-to-door salesman.” I say, “Listen, Roger, I sold up in the Bronx door to door for a while. I pulled a scam. “I’d go to these people, they didn’t speak English, and I’d tell them “For the down payment you get this whole thing!” Pots and pans. Finest cookware in the world.” They’d sign the thing, and I wasn’t going to stay around. I had about two weeks to make a killing. And I used to get my percentage on it, and the percentage usually covered what they gave as a down payment. But anyway, I said, “I sold up in the Bronx, and I dressed the way I dressed anyway.” I said, “The bowtie may be all right, but…” I think it was the first time I argued about wardrobe. I said, “Let me wear a black shirt, let me just come to the door.” He said all right. And most of it was ad lib. I came up with, “If you want to purchase, purchase, if you don’t want to purchase, don’t purchase.” It just seemed to fit.
A Bucket Of Blood (1959)—“Walter Paisley”
The Little Shop Of Horrors (1960)—“Burson Fouch”
AVC: A Bucket Of Blood was a big one for you, a starring role and the beginning of Walter Paisley.
DM: A Bucket Of Blood. That’s my favorite, I think, my favorite picture. For that time, anyway.
AVC: Was being given the lead a big deal for you at that time?
DM: This is gonna sound—I don’t know what it’s gonna sound like, but in those days I was just glad to be working. I never thought that the part was big; in fact, when I got Rock All Night, which I think was my first starring role, Roger said, “This is the lead.” I said, “Oh gee, that’s good.” I was only thinking, “That means more work,” you know? I wasn’t thinking of it as the lead, I wasn’t thinking I was going to star in a picture. Bucket Of Blood was the same thing. I said, “Oh, good. A chance to make some money.”
AVC: How long was the shoot?
DM: It was a long picture: We shot about five days! [Laughs.] I think everybody confuses it with the one picture Roger made, Little Shop Of Horrors. Little Shop Of Horrors was shot in two days. But two nights, too. But it was basically shot in two days, and it was wonderful: The whole picture was done. They had the two cameras there, and the director’s instructions were, “If you can’t see the camera, you’re not being shot.”
AVC: Was there any rehearsal with these movies ahead of time, or did people just come in knowing their lines and away they went?
DM: You better know your lines. They ran through it once, but that was it.
AVC: After A Bucket of Blood you were offered the lead in Little Shop of Horrors, correct?
DM: Oh yeah. I said, “Well, I already did that part.” That’s exactly how I thought, because there weren’t too many sequels at the time. I didn’t know of anything like that except the Tarzan pictures went on and on. So I said, “I already did that part, I don’t think I want to do that again. Give it to Jonathan [Haze].” I said, “I’ll take anything else in it, I need the work.” And that was it.
AVC: So you got the flower-eater, Burson Fouch. Were you actually eating those flowers?
DM: Yeah, the flowers were nice. [Corman] said, “Eat the flowers.” I said, “Eat ’em? Well at least get some fresh flowers, Roger, not two days old from a funeral!” [Laughs.] I gave them a try and I ate them, and I said, “That’s not too bad,” and then I dug into ’em. They were good. I didn’t stop to think they may have been sprayed or something.
AVC: I guess you spit them out as soon as you heard “Cut.”
DM: No, no! They were there to eat. And I ate ’em.
LM: I didn’t believe him, so he ate flowers in our apartment. I had a great big thing of carnations, and he just dug into them to prove to me that he did that on the set.
The Terror (1963)—“Stefan”’
DM: The Terror was a beauty. Nobody knew where we were going. I don’t think Roger did, I don’t think [screenwriter] Leo Gordon did. I got a call from Roger, he says, “We’re doing a picture. We’re shooting some of the scenes now and some of it a little later.” When I got the script, I said, “This doesn’t make any sense!” [Corman] says, “There’s a lot of scenes with Boris Karloff, and we gotta use him this weekend or he’s gone.” I said, “What’s the story?” He says, “There is no story. We’ll shoot the scenes and then we’ll write a story around those scenes.” Boris and I became friends, good friends.
AVC: I’ve always heard he was a very nice man.
DM: He was. I always liked him. And I got a feeling that Jack Nicholson stole a picture from me. An 8-by-10 picture of Boris Karloff as the Monster. He wrote some nice things on it, and I never knew what happened, but…
LM: You should have asked Jack, because you’ve mentioned this to me a few times. It must bother you, because that, you don’t forget.
DM: Yeah. Well, anyway…
LM: Pick up the phone and call him. Just say, “I want my picture back.”
DM: Well I’m not quite sure it was him. I can say, “Do you have any pictures of Boris Karloff where it says ‘Dear Dick?’” [Laughs.]
So we worked on this picture, and shot for three days with Boris. Interesting stuff. Fade out, fade in: It’s about three months later or so, I don’t know what the time was, and [Corman] says, “We’re going to finish that picture. I said, “What picture?” [Laughs.] He says, “That thing. It’s now called The Terror.” I said all right. He said, “We’re going up to Big Sur, we’re going to shoot up there.” And we went up there. That’s where I met what’s-his-name, who makes the wine. Coppola. [Francis] Coppola was up there. They had a couple directors on that picture, but Coppola did most of it.
We shot up there, and it didn’t make sense yet, and they were rewriting in a hurry. And [Corman] says, “All right, this is what we’re going to do. In this scene, you’re going to explain everything that happened in the picture.” I said, “How are you going to make me do that” He said, “Jack’s going to beat you up.” I said, “Okay, fine.” So they put in the famous against-the-wall scene: “No, it wasn’t me, it was him, and he did that and they did it, and we did it to each other!” And I was like, [Dubiously] “Okay, that explains it.”
Executive Action (1973)—“Rifleman–Team B”
DM: Executive Action?
LM: You were up at Vasquez Rocks, shooting, and when you and I went hiking you found all the shells.
DM: Oh yeah! That’s right. We went up there years later, and I said, “That’s where I was shooting from, up there.” We went up to the top there, I climbed up to the top, and there were shells. We were practicing the assassination of Kennedy, and it was quite a story.
AVC: Do you think that’s how it went down?
DM: I… Yes, I do. Maybe not exactly, but it was pretty well planned, I think.
Hollywood Boulevard (1976)—“Walter Paisley”
AVC: This was the movie where you first worked with Joe Dante.
DM: I loved Hollywood Boulevard. Not because Joe Dante did it, but it was a fun picture and he’s a fun guy, and I liked it. You can probably get a more correct version of the story, but I believe Joe said he could make the picture for next to nothing. He just had all these old ads, old pictures to use, and he cut ’em up and put ’em all together. I don’t know if it was a bet or what, but he did it.
AVC: He and co-director Allan Arkush.
AVC: And you got a big fight scene at the end, and got to rescue the girl.
DM: Yeah, I forgot about those things. That was a nice thing.
New York, New York (1977)—“Palm Club Owner”
DM: New York, New York. Because my wife is taking line dancing now, I hear that song every night. [Laughs, sings opening notes of “New York, New York.”] Because they love to line dance to that. But that was a good picture. Met some nice people on that. De Niro and Liza Minnelli, and Scorsese.
AVC: Did he want you for that one because he knew you from the Corman pictures?
DM: I think so. I know I didn’t audition or anything like that. He had to be a fan. And it was wonderful. I thought it was just great.
Rock ’N’ Roll High School (1979)— “Police Chief”
DM: Yeah, I did a bit in that. The police chief. I remember when we were down there shooting, they came to me and said, “Don’t put on your costume.” Which was a police uniform. “Don’t put on your costume until we’re ready to shoot.” I said, “Why not?” And they said, “Because you may get shot in this neighborhood!” [Laughs.]
The Ramones had a gofer with them. They called him The Clown or something, and he used to keep them laughing and go get coffee for them. And I remember one night, one of the girls was having a birthday, and they got this beautiful cake for her. And The Clown thought he’d be funny, and he started throwing the cake around, and he busted it and I got mad. I very rarely show my temper. So I said, “Go out and get a cake.” He said, “Where you gonna get a cake in this neighborhood?” I said, “I don’t know, Ralph’s, a market someplace, you find it.” He said, “I don’t want to go traveling in this neighborhood!” And I went to the head Ramone, whatever his name is, Johnny Ramone or something, and I said, “Tell this guy if he don’t go out and get a cake for this girl that he just fucked up, I’m gonna fuck him up.” And this guy went out and got a nice cake for her.
But the line that I have in the picture was an ad-lib! I didn’t plan it, but I said, “Boy, are they ugly!” [Laughs.]
AVC: “Those Ramones are ugly, ugly people.”
DM: Yeah! I forget what the hell I said, but I just said it. And [director Allan Arkush] said, “We’ll use that and we’ll drop the other line.” He says, “That’s right. Boy, are they ugly!” [Laughs.]
White Dog (1982)—“Animal Trainer”
DM: White Dog! Well, Jon Davison was the producer on that. Who was the director?
AVC: Sam Fuller.
DM: Sam Fuller! Been trying for two days to find out that name. And I said [to Davison], “I’d like to work with Sam Fuller, just to see what he’s all about, what all the shouting’s about.” And Jon Davison says, “All right, I’ll see if I can get you on for one day.” So he called me up and he says, “You’re playing a veterinarian. There’s no dialogue yet, but it’ll be just little things, like the girl asks you where’s so-and-so, and you say ‘up the road,’ and that’s it. And we’ve got to shoot this scene because Paramount or somebody is paying for the set. They built an entire hospital for him up there and they’ve got to show it.” I said, “Okay, fine. I’ll give it a whirl.”
So we got up there and the guy comes over to me and he says, “You’re working with a monkey!” I say, “A monkey? All right, all right.” He says, “You were supposed to work with a chimp, but the chimp went crazy yesterday, and he picked up one of the grips and held him over his head for 20 minutes. And he put him down about 20 feet away.” I say, “Okay, what’s the monkey like?” He says, “Oh, it’s a cute little monkey, 30-pounder. You keep it on your lap, it’s got long arms.” He’s strapping a belt on me with a little pouch filled with grapes and raisins and everything. And he says, “The only thing is this: The monkey likes to bite.” I said, “Bite?!” He said, “Well it won’t draw blood, but he likes to bite and it hurts a little. And the only way you can stop him is to bite him back.” I said, “You’re kidding!” He says, “No, you grab him by the neck and you bite him on the neck!” I said “Come on, that’s ridiculous, I’m not gonna do that.” He said, “Bite the monkey. Will you do me a favor? He’s gonna get out of hand. Maybe he won’t, but if he does, bite the monkey.”
So we get into the first scene, and I got the monkey on my lap, and I’m sitting by the wall, and the chick comes in, she says, “Where’s so-and-so?” And I say, “It’s up the road a bit,” and the monkey bites me. They say, “Cut, cut, cut!” He says, “Bite the monkey!” I say, “But he didn’t bite me much.” He says, “But he’s biting you, and so just bite the monkey!” But I tell [the monkey], “No!” My dogs react to that: I tell them “No,” and they stop.
So we shoot the scene again, and the monkey bites me again, and I say, “No!” And he stops. It’s wonderful. But I look down and he’s peed all over me! I change my costume, they get me another pair of pants, we go through the scene again, and he starts to bite me again. And I look over, and the guy’s saying, [Whispers] “Bite the monkey! Bite the monkey!” [Laughs.] And I say, “No!” and he stops. I say, “See, it works.” And I look down and the monkey had shit on me. And I’m covered. I say, “This is ridiculous!”
We do it again. The monkey starts to bite me, and the guy’s over there saying, “Bite the monkey!” [Laughs.] He’s in the sidelines, “Bite the monkey!” So I say, “Oh, God!” and I grab the monkey by the neck and I bite him! And he stops. And we finish the scene, I look down and I’m clean as a whistle. He says, “See?” I say, “All right. Bite the monkey.”
Jon Davison’s outside, and I go out and say, “Thanks for the part. I got pissed on, I got shit on.” He says, “The legend lives!” [Laughs.] There is the moral, of course. Whenever you think you know something about this business, there’s always somebody who knows a little bit more.
AVC: So what was Fuller like?
DM: He was a nice guy, but he’s chewing a cigar, and he’s [babbles frenetic, unintelligible directions]. He’s yelling at everybody and screaming. And I figured, “There ain’t too much to him.” I didn’t realize it was going to be his last picture, or next to his last picture.
The Terminator (1984)—“Pawn Shop Clerk”
DM: That’s before Schwarzenegger was Schwarzenegger. Before then he was just a weightlifter, little parts. But we got it on, we did our scene.
AVC: Was it ad-libbed at all?
DM: No. The readings, I think, were kind of ad-libbed. You know, [James Cameron] says, “And at that point you say [panicked shout] ‘Don’t do that! You can’t do that!’” I said, “That doesn’t seem right.” So I just turned and I said, “You can’t do that.” Cameron and I got along great. We had a little talk before the scene, with Schwarzenegger smoking his cigars, big stogies. We sat around, he said, “How you gonna play this?” He says, “You’re in fear.” I say, “These guys aren’t in fear, this is a gun shop.” He says, “What about the size of the man?” I said, “Happens every day. Motorcyclists, guys like that.” I didn’t know how I was gonna read the line at the end, though.
Gremlins (1984)—“Murray Futterman”
DM: Yeah, that was a nice part.
AVC: It was a big one for that period of your career, which must have been a nice thing.
DM: It was a nice thing afterwards. When it was happening, it was again the old feeling of, “Ah, I’m working.” You know? I really never got excited about the size of a part. I didn’t realize the staying power of stars, when you got top billing, and then you’ve got to go a little lower, a little lower. But maybe that’s why I’ve been around so long.
Night Of The Creeps (1986)—“Walter Paisley”
DM: Night Of The Creeps. Was I a policeman in that?
AVC: Yeah, Tom Atkins comes in and asks you for a flamethrower.
DM: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just work.
AVC: What do you think of having all these characters called Walter Paisley?
DM: When it first happened, or when it second happened, I didn’t think much of it. [Dante] says, “You’re Walter Paisley!” I say, “Again?” He says, “It’s just a name, it’s not the character.” I said, “All right, fine.” I didn’t think about it. And then the third time it came up, he said, “You’re Walter Paisley!” I said, “Oh yeah?” It started to build, it was an inside joke. And by the fourth time he says, “You’re Walter Paisley,” I’m saying, “What is this? Every time there’s no name for the character, I become Walter Paisley.” He says, “So what, it’s an inside joke.”
After Hours (1985)—“Diner Waiter (Pete)”
DM: After Hours. What was that?
LM: That was the one with [Rosanna] Arquette. It was a Scorsese picture. You’re in the diner.
DM: After Hours…
LM: With Arquette! I just showed it to you.
DM: Oh yes, okay. Give me a second, will you! My brain is rotting while I’m sitting here.
LM: No, your brain is not rotten, it’s very cute. I like your brain.
DM: Okay. You can say I’m 83 in the article. [Laughs.] An old man…
Pulp Fiction (1994)—“Monster Joe” (scenes deleted)
DM: Ah yes. The great Pulp Fiction. I was signed for the part. I was to play “Monster Joe,” the owner of the junkyard that crushes all the bodies and everything. Then there was a cast and crew screening, and my beautiful wife and I went down there, and we saw the director. What’s his name?
AVC: Quentin Tarantino.
DM: Saw Quentin Tarantino, and he says, “By the way, Dick, you’re not in the picture.” I said, “What the hell do you mean?” He says, “Uh, uh, I’ll tell you later.” And we watched the whole picture, and I wasn’t in there.
LM: You were fuming.
DM: I was burning.
LM: Because nobody said anything! They invite you to the cast and crew screening as if you’ve done the picture. And we’re sitting there, and then he comes down and says, “What are you doing here?” Oh my God.
AVC: He said, “What are you doing here?”
DM: Yeah. “What are you doing here?” I said, “Here to see the picture.” He said, “Oh, you’re not in the picture.”
LM: And as you can see, he added back the scene.
DM: He added the scene to the DVD at the end of the picture. But he never told me why. Well, he said the usual thing. He said, “The time was too long.” Bullshit. But anyway, I’ll swallow it. [Laughs.] I was looking for an answer. “So-and-so doesn’t like you in the picture.” There were a lot of important people who were in that picture. I won’t mention any names, but actors who had some say in the picture. And if he had just said, “So-and-so doesn’t want you in the picture,” I’d have said “Fine.”
LM: I’ve never met anybody that wouldn’t want you in a picture. I don’t think there’s anybody like that.
Fame (1984-87)—“Lou Mackie”
DM: I liked Fame. I liked it. That was my favorite, I think.
AVC: Was your character supposed to be a one-off thing at the beginning?
DM: It was supposed to be that I come in and I’m in love with a 16-year-old girl. [Laughs.] I said, “This is a little, you know, dicey.” And they said, “Well, we’ll see what happens.” And then they brought me back. And from there it just became a running part. There was a character similar to this before who ran a pizza joint or whatever it was, and he commented about the kids, blah blah blah. But I said, “I’m not gonna do this part if that’s all it is. I want him to have some action.” So he got involved in all the stories.
I keep remembering the one in which the little girl died. What was her name? Nina, Tina.
LM: And you had a memorial for her.
DM: Yeah. They did a thing where I just said, “I never had any kids, I like these kids.” I remember, it was just a close-up of her face.
LM: You also got to sing and dance on that show.
DM: And I sang and I danced.
Explorers (1985)—“Charlie Drake”
DM: Explorers? Oh yeah, with the kids. That was nice. That, I understand, was supposed to have been a much larger part, and it was going to be the second story. And they ran out of money or they ran out of time. And they just stopped shooting and that was it. But what we got across was good.
AVC: Did you have much to do with the kids in that movie?
DM: No, I just had the one scene with the kid [Ethan Hawke]. He’s running away at night, and I stop him, I say, “Hey, kid!” That was the only thing. But I notice that if you work in a Dick Miller picture, you become a star. Every one of these pictures, there’s somebody in it, worked on it, got a scene with me… you’re gonna be a star.