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Tom Noonan

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by e-mailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Tom Noonan

Why it’s daunting: Character actors are a nomadic people by nature, shooting a scene here, a week or two there, maybe a long guest run on a TV show if they can swing it. And no matter how good they are—and Tom Noonan is one of the best—the quality of the films/shows and the substance of their roles within them can vary widely. So while Noonan might make a strong impression as, say, a predatory Mormon leader in the 2009 indie Follow The Prophet, the overheated anti-polygamy screed surrounding him may not be worth it. He’s had an extraordinary three-decade career, but trolling through all 64 roles looking for the highlights isn’t the most efficient way to treasure it. 

Possible gateway: Manhunter

Why: Michael Mann’s moody adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon is suffused with great ’80s ambience and an even better Hannibal Lecter (“Lecktor” in this film) in Brian Cox than the more famous Anthony Hopkins turn a few years later, but Noonan’s performance is the film’s true lynchpin. Character actors are generally expected to “disappear” into a role, but that’s never been possible for Noonan, whose towering height (6 foot 5 inches, which makes him look like Manute Bol next to most Hollywood stars) and sharp, beakish facial features are unmistakably imposing. (Several of Noonan’s films, including Manhunter, introduce him with the camera at waist level, emphasizing his intimidating gait.) The question that hovers over a lot of Noonan’s characters is this: Is he a gentle giant or someone to be feared? 

In Manhunter, he’s both, which is rare for a serial killer. As Francis Dollarhyde, a.k.a. “The Tooth-Fairy,” Noonan does all the terrifying things you expect from a Thomas Harris creation: He has sharpened front teeth with which to bite his victims’ bodies; he communicates through cryptic, untraceable notes; he has a cleft palate; he listens to Iron Butterfly on 8-track. Noonan adds a slight tremor to his honeyed voice that makes Dollarhyde especially creepy, because he sounds so painfully disconnected from the people around him. Yet when Dollarhyde falls in love with a blind woman (Joan Allen)—who conveniently can’t read the psychosis imprinted on his mangled face and awkward demeanor—his confusion is palpable, and for a moment, it changes his certainty over who he is and what, in his words, he’s “becoming.” 

As the constantly frustrated manhunt for Dollarhyde continues, his transformation into someone potentially less monstrous doesn’t make him any less menacing. In fact, it destabilizes him further, threatening his poor, trusting, defenseless mate in every scene they share together. “The Tooth-Fairy” within does re-emerge, of course, but when Dollarhyde inevitably turns on his girlfriend, it’s a crime of passion, not the usual serial-killer trophy-collecting. That alone gives Dollarhyde a complexity denied to other creatures of his type, and Noonan plays him as both larger than life and all too human.

Next steps: Still own a VCR? Good, because Noonan’s What Happened Was…, his exquisitely painful debut as writer/director/star, has never been released on DVD, despite winning two prizes at Sundance in 1994. Granted, there’s nothing commercial about its logline: a tumultuous first date, set entirely in a studio apartment, unfolding in real time. Noonan and his date (Karen Sillas), both underlings at a law firm, are seeing each other for the first time outside of work, and she has the home-court advantage, having invited him for dinner at her place. What Happened Was… could easily be a first-rate off-off-Broadway play, but Noonan uses the medium to subtle effect: As the night wears on and things become more and more intimate, the camera moves in tighter, catching the honest expressions of the characters as the formalities of the early evening are stripped away. Before then, Noonan gets the general dynamic of first dates exactly right—the awkward pauses, the unavoidable risk of giving offense, the danger of accommodating the other person and revealing things about yourself when you don't necessarily wish to do either—while creating two very specific people. 

In the superb retro-’80s horror movie The House Of The Devil, Noonan did one of his most memorable variations on the boogeyman role, playing a cane-wielding Satanist who gives a cash-poor local college student a “babysitting” opportunity she’ll never forget. Director Ti West again lets Noonan’s size do half the work—when the front door to his creepy house opens on the babysitter and her friend, much of the upper half of his body is out of frame. His pitch to the heroine is so ominous that only an absurdly exorbitant fee can get her to stay, but Noonan and West find ever-subtler ways to amp up the discomfort. The way Noonan delivers a thrice-repeated message to the babysitter about where she can find the number to the pizza-delivery place suggests that his character is still trying to memorize what a normal human being might say.

More recently, Noonan scored an unforgettable one-scene cameo in “God,” one of the stronger episodes of Louie’s stellar first season. Flashing back to his childhood days in Catholic school, the preteen version of Louis C.K.’s character sniggers his way through a nun’s lecture of how much Christ sacrificed for our sins. So the nun brings in Noonan, a “doctor” of sorts who details the particulars of Jesus’ suffering under Pontius Pilate as if he were a forensics expert on a crime show. Taking “volunteers”—in quotes because the bad boys in class have clearly been pre-selected—Noonan goes into hilariously graphic specifics about every layer of flesh whipped off by a flagellum and every tiny bone shattered by nails driven into the crucifix. At the end of Noonan’s lecture, young Louie is left so traumatized that he begins to believe that he, personally, is the one responsible. 

As for the rest of his filmography, there are ample riches: Noonan’s ability to do scary and sensitive simultaneously made him the ideal choice to play Frankenstein’s monster in the 1987 cult classic The Monster Squad. His ease with villainy has livened up several different efforts, some of them worthy (as in Sean Penn’s 2001 drama The Pledge, in which he plays a preacher Jack Nicholson suspects of murder, or Mann’s great 1995 crime epic Heat, which casts him as the bloodless tech wizard who helps Robert De Niro’s master thief set up new operations) and others not so much. (He’s strong as Peter Weller’s archenemy in Robocop 2, but the film is awash in unmitigated ugliness). He also brings humor and pathos to the role of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s older doppelganger in the play-within-the-movie in Synecdoche, New York

Where not to start: His ’80s comedies. Although he never played more than bit parts, Noonan toured through some of the most renowned comic failures of the decade, including the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Easy Money, the notoriously overproduced Eddie Murphy/Dudley Moore team-up Best Defense, the post-Splash Tom Hanks comedown The Man With One Red Shoe, and Collision Course, a buddy comedy starring Pat Morita and Jay Leno. None of them are good movies, but he can probably tell some good stories about them.