That Guy Dick Miller (2014), the new documentary from Elijah Drenner (American Grindhouse), hit the Wisconsin Film Festival last night with an unfortunate bit of timing: opposite the Wisconsin Badgers Final Four college basketball game. This didn’t just mean weaker attendance in the theater: since the screening was held in the University of Wisconsin’s Union South, the giant crowd of Badgers fans (a sea of red sweatshirts) just outside occasionally interrupted the film’s soundtrack with raucous cheers. The Badgers lost by one point in the final seconds of the game, approximately two-thirds of the way through the screening, which is when things finally quieted down; but the good vibes continued unabated inside. Every fan of genre film knows that Dick Miller has long deserved his own documentary. The quintessential hard-working character actor, Miller began his career in the 50’s in B-westerns and science fiction films, many of them from Roger Corman. Later, when Corman launched New World Pictures and took a step back from directing, younger directors from the Corman school, most notably Joe Dante, would reliably cast Miller in their films as a good luck charm. Often he was given the name Walter or Walter Paisley, after one of his rare lead roles in Corman’s brilliant horror/satire A Bucket of Blood (1959). (Miller’s constant presence becomes the best recurring inside-joke in Dante’s filmography.) A doc on Miller would be nothing without Corman and Dante’s input, and they’re represented here as talking heads, along with John Sayles, Julie Corman, Allan Arkush and Mary Woronov (Hollywood Boulevard, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School), Jonathan Haze and Jackie Joseph (The Little Shop of Horrors), and more. As for Miller, he grins, shows his tattoos, and leaves much of the talking to his wife Lainie Miller, whose varied career has included playing the stripper who distracts Benjamin in The Graduate (1967).
Miller’s story is that of the other side of Hollywood, the one that’s more common but seldom told: what it’s like to get by as a working actor in film and TV without ever breaking through to stardom. After taking bit parts, including both a cowboy and an Indian in the same film, we see Miller flirt with leading-man status in Corman’s War of the Satellites (1958) and A Bucket of Blood, before turning down the lead in The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and suggesting Jonathan Haze instead. (Miller preferred to play the weird guy who ate flowers.) Haze has remained one of his best friends ever since. Neither became a superstar, but Miller would certainly go on to become a celebrity of sorts: he’s that guy, the one people snap their fingers at whenever he inevitably pops up with one scene and a line or two – there’s that guy, what else was he in? (Surely it doesn’t help that Dick Miller is about as memorable a name as John Smith.) It was Dante who would use Miller as his De Niro, casting him in more prominent roles in films like Gremlins (1984) and Explorers (1985). James Cameron, also a veteran of the Corman school, would use Miller for one of the most famous scenes of The Terminator (1984). Miller is now 86, and Dante still occasionally pulls him back onto the lot for cameos in his films, most recently in Dante’s linking segments for the anthology film Trapped Ashes (2006), and The Hole (2009), which featured Miller as a pizza deliveryman. Drenner takes us inside Miller’s home to see Miller’s drawings (often erotic) and his filing cabinet of scripts he wrote that were rejected (we glimpse the American International Pictures stamp on an envelope), though two were made in 1970: Four Rode Out and Which Way to the Front?, which was heavily rewritten to become a now-forgotten Jerry Lewis vehicle. We see home movies shot on the set of A Time for Killing (aka The Long Ride Home, 1967) – particularly fascinating since it’s one film in Corman’s history that the director doesn’t discuss. Outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage is shown from many other films as well, including The ‘Burbs (1989), with Miller curtly telling a stoned Corey Feldman to shut the fuck up. And all the clips you want are here: Miller as the door-to-door vacuum salesman mugging to the camera in Not of This Earth (1957), Miller with Robby the Robot in Dante & Arkush’s Hollywood Boulevard (1976), Miller surrounded by topless women in Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995 – earlier in the film, Miller jokingly tells his wife that he doesn’t recall working with any naked women). Perhaps the best joke in the film comes in the very end – when Miller suggests he might retire.