Wednesday, January 12, 2011
"Who Is That Guy?!": Burton Gilliam
Possessing the type of face and persona that went out of fashion in Hollywood as the '70s turned into the '80s, Burton Gilliam's is a name that always piques my interest when I see it in the opening credits. Gilliam built up quite an impressive acting resume for someone who entered the business on a whim in his middle '30s. A character actor whose face I've recognized since I was young kid watching Blazing Saddles and Fletch, Gilliam's familiar mug and "shit-eatin' grin" were a mainstay of '70s-'80s big and small-screen fare, often in good ole boy variations with names like Buck, Jimmy Jack, Jammer, Tex, Smiley, Buford, Ringo, Deke, Delbart, Bud (on 2 occasions), and Virgil.
A champion Golden Gloves boxer while in the Coast Guard, Gilliam mulled turned pro before becoming a firefighter (for 14 years) like his father before him. Based in the Dallas area, it was a newspaper article about the local filming of Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon that prompted Gilliam to visit the casting office about extra work on the film. The neophyte performer apparently made quite an impression, as he received a speaking role as a desk clerk with the appropriately hillbillyish moniker of Floyd. Gilliam went onto to appear in a string of small, but memorable character parts in films like At Long Last Love, Farewell, My Lovely, Hearts of the West, Gator, Telefon, and my personal favorite, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot.
Typical of many of the freewheeling, often raunchy (i.e. very politically incorrect) films of that era, Gilliam's Thunderbolt & Lightfoot moment is refreshingly ribald and offbeat. He shows up in the latter part of the film for a single scene with co-lead Clint Eastwood in which he boasts of terrorizing the town's new Western Union security guard. With his best shit-eating grin, Gilliam (credited as "Welder") tells Eastwood--whose face registers something between amusement and disgust--how he once lured the shy, overweight guard (Cliff Emmich credited as "The Fat Man") out of his office.
"I got up to close to 'im, unzipped my pants, and took out my pecker. An, I put that dude right in his hand. He turned white and didn't know whether to hold it, drop it, or run off down the street with it. It was the funniest thing I ever saw in my life."
The supreme satisfaction with which Gilliam tells the story, coupled with Eastwood's reaction shots make this scene a hoot; the scene demonstrates why Gilliam was one of the more memorable character faces of an era very rich in screen characters. It's also the first and only time I've heard a man refer to his organ as "that dude."
Throughout his peak career years in the '70s and '80s, Gilliam made many a guest appearance; in the latter decade, television dominated, as rural-set films were on the wane and country and action television shows like The Dukes of Hazzard and The Fall Guy continued to flourish. Recent credits include a guest role on the Dallas-filmed television series The Good Guys as "Locksmith" and continued work as Dallas-area television pitchman dressed as--what else?--a cowboy. He also manages to keep busy refereeing boxing matches.
A priceless 1980 Carl's Jr. ad with Gilliam:
Burton Gilliam gets a day named after him: