Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Who Is That Guy?!": Kenneth McMillan

One of my all-time favorite character actors, Kenneth McMillan's is a face any fan of the cinema of the '70s and '80s will remember. Even though liver disease took him way too early, at age 56 (January 8th marked the 22nd anniversary of his passing), and his film career spanned less than 20 years, his film resume is chock full of fine projects: Serpico, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Girlfriends, Carny, Bloodbrothers, Runaway Train, Chilly Scenes of Winter, Ragtime, Eyewitness, The Pope of Greenwich Village, True Confessions, Amadeus, and Reckless. TV roles included spots on Rhoda, Dark Shadows, Starsky & Hutch, The Rockford Files, Kojak, Magnum, P.I. and myriad telefilms and mini-series. This was a working actor. And, that's not even including his roles in the original Broadway runs of David Rabe, Joe Papp, and Mike Nichols' Streamers and David Mamet and Ulu Grobard's American Buffalo, alongside Robert Duvall and John Savage.

My earliest childhood memory of McMillan onscreen is of watching him countless times in the memorable "The Ledge" episode in Lewis Teague's Cat's Eye. This guy is just so damned pleased with himself after he captures his wife's lover (Robert Hays) and makes the pretty boy walk around the ledge of his Atlantic City high-rise. Who can forget McMillan cackling and howling while jumping up and down on his bed in a satin robe? I sure as hell can't!

As a kid, I'm pretty sure I had this action figure of his character from Dune:

So, obviously, as evidenced by Dune, Cat's Eye, Ragtime, and other roles, it was easy for filmmakers to use his physique and facial features for villainous parts or as cops, but my favorites remain those that utilized his working class, New York Irish persona: Bloodbrothers, as a paralyzed bar owner who shares a heartbreaking scene with co-star Paul Sorvino, Reckless, as Aidan Quinn's hard-boozing old man, Eyewitness, as Bill Hurt's paralyzed pop, and, most especially, Chilly Scenes of Winter, in which he plays Gloria Grahame's loving husband and stepfather to John Heard. Heard is hard on the guy, but eventually McMillan's old softie is able to crack Heard's exterior as symbolized by the young man's acceptance of his gift of Turtle Wax. I've missed McMillan's high-pitched, New York-accented voice on screen for the last couple decades, but I'm thankful the actor was so busy during his two decades of performing, leaving behind plenty that I still have not seen.

McMillan almost has as much screen time in this trailer for Blue Skies Again as star Robyn Barto and Obscure One-Sheet sure is thrilled about that:

After all of the Stephen King cinematic references, watch McMillan chew scenery at the expense of Robert Hays and the titular cat:


Colonel Mortimer said...

Hello there, excellent blog. I recently have gone through my own, albeit unplanned, Kenneth McMillian film festival, catching Carny, Hide in Plain Sight, The Pope of Greenwich Village and Chilly Scenes of Winter all within a month time span. Interesting that he was only 56 when he died, because I always had the impression he was in his mid-50s to early 60s circa the late 70s/early 80s. I guess he just held that type of authority on screen.

Ned Merrill said...

Thanks for the compliments and for visiting, Colonel. Yes, I think that McMillan definitely played older than he actually was, as in the case of CHILLY SCENES where he is almost a decade younger than onscreen wife Gloria Grahame, though there definitely doesn't seem to be that big an age difference when the two are seen together.

That's a pretty great McMillan fest you put together...I still need to see HIDE IN PLAIN SIGHT, a film I've had my eye on since seeing the VHS in the video store 20+ years ago. I see there's a Warner Archive disc now...

Unknown said...

Nice call on giving some kudos to a character actor that many have probably scene but could never recognize the name. Loved him in RECKLESS and DUNE - talk about polar opposite characters but that was what made him so good and so memorable. I kinda put him in the same category as Robert Prosky, these grizzled older character actors playing guys who've seen it all before. Great stuff.

Ned Merrill said...

Yes, Prosky was a great one, too. For me, never better than as Leo in THIEF. So effective there because his grandfatherly, nice guy appearance was so at odds with the character. He usually played actual nice guys after that.

McMillan has a distinct edge, even when his characters aren't villainous. And, can you beat his line in RECKLESS after he sees Aidan Quinn in his old suit? "You look like a fuckin' farmer!"

Unknown said...

Hah. That IS a great line and the way he delivers it is priceless.

Ty said...

Great write-up on Kenneth McMillian! Also, happy i found your site! We just following you via google and we put you in our links on our site!

Ned Merrill said...


Thanks for checking out the blog and linking us. I've done the same for your blog! Yes, McMillan is one of THE very greatest "who is that guys?."

I finally caught up with DUNE on Blu-ray this weekend. McMillan floats around for most of the movie, with pussing sores all over his face, screaming and laughing like a hyena while fawning over Sting. Hilarious!

Ty said...

Thanks for linking us! also sorry for the spelling error in my last comment.

Also i agree, that is really funny!