When news breaks of the passing of any of our cinematic heroes, you typically default to maybe one or two of their most notable features to revisit in their memory. With actor Dick Miller, literally hundreds of his memorable roles, featured or cameo, could pop into mind. His work spanned decades and genres, giving nearly 200 movie roles from which to pull favorites.
A larger-than-life personality who made each role uniquely his own, regardless of the size, Miller was genuinely a one of a kind film fixture and icon. Known for his character work, he was a definitive scene stealer every single time. His loss stings regardless of classification, but in the horror community, this loss cuts deep. From the beginning of his career, he quickly became intertwined with horror, influencing key directors that would shape the genre and delivering iconic performances that would prove formative on many budding horror fans.
The Roger Corman Years
Miller’s first acting role was in a Roger Corman directed western, Apache Woman, in 1955. It was a bit part, but his work so impressed Corman that he was asked to appear in the director’s very next feature. It marked the beginning of a long-running friendship between the pair, and one that permanently altered Miller’s trajectory in film.
His first notable horror sci-fi feature with Corman was It Conquered the World, in 1956, where he played Sgt. Neil. It was the type of movie that would make it easy to see why Corman continued to cast Miller in his films – he was the best thing about the movie. He once again stole the show the following year in Not of This Earth, where he played a door-to-door vacuum salesman. Miller re-wrote the small part to make it more natural, something he often did behind the scenes. The same year, he appeared as the Leper in Corman’s The Undead. 1958’s War of the Satellites gave Miller top billing as astronomer David Boyer, the hero fighting on Earth’s behalf against an alien attack.
Next came Corman’s A Bucket of Blood, and with it Miller’s first major iconic horror role in Walter Paisley. The lead character, Walter was a dimwitted busboy propelled to murder after finding acclaim as an artist for a plaster-covered dead cat that is mistaken for a work of art. The character was so memorably played by Miller that many of his future character roles would also share the name Walter Paisley (see Chopping Mall, Hollywood Boulevard, The Howling, Twilight Zone: The Movie).
Corman next asked him to play the lead in The Little Shop of Horrors, but he felt Seymour was too similar to Walter Paisley and chose to play the flower-eating florist shop patron Burson Fouch instead. He also appeared in Corman’s Premature Burial, The Terror and X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes.
Collaborations with Joe Dante
Eventually, Corman founded his own independent production company New World Pictures, and with it a new class of Corman inspired budding filmmakers. One of the most prominent filmmakers to emerge from this group was director Joe Dante, who’d grown up watching and admiring Miller’s work in film. From Dante’s very first feature film, Miller showed up in every single TV series or film Dante directed. Dante’s first horror film, Piranha, saw Miller playing Buck Gardner, the charismatic and shady resort owner. Next came The Howling, in which Miller’s character Walter Paisley owned a curios bookstore and delivered exposition on werewolves in that sort of Miller way that made you want to spend the entire movie with him.
Many who grew up in the ‘80s will remember Miller most for his scene-stealing turn as Murray Futterman in Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Futterman captured what Miller did to perfection- play the beleaguered Everyman that was so relatable, but with that no bullshit New York attitude that Miller’s own. Futterman went from blue-collar neighbor, sometime town drunk, to kicking major Gremlin butt in The New Batch.
While Dante included Miller in Twilight Zone: The Movie, Explorers, Innerspace, The ‘Burbs, Matinee, and Small Soldiers, the actor was also busy with unforgettable turns in The Terminator, Night of the Creeps, and Chopping Mall. He even elevated most schlocky horror films like Dead Heat, Amityville 1992: It’s About Time, and Evil Toons.
One of his all-time best-recalled horror performances came in 1995, as lovable town drunk Uncle Willy in Tales from the Crypt Presents Demon Knight. A much larger role than most, Miller really let loose in playing a character with a much larger character arc- from sweet town drunk to vulnerable to vicious demon. It’s not easy to stand out in a film with the likes of Billy Zane, chewing major scenery, or William Sadler, but Miller does.
Miller appeared in Dante’s more recent films like kid horror movie The Hole and zombie rom-com Burying the Ex, even when his age started to slow down his work. His friendship and decade-spanning collaborations with Dante and Corman were legendary, but so was his passion and love for movies and television (of which his credits were also extensive).
Dick Miller may often be touted as a character actor, but that doesn’t quite convey just what a marvel he was both on and off screen. A prolific worker, dependable scene-stealer, writer, forever Walter Paisley, our favorite Uncle Willy, the Futterman neighbor we wish we had, and a Hollywood fixture unlike no other, “that guy” Dick Miller was one of a kind.
And he’ll be forever missed.