Studio: Autumn Rose Productions
Director: Elijah Drenner
Writer: Elijah Drenner
Producer: Lainie Miller, Elijah Drenner
Stars: Dick Miller, Lainie Miller, Joe Dante, Roger Corman, William Sadler, Corey Feldman, Robert Picardo, Zach Galligan, John Sayles, Mary Woronov
Filmmakers, family members, and costars discuss the life and career of prolific Hollywood character actor Dick Miller.
The tagline for “That Guy Dick Miller” proclaims, “after this movie, you’ll know Dick.” That is indeed true, although only in the literal sense of how that statement is usually applied, not in the double entendre manner intended by the sly tone.
“That Guy Dick Miller” began its life as a bonus feature for the German “War of the Satellites” DVD release. Director Elijah Drenner ended up with more than enough footage to extend the retrospective to feature length and did exactly that, although the overall substantive worth of the full documentary rarely extends beyond the inessential value of a DVD extra.
Fans and filmmakers of sci-fi, horror, exploitation, and B-grade romps nigh universally agree that if any one person can be crowned as the “quintessential character actor,” then that title belongs to Dick Miller. Small in stature but big in presence, the affectionate descriptor “that guy” to identify an unnamed face recognized in what seems like every other movie was practically invented for Miller.
From his working class origins in New York, Miller set his sights on Los Angeles with the intention of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter. A chance meeting with B-movie king Roger Corman prompted a quick shift into the acting trade, and the snowball kept rolling from there.
When Corman protégés like Joe Dante and Jonathan Kaplan graduated from assistant ranks into full-fledged filmmakers, they kept the time-honored tradition alive by casting Dick in their own movies and gave his career a second life. Among Miller’s noteworthy roles in the 1980’s and 1990’s were memorable parts in “Gremlins,” “The Howling,” “The Terminator,” and “Pulp Fiction,” although his scene in Quentin Tarantino’s epic gathered dirt on the cutting room floor.
Unfortunately, that two paragraph summation is only marginally less detailed than the mini-biography offered by “That Guy Dick Miller.” Over the course of 90 minutes, the film serves as more of an affectionate tribute to the man rather than as an informative retrospective. Names including Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Mary Woronov, John Sayles, and Ira Steven Behr have more to say out of nostalgic warmth for the man as opposed to truly revealing insight behind his personality.
Perhaps it is poetic irony that Dick Miller, someone who never had substantial time in leading man limelight despite a prolific career most actors only dream of, is often relegated to a backburner role in a movie supposedly about his own life. More than once, “That Guy Dick Miller” loses its way as a focused documentary, frequently taking detours to expand on anecdotes only tangentially related to Miller himself.
A segment covering production of the film “Cannonball” mentions director Paul Bartel’s consternation over having to make another car-related movie after “Death Race 2000.” Joe Dante then recalls how he and Allan Arkush were persuaded to appear in the film. Actress Belinda Belaski reminisces about a Corman-related comment made to her by Dante on the set. After discussing first impressions of Joe Dante, actor Archie Hahn finally adds, “and Dick was in that movie as well,” as if the documentary finally remembers what it is supposed to be covering in the first place.
Even as a documentary about the Corman camp and the rise of New World Pictures, “That Guy Dick Miller” is still a disjointed narrative missing opportunities to tell a clear story. In a chapter on filming “The Terror,” a legend is related about how the movie came to be because Corman wrapped “The Raven” three days early and still had Boris Karloff under contract. Supposedly, cast and crew improvised a script around a loose outline on the still-standing sets from “The Raven” in a rush to put together a second picture.
The weird thing is, Roger Corman had already been established as an interview subject earlier in the documentary. Why not simply ask him if the story is true or not instead of having secondary players theorize about the production’s genesis?
This happens again when New World Pictures Story Editor Francis Doel relates a story about Dick Miller and Roger Corman butting heads over the script Miller wrote for “TNT Jackson.” Dick briefly mentions a “slight argument” with Roger about Corman’s claim that the screenplay was too dialogue heavy for something intended to be a blaxploitation kung-fu movie.
Doel then continues telling the story, concluding with “I really literally don’t know what happened after that meeting.” That’s okay, Francis. Two people do know what happened in and after that meeting: Dick Miller and Roger Corman. And both men are available for this project. Yet instead of providing clarification on the confrontation from the horses’ mouths, “That Guy Dick Miller” just leaves the tale at hearsay conjecture from a third party and moves along.
Strangely, the movie is oddly light on actual content from Dick Miller himself. Dick mentions that his role in “Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight” was “one of my favorite parts,” although he never elaborates why. And the information about his personal life is so cursory that a casual viewer really will leave the movie knowing almost dick about Dick.
Dick’s brothers Bill and Gene provide a bit of background on their family, yet at the halfway point in the movie, it is inferred for the first time that Bill and Gene are actually half-brothers and they had different childhoods with different parents. An easy to miss aside about a daughter implies a family for Dick that is never discussed. And in the context of detailing his tattoos, Miller quickly mentions time spent as a sailor. All of these seemingly important chapters in his life would go a long way towards constructing an understanding of Miller, but the movie is predominantly centered on superficial details instead.
This is probably the most comprehensive look there will ever be at Dick Miller’s long career in motion pictures. For that reason alone, “That Guy Dick Miller” will delight devoted fans content with a surface scratch peek through rose-colored lenses.
Yet as a documentary, the film is absent a clear point of view, and barely functions as a time tunnel bio of Dick Miller’s life and celebrity. There was an opportunity here to peel back the curtain on the identity of a man whose name is remembered by few, but “That Guy Dick Miller” settles for being a loose collection of somewhat related notes and anecdotes that don’t reveal nearly as much about Dick Miller as they should.
Review Score: 55