Wednesday, December 13, 2006

R.I.P. Peter Boyle

Legendary character actor Peter Boyle, who used to hang out with John Lennon, starred in one of my all-time favorite films (Paul Schrader's Hardcore) and hosted one of the first episodes of "Saturday Night Live," died yesterday at the age of 71. The Associated Press' eulogy leads off, naturally, with his long-term stint on popular sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond" as obnoxious loudmouth Frank Barone. He capped of his career with most beloved, popular character, which would be rewarding for any artist, but particularly one so prolific.

Barone in many ways was the pure embodiment of Boyle's persona, a character who was either written specifically with him in mind or tailored for him once he was cast. Like the sneering bundle of rage in Boyle's breakthrough 1970 film Joe, Barone covers up his insecurities through mean-spirited, cutting remarks. (Joe conflates hippies, communists, Jews and homosexuals into one faceless Army of Others to be opposed at all costs.)

Like his lawyer, Carl Lazlo, from the underseen Hunter Thompson adaptation Where the Buffalo Roam, many Boyle characters have a Wild Man side to their personalities, an irrepressible id that causes problems when unleashed. His cagey unpredictability is one of the things that made Boyle so much fun to watch on screen, both in the comedies for which he became best-known and the dramatic work in films like Taxi Driver, and particularly his turn as a bitter elderly racist in Mark Forster's otherwise-forgettable Monster's Ball.

I first recognized Boyle's considerable gifts as a young person in two separate comedies, though I didn't realize until years later that they were the work of one man. Obviously, like everyone else, I love Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, easily the crown jewel on the guy's filmography.

Boyle's turn as The Monster not only earns some of the biggest laughs, but also ranks as one of the most heartbreakingly humane versions of Shelly's unholy creation. Like Boris Karloff, Boyle sees the monster as an emotional person frustrated by his physical, sensory and communicative limitations. Unlike De Niro's sinister mutant or Christopher Lee's braindead fiend, Boyle's monster has a real heart and a soul, not to mention graceful dancing skills and perfect pitch.

My other early favorite among the guy's films was the 1989 comedy The Dream Team, which I saw repeatedly owing largely to a childhood obsession with the films of Michael Keaton. I have not seen The Dream Team in many years, so I can't guarantee that it would hold up to my current sensibilities, but I used to think it, and Boyle's performance as an escaped mental patient, was fall-down, laugh-out-loud funny.

Considering some of the guy's early work, I'm taken with not only how many great films the guy made but how many different shades he managed to bring out of essentially the same persona. His work in Joe, teamed with his memorable turn as fast-talking street philosopher Wizard in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, typecast him for much of the '70s and '80s as a caustic, savvy scumbag.

In Schrader's Hardcore, a deliriously sleazy descent into the underbelly of the late '70s LA porn scene, Boyle plays Andy Mast, a detective of questionable morals hired by an uptight Calivinist from Pennsylvania (George C. Scott) to track down a wayward daughter. Mast, as written, plays pretty similar to a lot of other private eyes in '70s films. Lou Harper by way of Elliott Gould's Phillip Marlowe, only with a more keen and passionate interest in smut. But Boyle additionally gives the guy a boyish innocence - despite his bullying, almost cruel sense of humor, he's genuinely committed to solving the case and protecting his client.

(One scene finds Scott and Boyle arguing. The client has showed up as his detective's home to find the man seducing an underage girl rather than working on his case. As they exchange insults, Scott roars at Boyle to "get out of here!" Boyle begins to leave, then stops dead in his tracks. "Wait a minute, you can't tell me to leave. This is my own apartment!" I'm not sure Schrader knew that scene was funny when he wrote it, but Boyle certainly figured it out.)

Okay, I'm a big fan, but I can see that I'm starting to ramble. So I will ujust real quickly go through other Boyle performances I have greatly enjoyed.

Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973): Boyle's fantastic as a stoolie in this terrific Boston noir starring Robert Mitchum. I saw it a year or so ago on TCM, but it's frustratingly unavailable on DVD. (It's clearly a precursor to Scorsese's The Departed, so perhaps the success of that film will inspire interest in a new print of this one?)

"Dueling Brandos" (1975): I've always loved this sketch from when Boyle hosted an early episode of "Saturday Night Live." He and John Belushi trade off doing solid Brando imitations in between bursts of that creepy Deliverance "dueling banjo" music. I think they redid it years later when Ray Romano hosted...Of course, not as funny...

Outland (1981): Boyle had actually started his career playing tough guys, and he got one more shot in Peter Hyams' so-bad-it's-pretty-good sci-fi action film.

Johnny Dangerously (1984): See aforementioned obsession with Michael Keaton comedies. Boyle palys a character named Jocko Dundee. I mean...need I say more?

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