Saturday, December 10, 2022

Actors We Like: Brion James (1945-1999); George Macready (1899-1973)

Brion James as Ben Kehoe, SFPD Detective in 48 Hrs (1982) 

Brion James: Wake Up; Time To Die 

I’m a devotee of character actors. Everyone remembers the stars, but their careers may not endure as long as those of the working stiffs who make up a supporting cast. Their paychecks may never reach six or seven figures; they may never get producer credits or points off the gross; but they manage to keep working steadily in a competitive business. 

 A good example is Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1984 classic based on a Phillip K. Dick novel. Rutger Heuer and Harrison Ford were the stars; but the supporting actors immediately stand out in my memory: ‘Pris’ (Darryl Hanna), ‘Zora’ (Joanna Cassidy), ‘Dr. Eldon Tyrell’ (Joe Turkel, of whom more in a moment), or 'Graf' (Edward James Olmos); 'J.F. Sebastian' (William Sanderson) ... and ‘Leon’ –- Brion James, who played similar brutal, dim characters in other films.

At 6' 3", with his sharp, prominent nose, receding chin and hairline, James' 'Leon' reminded me of a character out of Deliverance pulled into Ridley Scott's 21st Century L.A. The classic Leon line that my friends often repeated came when he encounters Harrison Ford, and has beaten him to near-unconsciousness. "Wake up!" Leon intones, slapping Ford's face. "Time to die!" (The other big favorite: "Whadya mean, I'm not helping??")

Clockwise from Left: Hannah, Cassidy, Olmos, Turkel

"I mean, you're not helping, Leon. Why is that?"
(Photos: The always excellent 

 In 1992, I went out to the theater in Mill Valley to see Robert Altman’s dark satire on Hollywood morality, The Player; Tim Robbins is a hustler, part of a studio production unit, and within the first twenty minutes of the film has a meeting with the unit staff, and a parking-lot conversation with the studio executive who heads the group. 

The exec was well-dressed, tanned, soft-spoken, reflective. Talking with Robbins, his physical gestures were measured and minimal; he was still. I thought that I recognized the actor playing him, but couldn’t quite make the connection – and when I finally realized it was Brion James, I was surprised: Holy criminey; Altman cast Leon -- “Wake up – time to die” -- as this character?

 And as I watched, James did better than just a good job. His character in The Player wasn't large, but it was utterly removed from the relatively simple, biker-types caricatures he'd done before -- those roles had been mimicry, which is a 'surface' form of acting that doesn't really involve depth or real emotion. But in Altman's film, James did what only actors can do: He made me believe.


 When any actor finds an opportunity to push the envelope of their abilities, create a memorable interpretation of a role, it’s like watching someone you know finally getting a break -– possibly because we need to believe that with perseverance, hard work, luck can operate that way in our own lives. Perhaps that’s an American trait; but I watched James play a creative manager trying to maintain his personal and professional balance in Hollywood, and thought, This guy might have something, and I hope this role gives him more chances to use it. Good for you, man; good for you. 

Unfortunately, James also showed up in things like Chris Elliot's 1994 utterly boring, misbegotten mutant freakshow attempt to move from standup to stardom: Cabin Boy. It was all the more painful, because Elliot appeared to believe he was a whopping talent. The secondary line on the posters summed it up: He's Setting Sail On The High Seas -- Without A Rudder, A Compass, Or A Clue! Indeed. James played "Big Teddy", one of the crewmembers on the fishing boat Elliot is apprenticed to. 

Because he'd done better work, and this film was such dog shit, he must've been convinced Elliot was about to become a breakout star, or needed the money. When we see actors and actresses that we know are capiable of better, stuck in a bad film (think Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffmann in 'Ishtar'), it's painful to watch. James followed with a better comic turn as Bruce Willis' former commanding officer, General Munro, in The Fifth Element.

(Photo: You will sing, 'O Canada', right now.)

In 1999, James died of heart attack at his home in Malibu. He had just given an interview weeks before, saying that he had finally begun to understand his craft, believed he was about to step completely out of the B-film genre and that his best roles were ahead. He was an ex-construction worker, bodybuilder and stuntman before taking a step into film -- and I miss not being able to see him continue to grow as an actor. 

  George Macready: The Only Completely Innocent Man In This Whole Affair

George Macready's Best Role: Gen. Mireau in Paths Of Glory (1957)
(Photo: Let's sing 'O Canada' once again)

Like James, George Macready took a roundabout way into acting. Born in 1899 into a family of some means in Providence, Rhode Island, Macready's great-grandfather was William Macready -- before the Civil War, one of America's two major Shakespearean actors; the other being John Wilkes Booth -- so a stage career was not the potential embarrassment for his family that it might have been for others. Macready graduated with a degree in Literature from Brown University and began working as a reporter in 1921 for Hearst's Journal-American in New York City. 

Beginning reporters work the police and theater beats, writing small reviews or crime reports. Eventually, he met Richard Boleslawski, a Polish director of (then) some note who suggested strongly that Macready try an acting career. He did, and it lasted over forty years.

"Hello, soldier -- Ready to kill more Germans?" 
Macready, Wayne Morris and Ralph Meeker (far right)
(Photo: O Canada, we salute your mighty film websites!

Macready was a tall, fair-haired man with a slim build and a suave, slightly raspy voice that conveyed menace, or an oily, sophisticated charm. In addition, he'd had a serious automobile accident in 1922 (well before the days of seat belts) which left him with a major facial scar; you can see it clearly in the photo above. Macready thought Boleslawski's suggestion that he become an actor was a joke, because of that scar -- but the director assured him it could be a strength, along with his slightly imperious manner, and meant Macready would be chosen to play a Heavy more often than not. 

And, he liked playing the Heavy -- you remember them, Macready once said in an interview with TV Guide in the 1960's; "Besides, everyone has a little evil in them." Macready was one of the last generations of primarily stage-trained actors, before sound motion pictures became the dominant medium. His family history of a 'classic' theater tradition meant interpreting Shakespeare -- and his style was rooted in the "theatrical" voice and mannerisms of an earlier age.

He was never able to completely lose the late-19th Century tradition that a histrionic attitude was necessary in a large theater to project emotion, but which future generations of actors would rebel against as acting from the outside in, without real emotion. I grew up watching hours of films on television, and I recognized any Macready character would be slightly overacted, almost laughably so -- and in college, I was able to impersonate his sandpapered, pompous voice fairly well (I still can). And some of his lines just lend themselves to that self-important, upper-crust society persona his voice

Macready and Virginia Leith, A Kiss Before Dying (1956)

He wasn't a bad, untalented or unperceptive actor (watch him as casino owner Ballin Mundson opposite Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford in Gilda [1946]). But as the Old Hollywood studios lost their power, and with the rise of Method Acting and a new generation of performers, George Macready's style made him America's Greatest Ham Actor -- greater, even, than William Shatner; and if you've watched any of the old 'Star Trek' series, or films that followed (or heard Shatner singing Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds), you know what I mean.

Once in a long while, his classic roots held him in good stead -- in 1953, when MGM wanted to do a film production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Macready played the Roman Tribune Marullus who actually opens the play, through a monologue about the state of Rome under a dictator -- Shakespeare's way of setting the place and tone for the audience. It's clear George had been trained well to interpret The Bard; much better than Brando, but not as good as James Mason (with whom Macready had acted with two years earlier).

James Mason as Rommel to Macready's Fritz Bayerlein 
 in The Desert Fox (1951) (Photo:

But, Macready wasn't entirely a stuffed-up character, and not off-screen; married, with a family (Macready's only son has been a long-time production executive at a major studio; his grandson is an Olympic gold medalist), he had met Vincent Price acting in a play in New York in the 1930's. 

The two men both had an interest in art, and in 1940 opened a gallery -- Macready-Price eventually had a gallery in New York and L.A.; the Los Angeles branch operated into the early 1950's. Both Price and Macready owned serious private collections of art, and sold to other actors who were also serious collectors -- Peter Lorre, Edward G. Robinson and agent-turned-actor Same Jaffe (who had been Humphrey Bogart's agent for years). Macready was also a serious Bridge player, at an almost professional level -- another echo of the moderately upper-class world of Providence he had grown up in.

(Price in 1962, with "Capriccio", an etching by Francisco Goya; 
Photo via FutureChimp)

Macready was a good enough actor that when given a role with substance, he did rise above doing a caricature -- and again, only an actor can do that; it isn't a case of a blind squirrel occasionally finding the acorn. He had done well in Gilda, and it led William Wyler (director of the classic Best Years Of Our Lives) in 1951 to cast Macready in 'Detective Story': Kirk Douglas was the main character, an NYPD Detective whose black-and-white view of life takes a toll on his family and his police work. Macready played a suave hustler whom Douglas can't completely nail for a crime -- so, more from misplaced anger, he nearly beats Macready's character to death in an interrogation room.

Detective Kirk Douglas questions weasel George Macready (1951)
(Photo: "O Canada! Our home and native land...")

Six years later, when Stanley Kubrick was casting his second film, Paths Of Glory, he wanted Kirk Douglas for the role of a WWI French Army Colonel whose regiment is forced into a futile attack; and because the attack failed must put five, randomly-selected soldiers on trial to be shot for cowardice, sacrificed for the stupidity and ambition of the generals in command: The plan could not have been wrong, so naturally the troops were to blame.

Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, with Macready and Richard Anderson at left 
(later, Lee Major's boss on 'The 6 Million-Dollar Man')
(Photo: "From far and wide, O Canada! We stand on guard...")

Douglas suggested casting Macready as the Colonel's commander, General Mireau. Kubrick agreed ( he also cast a young actor in his first film as one of the condemned men -- Joe Turkel, eventually to play as Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner, and once more for Kubrick as Lloyd the Bartender in The Shining).

Richard Anderson questions Joe Turkel at his courts-martial

Your money's no good here, Mr. Torrance. Turkel initially spent six years,
studying dance for Broadway musicals, before attempting film work. 

Macready did an excellent job; his style fit the character of a 1917 French General perfectly, but it wasn't a cartoon character. In the beginning of the film, Macready is approached by his own superior, General Broulard (one of Adolphe Monjiou's last film appearances), who presents him an impossible assault on an impregnable German trench system. Macready says his men are tired, badly beaten up in another, prior assault that came to nothing; Monjiou hints darkly that if they're not up to it, well, they'll give the job to someone else. He'll be passed over for promotion -- and essentially calls him a coward. Eventually, Macready agrees.

The best fifteen minutes of his acting life. 
(Photo: Canada's wild beaver is spectacular in every way.)

What makes the sequence work is Macready's uncharacteristically low-key acting: General Mireau cares about his soldiers -- but if he doesn't accept the 'challenge', it will harm his career, his honor -- and in front of Monjiou begins to convince himself the plan is possible... As with Brion James in The Player, Macready presents you with a human being, dealing with human emotion, within the limits of the film medium, and he makes you believe it.

And, like James, it's because this performance stood out so clearly as exceptional against his previous work -- which wasn't bad, just not as nuanced. It's the best moment of his career on film; it's in a Kubrick film-- which ensures that one way or another, George Macready will be around forever.

Color shot taken by a crewmember on the set of Kubrick's Paths
Douglas, Monjiou and Macready (in red Kepis) and Anderson

Near the end of the movie, Douglas has discovered that Macready had given an illegal order during the abortive attack; he had revealed it to Macready's superior, Adolphe Monjiou, in an attempt to have his men's lives spared. Monjiou then springs this news after the men's execution over lunch with Douglas and Macready. There will have to be an inquiry, Monjiou says. 

"So that's it," George sputters. "You're making me the goat -- the only completely innocent man in this whole affair!" Standing up from the table, he delivers Monjiou a withering look and another classic line: "I only have one, last thing to say to you, George -- the man you stabbed in the back is a soldier."

Macready worked steadily through the Fifties and Sixties, primarily in televison: Name a major series, and he was probably in it as a guest star. He also appeared in some definite turkeys: Macready's personal version of The Cabin Boy was an hour-long episode in the 1964 first season of The Outer limits, "The Production And Decay Of Strange Particles".

Macready Faces The Horror Of The Badly-Written Role

Macready was in classic form; not even Shatner ever equaled this over-the-top interpretation of a physicist encountering a rift in space and time. It didn't help that Macready, age 65, was already in ill-health, and played most of his role sitting down. This specific episode of TOL is acknowledged to be among the worst ever presented (if not the Prize-Winner), and notable only because it was the first television appearance of a young actor who would have a later, larger impact on the Teevee and film medium, Leonard Nimoy. (Additional fun factoid: A protective suit, worn by Macready in TOL, was used in the first actual Season-One episode of the original Star Trek, "The Man Trap"). 

In 1963, director John Frankenheimer wanted to make a film about an attempted military takeover of the United States, Seven Days In May, based on a popular novel by the Tom Clancy of the day, Eugene V. Burdick. A popular, Douglas-McArthur-type general (Burt Lancaster), incensed at a "criminally weak" President (Frederick March) negotiating a nuclear weapons reduction treaty with the Soviets, organizes a coup. Lancaster's aide (Douglas) slowly discovers the plot, and decides to alert the government; he's passed to the Secretary of State, played by Macready -- marking the third time that he and Douglas would work together. 

Unfortunately, his lifelong cigarette habit resulted in Emphysema, and Macready's health deteriorated after the late 1960's. His last film appearance was in the 1970 Japanese-American co-production about the attack on Pearl Harbor, Tora! Tora! Tora!, with Macready playing another Secretary of State, Cordell Hull.

Macready already showing signs of ill-health in the late 1960's.

In late 1941, the Japanese government had told their ambassador in Washington, Nomura, to deliver a final note to the U.S. government, on December 7th but before the Pearl Harbor attack took place. However, there were delays; when Nomura arrived on December 7th to deliver it to Hull, the attack was already under way. Hull, shocked by what appeared to be Nomura's duplicity, leafed through the document, then turned to face the Ambassador.

The last real line he ever spoke as an actor in his forty-year career was classic Macready -- slightly overacted, filled with an old-world outrage of propriety which could only be approximated today: In all my fifty years of public service, I have never seen a document so crowded with infamous distortions -- on a scale so huge, that I never imagined that any government on this planet was capable of uttering them.

We miss you too, George.

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