Friday, July 31, 2009

The Wanderers: Geoffrey Lewis

Here at Cinema Styles I occasionally showcase what I refer to as a wanderer, an actor who goes from job to job, is constantly working and has no major lead role to his credit but at the same time isn't a supporting player with Oscars or recognition like a Thomas Mitchell or Thelma Ritter. These are the actors that don't get the credit they deserve for a lifetime of hard, consistent, quality work. Today is the birthday of one of those actors, Geoffrey Lewis. He's 74 today.

I'd like to write a brilliant essay on the talents of Geoffrey Lewis but all I can get out is that I love the guy. If you watched television or the movies in the seventies through the mid-eighties, you know Lewis. He was everywhere. I probably couldn't say with any accuracy when is the first time I saw him. He guested on The Rookies, Starsky and Hutch, Police Woman, Streets of San Francisco, Alice, Laverne and Shirley, The Six Million Dollar Man, McCloud, Hawaii Five-O and on and on and on. I could have seen him for the first time in any one of those shows and not known I was looking at future favorite Wanderer Geoffrey Lewis.

The first time I remember seeing him was in 1978's Every Which Way but Loose with Clint Eastwood. A good movie? Hardly. But Lewis stood out for me. That face and his almost defeated way of speaking, like the world had destroyed his dreams before the first word even came out of his mouth, stuck with me. I recognized him every time I saw him after that. The most notable occasion would probably be Salem's Lot. The rocking chair, the dirt covered clothes (from Danny Glick's grave) and the line, "Look at me, teacher. Loooook at me." This casting choice fascinated me. It fascinated me because I found Lewis to be so non-threatening as a vampire. I just assumed any vampire played by Lewis would eventually, and quickly, give up on trying to lure and kill human victims and just drink the blood from whatever dead animal he happened across. And in fact his quick exit out the window when confronted with opposition lent credence to this hypothesis. That's because Lewis excelled at playing the guy who's been beaten down by life. The undead life shouldn't be any different.

The Oscars are rarely held up by a cinephile as an actual measure of quality in filmmaking and yet there is a heavy air of legitimacy that hangs over them. An unfair sense of legitimacy that goes to a very few. Even though we can all admit the awards have little actual meaning it doesn't stop me from wishing sometimes that a lifetime achievement award would go to someone who, just once, was never nominated for anything in their career prior, never had a role bigger than a minor supporting role and never achieved name recognition beyond a few dedicated fans but achieved facial recognition the world over. Actors like Geoffrey Lewis, with over 200(!) credits on his IMDB page, who have never disappointed, never phoned it in and never stormed off a set.

Happy Birthday Geoffrey. It may not be an Oscar, but you're a Lifetime Achievement Wanderer as acknowledged by Cinema Styles. And you deserve it.