To be honest, I don’t believe there are going to be any more attempts to adapt any of the Parker novels for a long time to come. By the time it happens, if it happens, almost anyone we might think of who is the right age now could be out of the running. So what are we doing here? I won’t speak for you, but I’m trying to convince myself it’s even theoretically possible to cast an actor who is spot-on right for this role.
To that end, I find myself casting an eye backwards in time–to actors born a mite too soon to play Parker (but may have had some influence on his creation). To actors perhaps too iconic and sought-after to play him by the time it became an option. Or to actors who, though much appreciated in supporting roles, often villainous ones, never quite made it as leading men, and thus would never have been considered in the first place, unless it was some lowly B picture from Poverty Row (which might have been the best option).
It’s all moot, but does that make for any less enjoyable an exercise? These days, I’m grateful for distractions, triter the better, so let’s survey the competitors, the youngest of whom is eighty-four. (The rest, being deceased, are all the same age.) I’m going to consider them roughly in order of generation. Starting with–
RYAN, Robert. Born 1909, Chicago IL. Height: 6’4. Eyes: brown.
This may seem an odd pick. By the mid-60’s, when Hollywood began to pay attention to Parker, Robert Ryan was pushing sixty hard. But I don’t feel like any list of actors who might have had the potential to play this role is complete without him. In the history of noir on film, there is no grander name to conjure with.
Not much doubt he was the best actor on this list of mine. But he was never the kind of actor who put on airs–who was afraid to underplay, when that’s what the role called for. He could be almost impossibly cool–but you could still feel the rage seething beneath, barely held in check. He often played characters who were on the verge of losing control, fighting a losing war of self-containment.
But he could play calm well-balanced men as well, as he did in The Wild Bunch. He could play cowards, pedants, bullies and blusterers. He could play the hell out of just about anything. The year The Hunter came out, he played John Claggart in Ustinov’s Billy Budd. His last role was Larry Slade, in John Frankenheimer’s boiled down adaptation of The Iceman Cometh. If he ever gave a bad performance, I haven’t seen it.
More than tall enough for Parker, built towards the lean and ropy side. As a younger man, he was in splendid physical shape, knew how to box, could move like lightning. He could project murderous intensity, and he could be sexy, without being conventionally handsome. More of an ensemble player, but he had the charisma of a star–and people knew him the moment he walked onscreen.
So if you could figure out how to do a series of Parker movies in the 1950’s, he’d be hard to beat. My reservation is the one I have for all truly great actors–with Parker, you have to know when not to act. Much as I think Ryan could restrain himself as needed, his work in crime movies leans more towards the histrionic side (partly because that’s what the movies of his era called for). He’d have been brilliant in those stories where Parker is on a rampage, all his buttons pushed. But I’d like him even better in something by David Goodis or Peter Rabe.
Next up is another Robert–the guy you’d want to see in almost any hardboiled role in crime fiction. Only trouble with him is that he’s too damn good-looking.
MITCHUM, Robert. Born 1917, Bridgeport CT. Height: 6’1 Eyes: dark blue (I think), heavy-lidded.
With Ryan, I’d like to somehow transport the younger man forward in time a bit. With Mitchum, I don’t feel like he could have played Parker until he was well into his forties. The Mitchum we want is the Cape Fear Mitchum–early 60’s vintage. And who ever believed Gregory Peck could take him? In a courtroom scene, sure. Or a western. Not anything hardboiled.
But he never needed to play the toughest man in town. Never mattered much to him. Never took himself that serious. When you’ve got that kind of personal magnetism, doesn’t make sense to exert yourself. Mitchum underplays almost everything, because he doesn’t need to try that hard to draw us in. He’ll put in the work, reveal himself, if he thinks the role is worth it. But most of the time, he just doesn’t give a damn. Most of the time he’s hiding beneath a ceremonial mask of skin. (Or getting himself arrested–never had much use for authority.)
Mitchum fits the descriptions of Parker that lean towards big, blocky, shaggy. Westlake didn’t always have the same image in his mind when writing the character, and neither do we when reading about him.
Though he was more often cast as sympathetic characters, Mitchum liked playing really bad guys, and you could make a case nobody ever played them so well. If I’d like Ryan for the stories where Parker is angry at the world, out for blood, I’d like Mitchum for the ones where he’s hiding his true nature from the world–and of course, for the ones where there’s a woman involved. Of all the names on this list, this is the one that would most easily justify Parker’s ineffable allure for the opposite sex. I can’t think of a single leading lady Mitchum didn’t have chemistry with. But as with everything else, he never worked hard for that either. Lucky bastard.
He almost played Mitch Tobin, in a movie that never got made. He’d have been right for that too, though in a different mode. Not that he’d be right for any Westlake protagonist. About the only worse pick for Dortmunder would be Robert Redford. Strange be the ways of Hollywood. Nobody found them stranger than the most reluctant star of all time, namely–
HAYDEN, Sterling. Born 1916, Montclair NJ. Height: 6’5. Eyes: dark–something.
The biggest problem with casting Sterling Hayden as Parker isn’t that he turned fifty before Point Blank was even made. It’s that you would never know when he’d take a mind to jump in The Wanderer, set sail for distant climes, and not come back until his money ran out.
He didn’t even like acting until he got older, and they stopped trying to turn him into a matinee idol. He hated being forced into any kind of mold. Which is precisely what would make him a prime candidate here, along with his intimidating size, his patented surly glower, and the undeniable fact that he played a primary prototype for Parker, in one of the greatest crime films ever made. You know the one.
I can’t pretend to myself that the Hayden of the 60’s could have played Parker, except maybe one of the later books. He had happily moved into more eccentric supporting roles by then, the pressures of unwanted stardom no longer weighing him down. But I can’t watch Hayden as Dix, Sam Jaffe as Doc, without being further convinced that one aspect to Westlake’s conception of Parker was his aspiration to combine the two–brawn and brains in the same package.
Hayden only played a heistman one more time after The Asphalt Jungle–in that film he had brains and brawn (and bad luck). See what you think.
He had, you might argue, the best pedigree (even if he was a blonde). But again, born a bit too soon. And a bit too fidgety.
Let’s move on to the one actor Westlake mentioned as a direct influence in Parker’s creation. Not my personal pick, but you can’t talk about the might-have-beens without mentioning–
PALANCE, Jack. Born 1919, Hazle Township PA. Height: 6’4. Eyes: dark brown, verging on black. Onyx, one might almost say.
Westlake would have gone to see a lot of movies about armed robbers in the years before he wrote The Hunter, so in all probability, he saw this one, a remake of High Sierra. Not as good as the original–but the lead was somebody you’d be much less happy about meeting in a dark alley. Or a well-lit one.
Palance, as an actor, was a mixed bag. Huge ability, but he didn’t always know what to do with it. In a picture like The Big Knife, he’s practically dancing across the screen, hyperkinetic, almost dizzying (personally, I find that film exhausting, but that may be Clifford Odets’ fault). In other performances, he’s like the proverbial coiled spring–just about to snap. I prefer the latter approach for him. And for Parker.
He doesn’t look human–sometimes he’s more of a monster than Karloff was with Jack Pierce and the entire Universal Pictures makeup department helping him out. There’s often this sense of him being out of place–of having been born not so much in the wrong century, but the wrong millennia, possibly the wrong geologic era (not for nothing did they cast him as Attila the Hun). But the present day is where you most often find him, and he’s going to have to make the best of that.
He’d have been a good pick for Parker in the 50’s, into the Mid-60’s. Though physically, he’d have been able for the role well into the 70’s, fitness freak that he was. It would have been imperative to have a director who could rein him in. He, unlike Mitchum, liked working too hard. A natural born ham, he relished big dramatic gestures, strong facial expressions, and those are only rarely called for with Parker.
The Palance you want in this case is minimalist Palance, impassive as a rock, twice as hard–and he can be hard to find, but he’s worth looking for. All he had to do to embody Parker was stand there and breathe. He might not have found that interesting enough.
But if the acting career hadn’t worked out, he could have picked up some cash modeling for Robert E. McGinnis crime paperback covers. He’d have looked terrifying, walking across the George Washington Bridge at dawn, murder in his mind. And we can be pretty sure that’s the image Westlake had in his head when he wrote that scene.
Next is my most perverse pick by far, that even I don’t take seriously. But I make it anyway, because 1)He could have played the part with zenlike restraint and 2)Some imp of the perverse within me thrills at the notion of making the ultimate white hat into the baddest hombre of all. I speak of none other than–
ARNESS, James. Born 1923, Minneapolis MN. Height: 6’7 (in his cowboy boots). Eyes: blue.
Anyone whose two signature roles are a straight-arrow TV western lawman and a carnivorous bipedal vegetable from another world can be said to have had an interesting career. James Arness was, to all accounts, a very thoroughgoing gentleman, and there is reason to doubt that he would have been willing to portray Parker at his most dastardly. So why am I bringing him up?
I guess because of scenes like this–
In a sense, Arness never stopped playing The Thing From Another World, only the planet he hailed from was Justice. In scenes that called for Matt Dillon to get angry, he never lost his cool–he got even colder. His eyes would turn to purest ice, bore contemptuously into whoever had roused his ire, and even if that bad guy was played by Chuck Bronson, he’d start to look scared. Matt Dillon was the most frightening good guy in television history. I’m not sure even Palance could have shown that side of Parker so well.
Think about that scene in The Rare Coin Score, where Neo Nazi Otto Mainzer asks if fellow string member Mike Carlow is Jewish. We’re told Parker just looks at him. And Otto, a big scary guy in his own right, starts backpedaling, and we understand that he’s worried Parker will kill him right then and there, so that he won’t ruin the job with his personal crap. How many actors could pull that off? This one could.
So the question is, was there something in him that might have enjoyed playing the villain for once, if the villain’s targets were mainly other villains. He was not one of the more ambitious stars you can name, but he knew his craft, and he knew as well as anyone how to underplay, show you what he was feeling with a relatively minor change of expression.
I think the main objection to him is that if he was playing someone who didn’t believe in law and order, and was more than willing to shoot first, it would be awfully hard to depict him as the underdog in any fight. Slayground would literally be a romp in the park for that guy.
Humor me on this one, I’m a huge fan of early Gunsmoke (the Meston era, far as I’m concerned that show only ran ten seasons). So much so that I’m going to put up another YouTube video–only this time the coldest eyes in the scene I’m looking at don’t belong to Arness. Or to anybody who was ever any kind of star, though he sure had a long career. Go in a bit over eleven minutes.
No, I don’t mean Strother Martin, though he’d have been a fine addition to the cast of any Parker adaptation. I’m talking about someone I first noticed in a small but important role in The Outfit. He played a hitman, out to kill Duvall’s Macklin. I don’t know how Macklin got out of that picture alive. Fiction isn’t always fair. Best man doesn’t always win. And in this contest I’m playing out in my head, the best man for the job might very well have been–
REESE, Tom. Born 1928, Chattanooga TN. Height: 6’3. Eyes: Narrowed, depthless, unreadable. Wouldn’t swear to their color.
You always want what you can’t have, and all the names on this list qualify in that respect. Tom Reese never played the lead in anything. But the more I see of him, the more I know–he was really something. He’s my personal pick.
Big. Tall. Blocky. Face like chipped concrete. Eyes like a wolf, almond-shaped, unblinking, merciless. Voice as impassive as his eyes, betraying little in the way of a regional accent. There’s a scene in The Outfit, where he’s walking with his hands swinging at his sides, and you just know somebody made a mistake. This is Parker. Duvall is playing the crazy guy Parker’s going to kill.
He’s dressed as a priest when we first see him in that movie, and I wonder if maybe Westlake was thinking of that when he had Parker pose as a priest in Flashfire (it’s as good an explanation as any). Later, he’s dressed as a hunter, complete with cap. Suits him. He doesn’t sneak up on his targets, he stalks them. He’s a murderous automaton, that would give The Terminator nightmares. They wasted him in that movie, but they usually did. And yet, he would find a way to get his point across, time after time.
And it’s hard to find suitable images of him online. I’ve ordered a DVD of The Outfit. Maybe later I’ll take some screenshots, put them up. My personal tip of the hat to somebody who deserved a bigger career, but far as I know, he never complained. Just did his job like a pro, claimed his split, went home. Perfect.
But since perfection is not to be had in this world, here’s my idea of a compromise–
SMITH, William. Born 1933, Columbia MO. Height: 6’1-6’2 (opinions vary). Eyes: dark as dark gets.
Let’s play one last what-if game, just a little more rooted in reality. Let’s imagine Point Blank had grossed enough to qualify as a minor hit. Enough for MGM to consider a follow-up. Let’s further imagine that they needed somebody to replace Lee Marvin as Walker, which doesn’t require much imagination, since he hated repeating himself.
And it’s a historical fact that the TV western Laredo, starring William Smith as Joe Riley–a role not unlike Clint Eastwood’s in Rawhide–ended the same year Point Blank came out. Born the same year as Donald E. Westlake, just nine months earlier, Smith was just the right age to play Parker by then. And it’s hard to imagine any actor more precisely resembling the character described to us in the opening paragraphs of The Hunter. Or better able to embody the menace of the character. Or his dangerous sex appeal.
Smith never got his big break, as Eastwood, Garner and McQueen did after their western shows ended (he fought the first two onscreen, he engaged in impromptu auto races with the last offscreen). He, like Reese, was destined for a seemingly endless series of guest starring roles on TV, and a long succession of big screen heavies (and he was Conan of Cimmeria’s dad for like five minutes–he’d have far better than Arnold in the main role, but that wasn’t his karma).
Smith has many of the same strengths and weaknesses of Jack Palance, was perhaps not as good an actor, but given the generally putrid quality of the scripts he was given, it’s hard to say. He made the whole country hate him in Rich Man, Poor Man. He was encouraged to mug it up, because that’s what sneering heavies do. Only rarely did he get a chance to show restraint, because restraint was almost never what the director wanted from him. But he could keep a straight face when that’s what was called for.
What was usually called for was more like this–(he claimed Taylor broke a few of his ribs, and made it sound like a compliment. Taylor never disclosed the full extent of his injuries.)
Or, on television, this (and yeah, I considered Garner for Parker, but would we want to lose him as Rockford? He was too much the comedian to play it straight for long.)
The villains he usually played were too over the top, but does that mean Smith couldn’t have reined himself in, if he was the name above the title, instead of far below it? Give him the right director, the right scriptwriter, an adequate budget, and he might have been the guy. He sure as hell would have been available.
I’ve said it before, but for some roles, you don’t want the best actor–you want the right one. Somebody born to play the part. Willing to just let the character step forth, unedited, unbidden, unforced. Lee Marvin came the closest, but Marvin was too big a star by the time he came to Parker, and any major star is going to come with too many strings attached.
Think about what any casting director would have to find here. Tall. Powerful. Huge hands. Scary but sexy. Calm, quiet-spoken, but able to project cold rage when needed. Able to credibly scare the bejeebers out of mob bosses and criminal sociopaths, and yet mask his true nature from the straight world, and particularly the law. Looking for all the world like a man born into the wrong age–or a wolf born into the wrong body. Nothing to it, right?
So I’ve had several suggestions for somebody who could play Parker right now. Michael Shannon. Kevin Durand. I’ve mentioned Joe Manganiello once or twice. Not enough to justify a Part 3. Anybody else got a pick? If not, I’ve got one more thing to talk about before we get to the very last book in the queue. Call it an addendum to my previous review.