Much like so many of his fans, I was devastated this morning to learn of the passing of Michael Parks. Throughout the course of his career, the man wore many hats: writer, singer, actor, director, but everything he did, he did on his own terms. Occasionally said terms would come to bite him in the ass, resulting in him being fired from jobs and blackballed from others, but Parks was a no-nonsense straight talker who had not an ounce of patience when it came to suffering fools. Had he “played ball” with the studio-system, he might have been the biggest actor ever to grace a screen, but then he would have lost everything that made him Michael Parks.
I thought I could get through today working at my job and write this tomorrow, but I found myself continually breaking down and having to leave my office. So what you’re about to read is my attempt at cathartically trying to relieve myself of the trainwreck that I have become today.
I first met Parks on the set of Tusk. I had begged Kevin Smith for a role on his newest film and he was nice enough to grant me one in the form of being a behind-the-scenes videographer. Parks and I avoided each other the first day because, to me, he seemed like a grumpy old bastard and I’m sure to him I seemed to be a jackass wearing a needlessly decorated motorcycle jacket (he would always ask me “Why do you have all that shit on you?”). On day two, Kevin and his wife Jen took me aside and asked if I could watch over Parks because he had just dealt with a fall overseas that left him in pretty bad shape earlier that year. I, of course agreed.
After an awkward hour or so of forced conversation, a cop drove by. This brought us around to the subject of his dear friend “Lenny”. He told me stories about their distaste for the Los Angeles law enforcement officers of the day, and after a few minutes of confusion I asked him if he meant Lenny Bruce, the famed comedian that contributed so much to artistic freedom of speech. Parks was quite a bit surprised by my depth of knowledge about Bruce and we immediately hit it off. He told me the full story of their friendship, unfortunately resulting in Parks being a pallbearer at his funeral. It was at that moment where we discovered we had damn near identical taste in music, literature, and film. We became fast friends.
“He’d regale me with stories about playing catch with Elvis, riding motorcycles with Johnny Cash, nearly punching Sinatra, shouting off of roofs with Richard Pryor, and jamming with Miles fucking Davis.”
Michael Parks and I were quite a sight, a young dumbass with tattoos and a crotchety old man palling around together almost inseparable for the rest of the shoot. Every morning I’d wake up, buy a yellow pack of American Spirits, make him a green tea with a dash of milk, and pick him up from his hotel room. We’d get to basecamp, he’d set up in his chair, I’d plop down in his doorway and the old man and the young asthmatic would smoke cigarettes and shoot the shit. It goes without saying however, that his shit was far more entertaining than my own.
He’d regale me (and all of the women in hair and makeup) with stories about playing catch with Elvis, riding motorcycles with Johnny Cash, nearly punching Sinatra, shouting off of roofs with Richard Pryor, and jamming with Miles fucking Davis. There is no doubt about it, the man led a charmed life. While all of this was astonishing to witness, the most insanely touching moments were when it was just the two of us sitting outside his hotel on the weekends (where all of the staff adored him) and he would just break into singing. His voice was raspy, but you could still hear the man that recorded all of that killer Americana music from the records. It was touching, and I was the only one who got to witness it.
When we returned from Tusk we kept in touch. Every few weeks I’d head out to his place and take him out for lunch. For the first few months the crotchety old bastard would growl at me when I reached for the bill first, but eventually he relented. Lunch was such a small price to pay so that I could witness the man’s stories. It always boggled my mind that people weren’t knocking down his door to get him to star in projects, after all, Quentin Tarantino quite publicly confessed that Parks was his favorite living actor. So I said the hell with it, I was going to make damn sure to cast him in anything I had any involvement with.
Despite the painful news of his passing, I’m proud to say there’s one unreleased project we worked on that’s currently being presented to film festivals. The thought of sharing our work is the only thing that’s made me smile today.
So all of this got me thinking about a documentary about him. I approached him about it and he seemed luke-warm on the whole thing, so I let it go. A couple of weeks later he called me up on the phone and asked how the progress was going, so I did what anyone in my position would; I lied to the Old Man and told him it’d been all I was concentrating on since we last spoke. I then hung up the phone, and spent two days doing a couple of weeks of back-work so I didn’t look like a jackass.
My wife and I came up with a pitch-packet, financial breakdowns, similar documentary financial information, and more. I downloaded every bit of information I could find on the man. We bought old copies of TV Guide for interviews from the 1970’s, original trade-magazines for reviews on his work, French posters of Then Came Bronson for visuals, and I began to construct a timeline of his life. I put out notices on internet messageboards and even managed to get hold of a playbill from the first stage project he ever starred in. It was only after all of this research that I got a true grasp of the man’s life beyond the stories he had shared hundreds of times to his friends.
From being the son of an itinerant laborer, to marrying at 16, to losing a brother to drowning, to spending years living on houseboats after being blackballed from the industry… It became clear to me that Michael’s life was far more interesting than his stories of other celebrities. I became obsessed with making this documentary, I reached out to everyone who loved him, Kevin Smith was set to help me get it off the ground, we had pitch meetings with investors, we were going to open the film with a concert in Hollywood, we were guns fully blazing… and then it all stopped.
The timing just wasn’t meant to be. The financing fell through, we lost momentum, and most importantly, my good friend Parks wasn’t feeling well enough to do the story justice. It was no one’s fault, it’s just one of the thousands of projects in this town that vaporize every single year. I really wish we had got more of those stories on tape, but if you want about the best damn consolation prize you can find, there’s an episode of Kevin Smith’s Red State of the Union Podcast where he interviews Parks that is beyond enlightening, and I was lucky enough to be in the room, in the front row when it was recorded.
I hadn’t seen Parks in months, and now I will feel eternally guilty for having not reached out more in the past year. The man lived life by his terms and told anyone that needed telling to fuck off. Not only is he one of the best actors of his generation, but as far as anti-authoritarian media icons go, he takes the cake. I wish I could have had him tell his story, but some things just aren’t meant to be. Hopefully this pitch video made for potential financiers can give you some small insight into what might have been. When you’re done watching it, I suggest pouring a glass of whiskey on the rocks, putting on his amazing Long Lonesome Highway album, and hugging everyone you love as they walk through the door. At least that’s what I’ll be doing.
*This pitch video shows a combination of original footage and scenes from interviews not shot by the author.