You know Dick Miller. You may not know the name but if you’re adventurous enough to be reading a film review on Film Threat, ten bucks says you’ve seen a movie in which Dick Miller appeared. He’s “That Guy,” the face you recognize and the supporting character actor who walked away with dozens of movies. Elijah Drenner’s excellent documentary That Guy Dick Miller perfectly matches the tone of its subject by delivering exactly the fun, stylish tribute that this timeless actor deserves. You may not know how much you love Dick Miller but this movie will make sure you do by the time it’s over.
I don’t mean to oversell a film about a guy who has starred in such ridiculous fare as Premature Burial, Night Call Nurses (“They nurse patients the way no doctor can”), and Crazy Mama, but Dick Miller’s story is a wonderful chronicle of film history, especially the DIY, low-budget approach to the form that has led to the existence of film festivals like South by Southwest, where it premiered. At 85, the still-charismatic Miller proves to be a fascinating subject for a film documentary, remembering his years in the world of moviemaking with wit and charisma. The film is slightly lacking in the biographical department although one suspects that an actor who has always shunned the spotlight to a certain extent wanted to talk more about his work than his family or personal demons.
And so Dick Miller’s work speaks for itself. And boy does it have something to say. Miller started in the ‘50s with the kind of B-movie fare that would one day populate late-night TV schedules. Titles like It Conquered the World turned Miller into something of a star on the genre scene. He had a chiseled jaw, solid work ethic, and screen presence to spare. He became one of Roger Corman’s regulars, appearing in films like The Undead, War of the Satellites, A Bucket of Blood, and The Little Shop of Horrors, among many others. That Guy Dick Miller is filled with fascinating anecdotes about these formative years of genre cinema, including the fact that Miller once had a larger part in Little Shop and stories about watching the film birth of Jack Nicholson. When Corman transitioned from director to producer, many of his filmmakers continued the company’s hiring of Miller, and his reputation as a hard-working character actor only grew.
If Roger Corman was the first act of Dick Miller’s career, Joe Dante was the second, casting the actor in nearly all of his films. If you are a child of the ‘80s, you grew up with Dick Miller always in the background. He practically stole Piranha. There he is in Gremlins. You may remember him in The Terminator. You probably saw him in Innerspace. You definitely don’t forget his turn in The ‘Burbs. He did a ton of TV work over the next few decades, although has now basically retired from his form.
Which brings us to That Guy Dick Miller. Biographical documentaries about actors often fail because they come off as little more than EPK-publicity materials designed to bow at the altar of an already-known icon. Acting is hard. Wah. What elevates Drenner’s film is an understanding of the irreverent tone needed to appreciate its subject. The doc about Dick Miller is as fun as most of the movies he’s made throughout his illustrious career. And when icons like Corman and Dante speak about their star (along with people like John Sayles, Leonard Maltin, Mary Woronov, Robert Forster, and others), it’s clear that they’re talking about not just a friend but someone they admire. The admiration is infectious. Dick Miller is an important part of film of history. He may just be “that guy” to a lot of people but movie history isn’t the same without this particular guy.