Remembering Michael Parks (1940-2017)
Fans were hit with a tough loss on Wednesday May 10th when news broke that Michael Parks, the prolific character actor with over 140 acting credits to his name, passed away at the age of 77. Always able to bring life to any film he appeared in, Parks worked steadily throughout the 1960s, gaining something of a second career during the '90s. He appeared in numerous films by the big names of indie cinema during that decade and fostered lasting friendships with the directors. We here at Talk Film Society were big fans of his work so we've gotten together to share some of our favorite roles from his storied career.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) d. Robert Rodriguez
“I think I’m gonna get tanked tonight.” How damn great is the opening scene in From Dusk Till Dawn, y'all? Not too PC mind you, but still great nonetheless. God level character actor Michael Parks pulls up to the counter of his favorite convenience store and chews the fat with the store clerk played by the equally incredible John Hawkes. Parks plays Texas Ranger Earl McGraw and boy has he had a shitty morning. He begins to explain how he got sick off a poorly cooked breakfast AND how there are some dangerous killers out there on the loose. It’s a simple and crass exchange but it’s all in how Parks delivers each Tarantino line that makes it so infinte. He’s so old school Texas and hilarious with his highly offensive dry wit banter. His slow masterful I-am-so-over-this-shit blinks coupled with that calm and smooth country drawl really sell this veteran officer’s exhaustion. It’s a teeny tiny part and yet the character was so beloved by the filmmaker, he returns in Kill Bill Vol 1&2 as well as Planet Terror. Thing is, Michael Parks has been acting and making music for quite some time, decades in fact. But it wasn’t until this note perfect performance and Tarantino’s popularity boom that younger audiences began to finally take notice of this diamond in the rough. Glad he was loved and recognized in the latter half of his acting career because man, he deserved it. Gone, but cherished Mr. Parks will always be.
- Rockie Juarez
Tusk (2014) d. Kevin Smith
Michael Parks has always been a pleasant surprise. Showing up in random roles in numerous films directed by the titans of ‘90s cinema, he could light up the screen with a simple line delivery and his legendary swagger. Unfortunately, he rarely got to shine in a lead role, a crime that was remedied by Kevin Smith, first in Red State, then in 2014's Tusk. Playing the legitimately insane Howard Howe, a Buffalo Bill-style serial killer obsessed with turning human beings into deformed walrus creatures, Parks gives a truly showstopping performance. Filled with monologues that let the actor relish every inflection and gesture, Tusk is a veritable actor's clinic in how to play a twisted villain. That the film is able to match the disgusting nature of Parks’ character with the gore effects is just icing on the cake. It might not be a great or even good picture but Parks is undeniably great in it, bringing a true sense of dread and fear to the proceedings. In the end, he gave one of the best horror performances of the decade and one that won't be forgotten for quite some time.
- Matt Curione
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) d. Andrew Dominik
The Western is easily one of my favorite genres and all the rhetoric about the myth of the American pasture and lyricism of history factors into that affection. But in the case of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I think the myth of the west and hero worship is best articulated as an inventory of faces. Hard, soft, gaunt, rocky, sunken, worn, leathery, young, old, it’s a demonstrative method of casting that spans the old and new guard of Hollywood. This moody dirge of the legendary outlaw is rounded out in the politics of his killing; and among these richly textured characters, is Commissioner Henry Craig, who is played with stately demeanor by Henry Parks. Among this inventory of faces his leering presence looms large in an era where lawmen were just as dangerous as the outlaws; it's a thick character in a dense movie, and his brief performance is a testament to his sustained screen presence and his command of character.
- Alex Miller
Red State (2011) d. Kevin Smith
Red State was a turning point for Kevin Smith's career, in that he proved he was more than capable of crafting an actual scary movie. One hundred percent of the tension that the movie has can be attributed to one man - Michael Parks, who delivers one of the most chilling villain performances in cinema history. He plays Abin Cooper, the leader of the Five Points Trinity Church, a group heavily inspired by the real life Westboro Baptist Church and their head Fred Phelps. The cult spews hate rhetoric and can often be seen protesting at funerals for dead gay kids and military members. They're not hard to hate on their own, but Parks pushes this to another level. He envelopes this vile persona with complete commitment. You never doubt his hatred because you also surprisingly get to see the caring side of him and his brainwashed family. I don't know how you could understand a man with that sort of mental state, but Parks did and he fully embodies him.
- Marcus Irving
Kill Bill Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 (2003-04) d. Quentin Tarantino
Michael Parks reprises his role as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in Vol. 1. The character bit the bullet in From Dusk till Dawn, but Dusk screenwriter Quentin Tarantino loved the character so much that he had to place him in Kill Bill. Earl, along with his son Edgar (played by his real-life son James Parks), break down the massacre at the chapel where the Bride (Uma Thurman) is found. Parks savors every line of dialogue with a Texas drawl. “This ain't no squirrelly amateur. This is the work of a salty dog.”, he says, as he surveys the damage. It’s an expository scene that bridges the time-jumping narrative of Tarantino’s revenge saga, and it doesn’t feel tedious because Parks makes it his own.
In Vol. 2, Parks returns as a new character, Esteban Vihaio, an 80-year-old Mexican pimp and father figure to the titular Bill. The Bride asks Esteban the simple question, “Where’s Bill?” In response, Esteban tells her a story about how a young Bill watched The Postman Always Rings Twice and was infatuated with Lana Turner. “Bill would begin to suck his thumb to an obscene amount. And I knew from this very moment, that this boy was a fool for blondes.”, he says. It’s a, frankly, relatable line that has stuck with me ever since seeing the movie back 13 years ago. In two very brief scenes in Tarantino’s epic, Parks is an undeniable presence. From a give-no-shits Texas Sheriff to a Mexican pimp, Parks was always a willing to go there, like few characters actors do.