Like a lot of character actors who got their start between the 1950s and the 1970s, Dick Miller seems to have been born middle-aged. After moving from California to New York in his early 20s to become a writer, Miller followed up on a tip from a friend and made his big-screen acting debut at age 26, playing a Native American in Roger Corman’s 1955 Western Apache Woman. Even then, he looked weathered. Corman hired Miller again for his next picture, and kept plugging him into movies over the next decade, sometimes in bit parts, and sometimes as a leading man. By the end of the 1960s—by the time he actually was middle-aged—Miller had become one of the most recognizable faces in American cinema, even though most film buffs didn’t know his name.
Elijah Drenner’s That Guy Dick Miller serves as a postscript of sorts to Drenner’s 2010 documentary American Grindhouse, about the history of B-movies and exploitation. Thanks to his long association with Corman, Miller has his own perspective on what it was like to make those films, and how drive-in fare changed over the decades. In Miller’s case, his career was revived in the 1970s when Corman started New World Pictures and hired youngsters like Joe Dante, Allan Arkush, and Jonathan Kaplan, who’d grown up with Miller’s performances in A Bucket Of Blood and The Little Shop Of Horrors. When those same directors later transitioned to big Hollywood movies, they brought Miller with them, as a good-luck charm and a connection to their pasts. Then in the straight-to-video era, another wave of filmmakers called on Miller, to pay homage to the trash-cinema tradition. (That’s why so many of Miller’s characters over the years have been named “Walter Paisley,” as a wink to the cognoscenti who remember that character in Bucket Of Blood.)
All that makes for a fun, heartwarming story. And yet it’s hard to recommend That Guy Dick Miller as a documentary. There’s nothing noteworthy about it formally: It’s just a string of clips from Miller’s films, punctuated by talking-head interviews with Miller, his wife, and his colleagues. These people are insightful. Corman has an apparently encyclopedic memory, and Dante understands exactly what Miller has brought to his work over the years. But Drenner’s overall approach here is too limiting for a character sketch—which may be why That Guy Dick Miller frequently veers off-topic. (For a while, it pretty much becomes a documentary about Dante.) When Miller talks about appearing in five movies in a year and only taking home $1,500, or when his wife flips through a drawer filled with unproduced Miller screenplays like Rancho Bikini and Help, There’s A Spy In My Bed!, those moments suggest a less breezy, much richer documentary, about what it’s really like to be a character actor, living and dying with every phone call.
Still, while That Guy Dick Miller plays a lot like an extended (and overlong) DVD extra, the subject is so likable that the movie as a whole is fairly pleasant, especially for anyone with an abiding affection for Corman and his disciples. What’s great about Dante—or John Sayles, who wrote Miller’s Piranha role, or Zach Galligan, who co-starred with Miller in Gremlins—is that they’re fans as well as artists. They have a lot to say about this memorably ordinary guy, with his raspy Bronx accent and his ability to make the straightest, dullest role three-dimensional and funny. Miller has played nearly every part the same, with a mix of blue-collar exasperation and hepcat swagger, and that personality is a big part of why he’s had such an authentic presence onscreen. It’s always felt like he was just living on the set, and then a film crew showed up.