That creepy guy died last weekend. You know, the guy with the face like a depressed basset hound who starred in one of your favorite movies or TV shows of all time?
I really don't need to get much more specific than that because Vincent Schiavelli, who died of lung cancer, showed up in pretty much everything — although "starred" would be the wrong word. Except for one cooking show, Schiavelli never headlined anything you were likely to see.
Instead he excelled as the oddball, the maniac, the mental patient, the foreign spy. Whenever there was a bit part that required a baleful, hangdog expression and a look that made you nervously check the exits, Schiavelli was there.
He was a valet in "Amadeus" and a pornographer in "The People vs Larry Flynt." He was schizo in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and you believed it. He was a gypsy patriarch in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," a world-class torturer in "Tomorrow Never Dies," a conjoined twin in "The X-Files," a nearly-silent monk in "The Frisco Kid," a holographic peddler in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," a malicious organ-grinder in "Batman Returns," a former-child-star-turned-assassin in "Death to Smoochie," an inexplicably beloved math teacher in "Better Off Dead," and a vaporized Red Lectroid in "Buckaroo Banzai."
Usually when an actor dies I'll spend an evening watching his or her most iconic roles in memory. In this case, I can just grab something at random off my shelf and I'll probably get me some Vincent.
Everyone has their own favorites, but the most commonly mentioned roles are his scary, subway hopping, nicotine addicted spirit in "Ghost" ("Get off my train!") and his laid-back, internal organ-fondling biology teacher in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" ("I just switched to Sanka, so have a heart").
Like Dan Hedeya and Jon Gries (look 'em up), Schiavelli evoked a bit of fearful distaste, a bit of humor, and a bit of fascinated horror. His presence brought charm and personality to anything. Unlike most other character actors, you always got the feeling that instead of being a one-dimensional throwaway part he was actually starring in his own movie — possibly a better movie than the one you were watching — and the two had just briefly intersected. His characters had history, if only because anyone with that face has clearly had a lot happen to him.
His continued presence also cheered me up by constantly reminding me that you can be plain, even unsettling, and still work steadily in the entertainment industry. This is very reassuring to people like myself whose appearance tends to cause women to clutch their purses more tightly and children to hide behind things.
And yet, until yesterday I couldn't have told you his name if you held red hot pokers to my eyes. It never occurred to me to look him up at imdb.com. He has no fan sites. There are no Schiavelli T-shirts or action figures. He does not have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He had no Oscars, no Golden Globes, no Emmys, no breakout starring roles. Brad Pitt did not lose any jobs to Vincent Schiavelli.
But as soon as he showed up in anything I felt oddly reassured. I knew that in his creepy, mournful, psychotic way he was about to take the screen completely away from the stars and hold on to it until he was ready to give it back. It was comforting. No matter his part, Schiavelli was worth watching.
Like the others. Character actors that fill our stories and give them weight, depth, and flavor. That guy who always plays drug dealers. The confused old woman. The loud-mouthed salesman. The plucky young girl who will fight for what's right. I recognize them every time but I haven't a clue who any of them are.
This time, to honor Vincent Schiavelli, instead of watching his movies, I'm going to go to imdb.com and start looking up the names and histories of the other wonderful character actors I've never bothered to remember before. Talent deserves recognition, and I don't want to wait until the next obituary to find out who "that guy" is.