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Retiring the black hat

Recently, Richard Kiel passed away at the age of 74.  Now, most would not recognize the name but his characters should spark a memory or two.  Kiel make his mark playing villains.  He was the metal-mouthed Jaws in not one, but two James Bond films.  He took on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Wild Wild West.

With his sharp cheekbones, square jaw, and unusual height at seven foot two inches, he was the perfect foil as he towered over the heroes – proving every time that the bigger they are the harder they fall.  And in 50 years, he didn’t seem to tire of playing this character type.  In fact, his favourite role was in Force 10 from Navarone playing a good guy who turned out to be the villain in the end.

But why would he be satisfied with such limitations on his acting skills?  Type-casting is bad enough.  But who would want to be forever recognized as Jaws every time they got milk at the grocery store?

It was Mae West who said, “When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.”  And she was right.

Good actors make the best bad guys.  And the better the villain, the more the actor will be associated with him (or her).  For example, Larry Hagman was an accomplished actor and yet, will forever be, primetime soap opera baddie, J.R. Ewing.  James Gandolfini will always be Tony Soprano.  And The Simpsons’ Sideshow Bob will never outrun his reputation no matter how many times he tries to reinvent himself.

So is it worth it to play a character who may decide to stay with you for the rest of your life?

Ray Wise went from a moderately handsome actor to Twin Peaks’ infamous creepy dancing father, Leland Palmer.  He was able to spin that notoriety into numerous psychopaths in the twenty-three years that followed, including a role as the Devil himself on Reaper.  But he’s still Leland Palmer to me.

Why? Because bad boys are memorable.  They’re fun.  Every girl goes through that “Bad Boy” dating phase and every boy at some point wants to be one.

And why not?  They’re the forbidden fruit.  Or maybe they’re just willing to take a big juicy bite out of it.

More than one actor has called his time in the black hat as “the most fun” or the most liberating experience he or she ever had.  It’s no wonder.  They get to live out the hypothetical question: If you could do something really, really wrong and knew you could get away with it, would you do it?

They’re a rather cathartic bunch, those bad guys.  And we should thank them for the morality lessons they leave with us.

So, perhaps for an actor, being known as a villain isn’t a bad thing.  And with the likes of Gotham, The Flash, and Arrow, TV Land will always need another.

But there will never be another Jaws.


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