Cracked Actor: Timothy CareyGrover Lewis interviews Timothy Carey, one of Hollywood's most feared—and fired—character actors of all time
Written by Grover Lewis
Grover Lewis died on April 16, 1995, before he could complete this portrait-interview of Timothy Carey for Film Comment. Goodbye, If You Call That Gone —the memoir he had contracted for the previous year—was also left unfinished. During his career as a freelance writer, Lewis wrote on film and popular culture for publications such as The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and The Los Angeles Times. His reporting from the set of The Last Picture Show, and his portraits of Robert Mitchum, Aldo Ray, and Lash LaRue, are legendary and can be found in his out-of-print collected journalism, Academy All the Way.
But Grover had completed the introduction to the piece, and the Q & A has been shaped and ordered according to his notes. I drove with him to El Monte for his third encounter with Carey, when the actor locked us up in his TV room and forced us to watch his pilot for Tweetâs Ladies of Pasadena in its excruciatingly full-length splendor. Once released, Grover just mumbled to Carey, "Not your strongest suit. . ."
Timothy Carey passed away on May 11, 1994, the birthday of his hero, Salvador Dalí. —Philippe Garnier
The work of certain low-billed jesters, sidekicks, and tough guys runs through movie history like the veins in a granite cliff. They're fond and familiar figures in our collective dreamscape—recognizably real or almost real people—but their professional paths are rough, dehumanizing trudges, even at the upper end. Supporting actors leave few footprints on Hollywood Boulevard. Like everybody else in the business, they hunger for dignity, status, accolades, and financial security. Always angling for one more credit, one last score, they usually settle for less tangible scraps of bounty, and in time—cloutless and stuck fast in subcelebrity—they tend to drink too much, or take drugs, or fall off golf carts, or just get too old to remember their lines. Sometimes they end up so ornery and embittered they turn their capacity for low-jinks or menace inward, and then there's trouble in Angel City.
Consider Timothy Agoglia Carey, a rough-hewn, riveting beastie who, starting in the heyday of noir, slouched his way toward some backlot Bethlehem. He first hit a public nerve as a slurry-voiced gunsel in André de Toth's B-grade sleeper Crime Wave (54) and was last seen in a trifling part in the trifle Echo Park (86). In between he appeared in nearly four dozen films, ranging from the sublime—a pair of Stanley Kubrick's earlier and arguably best features—to such artsy turkeys as John Cassavetes The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (76).
Usually restricted to playing loathsome genre heavies, Carey's strongest performances offer the kind of mixed signals associated not so much with art or craft as with pathology or the twisted mysteries of DNA. Paralleling his psycho roles, Carey's dark personal legend encompasses 40 years of dedicated, or perhaps just helpless, eccentricity—zany behavior shading off into the macabre. Since the era of The Killing (56), Paths of Glory (57), Kazan's East of Eden (55), and Brando's One-Eyed Jacks (61), he'd hung in my mind as one of the first Method character actors, embodying all the follies and fevers of that holy-roller theatrical regimen. Even in throwaway parts—opposite The Monkees in Head (68), for Chrissake—you could look into his hooded, jittery eyes and sense real danger. Prankster or madman? Crusader or wise guy? The choice was hard to make when, in the dog days of August 1992, Carey materialized after almost a decade off-screen for an evening of manic schtick and pitiless self-revelation at the Nuart Theatre in West L.A. A program highlight was a screening of The World's Greatest Sinner, possibly the most bizarre vanity-cum-auteur vehicle on record (see sidebar). The 77-minute black-and-white feature credits Carey as star, writer, producer, director, and distributor. He plays a bored insurance salesman who changes his name to God, develops a youth following and a nasty lust for power, and winds up believing his own con. In the end, he blasphemously challenges the heavenly powers and, I think, realizes the enormity of his hubris. (Make that His hubris.)
Finally released in 1964, the picture never found its rightful place in the grind houses and drive-ins of the period, where Carey was at the time being hissed by millions in the exploitation hits Mermaids of Tiburon (a.k.a. Aqua Sex) (62) and Poor White Trash (61). This one-night-only screening was the fifth commercial play date for Carey's brainchild. At the intermission, the long-legged Carey, wearing his sparkly Sinner getup, loped to the stage, his big-time weirdo persona ingrained and ageless. His voice was like a meat grinder full of nails. He began speaking about the joys of public farting. In a sort of jive disquisition, he cited Salvador Dalí on the benefits of breaking wind as a social activity. "Me, I fart loud—I can't be a hypocrite. I get these parts, but I never get to play 'em because I fart out loud. Why can't we all fart together ? Let thy arse make wind!"
Yikes. The hamola-as-radical-sage metamorphosing into the Guru of Bodily Functions. The implications were not slow to sink in that Carey had literally farted his career away. Nervous laughter ran through the theater as I shifted uneasily in my seat. Carey spritzed on, telling fart jokes, basically—potty-mouth stuff. He gibbered in baby talk, made faces, sang off-key, declaimed on his back, chanted against Hollywood's "rotten money culture," and ended the monologue by lifting his leg and imitating the sound of a wicked blast. It was a spacey gag that went on too long—half-funny, half-cracked.
Applause at the end faded quickly. Carey took up a position in the lobby, wearing a fixed smile, ready to sign autographs. But the audience filed silently past him. I walked by close enough to see that he believed his own blather. You could tell he was somewhat twisted in the melon, but not plain gaga—a primitive artist and a primitive human.
Back in the Fifties and Sixties, I'd gone to movies because Jack Elam was in them, or Neville Brand—or Timothy Carey. Perhaps only the camera truly loved these kinds of mavericks and marginals, but I'd always regarded the skull-faced Carey as one of the quintessential hard-boiled actors, and I now found myself savoring his mix of gaucherie and ballsiness in taking on, among others, the sensitivity police of the Nineties. As he held his smile and we made passing eye contact, I thought I'd like to pick his lock. For hours afterward, I wondered at Carey's cockeyed grace in handling the crowd's rejection, and I dreamed about him that night in his matchless performances—the condemned soldier who kills a cockroach in Paths of Glory, the feral assassin who fondles a puppy and talks mayhem with Sterling Hayden in The Killing.
Setting up an appointment with Carey was tricky. He is, for one thing, a recluse. On the other hand, as a benched performer, he craves attention. Finally, Romeo Carey, the actor's [then] 32-year-old filmmaker son, smoothed the path for a series of encounters at the modest Carey family bungalow in the L.A. suburb of El Monte, not far from the Santa Anita racetrack. The neighborhood, quiet and working class, seemed far in psychic miles from Hollywood.
I'll say it was a gas meeting Carey and get that out of the way. The character and the actor meshed seamlessly, and he responded to my interest like somebody who'd been in solitary and couldn't stop talking once he started. If he was often over-the-top in his comments, he also seemed painfully insecure, even as his long index finger jabbed the air. He struck me as a man of high ideals, however curious—at once a show-off and a fragile dreamer. He answered my questions perched on a mock throne in his cluttered backyard studio, once again wearing his glittery Sinner costume. To add to the general bizarrerie, Romeo Carey filmed portions of the proceedings for a documentary-in-progress. - G.L.
Are you generally known around the industry as a farter?
Yeah, well, there are two responses, pro and con. Some take it as a joke, and others call me gross. I met a producer—Roderick Taylor, who did some sci-fi movies at Universal and was a former rock 'n' roll celebrity or something—and I did a strong report in front of him and his co-producer. And I have a really loud intestine, see. You know what they did? Ran out of the studio! It was incredible. Sometimes even John [Cassavetes] would be sort of embarrassed, like this one time when I let out two big, double-barreled blasts in his office at the Burbank studio. "Shhh, Tim!" And his face turned all red, because of the secretaries there, and it was—I dunno—just byootiful to look at him. I felt more than close to John—he was my hero. But the funny thing was, he told me, "Tim, you're my hero." I did Minnie and Moskowitz  and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie with him. The first one was around the same time as The Godfather. They wanted me for that and Cassavetes said I had to do it, but I said, no, I'd rather work with you. He was such a genius, such a creative guy. But he was so real, and he had time for everybody. He also put up most of the money for a TV pilot I did, Tweet's Ladies of Pasadena. The character Tweet Twig looked like a canary who was run over by a lawnmower—shredded Tweet, a village-idiot guy who always gums up everything. Every episode was going to show Tweet on a new job because he got fired from the last one. The little old ladies were the kind who knit and garden. Everybody loved the combination except the network people who could help me, and they just walked out. I shot thousands and thousands of feet of film, and I spent all of Cassavetes's money, all of my own money. I kept working on it up until about 1981 or '82, and it was like life, you know. We slip, we bleed. Cassavetes taught me that. The truth is, I never really cared about conventional success. I was probably fired more than any other actor in Hollywood.
I'm still trying to digest the fact that you passed up a role in The Godfather.
I was offered a spot in both The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. To play Luca Brazzi in the first one, and the Mafioso boss who gets killed on the stairs at the opening of the second one. But I didn't do either show, because if I had, I woulda been just like any other actor—out for the money. Francis wanted me on the show, but I kept saying no. To get out of going to New York, I kept saying I wanted more money, and they got tired of it, I guess. Francis asked me to do The Conversation, and when I signed for it, [co-producer Fred] Roos wanted it in the contract that I wouldn't get paid for the dubbing. I said, "Well, you're going to have to mow my lawn then." I made them put in a clause where he had to mow my yard. Then I caught a little cold during rehearsals with Gene Hackman, and Roos said to Coppola, "Let's get another actor." They cast Allen Garfield in the part.
What kept you out of Godfather Part II?
I went to talk to Francis at Paramount. I already had the part, but I still wanted to do a scene. Francis and his pals were sitting around his office and I brought a box of cannolis and Italian pastries as gifts. I said, "I brought you this gift to pay respect to my friends," and I reached down into those dripping cannolis and pulled out a gun—boom boom!—and blew the hell out of all of them. And then I shot myself and staggered over and fell on Roos's desk—all the contracts went flying. And Coppola grabbed my blank gun and shot me back—bang bang!—like a kid. It was byootiful—I took 'em completely by surprise. Francis was stunned, "How much do you want?" But Roos didn't like it, so he went to work and influenced Coppola against me.
One guy, a little guy, was sitting there watching everything. A young kid with a camera, but he wasn't filming. He just sat there with a mean, kind of miserly . . . I could tell he was afraid by the lines on his face. Like he needed two inches of Chinese tonic. It was Martin Scorsese, somebody said.
It sounds as if you were hard to get along with.
Yeah, but . . . not really. Not to a director who knows me. Not to Stanley Kubrick, say. I don't think Coppola and me will ever get together, because I'd be doing my own sort of thing, and I'm always trying to suggest little bits, you know. That was one of the things that kept a lot of directors from working with me.
It's amazing how people get so afraid and weak. I was up for a big part in Bonnie and Clyde, but Arthur Penn took one look at me and almost fainted in my arms. He'd heard that I'd gotten into a punch-out with Elia Kazan on East of Eden. Which wasn't true. But because of the garbled story and Penn's weakness, I didn't get the part. The same with Stephen Frears years later on The Grifters—weakness. The same with Harvey Keitel's weakness on Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino brought me in to read. He'd done a terrific script with my name on the top—inspiration by Timothy Carey. Harvey Keitel didn't want me on the show. He was afraid—I could tell when I walked in. He had the right to say yea or nay to any actor. Larry Tierney got the part. Larry's a good friend of mine, and he called me up later and kind of apologized.
No offense, Tim, but did you ever drink a lot or use drugs?
No, I'm a teetotaler. I never even smoked. People were always offering me grass or cocaine. I got my own cocaine—my own personality. i am cocaine. What do I need that stuff for?
So, basically, you didn't have any vices at all?
Oh, yeah—I loved gambling and women. I used to live in Watts and go with black women all the time.
All I have to go on is a list of your pictures and some wild stories I've heard around town. For instance, did you once tie up Otto Preminger in his office to get a role?
. . . throw a snake into a closet where Ray Dennis Steckler was loading a camera, on the shoot of The World's Greatest Sinner?
Yeah, well, that's what he claimed.
And there's this infamous screening of Sinner at Universal, where you stood by the door with a baseball bat and wouldn't let the executives out.
Naw, that's one of the stories Cassavetes loved to tell, but we didn't even screen the picture. We were up there to discuss a project of mine that John was promoting, a TV thing called "A.L.," which is L.A. in reverse. But, no, I don't use tactics like that. But my menace was my idea. I said, "When I work, nobody sits down and relaxes." Cassavetes said it scared Ned Tannen. He and Danny Selznick were the ones who were there at the meeting.
Who else did you have trouble with?
With Marlon on The Wild One . When I shook up a bottle of beer and let the foam go into his face, he didn't like that. But he would be up-front about it. When I worked with him on One-Eyed Jacks, he told me, "I hope you're not going to throw any more beer at me." Marlon was great, but Karl Malden was kind of skittish. In our scene when he kicked me, he kicked me a lot, so I said, "Marlon, if this guy kicks me again I'm gonna clobber him." But he kept doing it. He had a touch of Richard Widmark in him. Widmark stomped me bad in a Western we made in Arizona, The Last Wagon . He stomped me while I was down, kept going at it for five minutes, just because I reacted when he mock-stabbed me in the scene. He apologized later, but I wouldn't accept it.
So you had a lot of trouble with other actors.
A few of them didn't like what I was doing, yeah. I did a show with Bob Ryan once—he was great, but he wouldn't allow a lot of takes. "This is it," he'd say. Adolphe Menjou didn't care much for me, either. He was a man of the old school, and when we were in Munich shooting Paths of Glory, he thought I'd disgraced the company with my behavior. I had a toy monkey with me, and I was walking around with holes in my shoes.
James Harris, the producer, told me you embarrassed the crew, that the Germans wanted to throw the whole company out of the country.
Harris fired me. He made sure I'd done all my scenes, then fired me the next day. Emile Meyer, the guy playing the priest when we are being executed, also didn't like me. He wanted to punch me because in my death scene I was biting his arm, saying, "I don't wanna die, I don't wanna die" [laughs]. Kubrick pulled me aside and said [menacing whisper], "Make it good, Tim. Kirk doesn't like it." When he fired me, Harris said, "You've already stolen all the scenes!"
You got fired from your first job, didn't you?
That's right. Billy Wilder fired me from Ace in the Hole . I'd just gotten out of drama school in New York, and I'd gone to California, where they threw me out of Columbia Studios. So on my way back, I stopped to look up Wilder in New Mexico, where he was shooting. I said, "Mr. Wilder, I'm here, I'm Timothy Carey, I studied the Stanislawski method." He said, "Ja, okay, you go sign up, tell them I sent you." So I was in the show, playing one of the workers trying to dig the fellow out of the hole. And I'm watching the camera, angling to get myself in a full shot. I wanted to be in that scene so much I stood in front of Kirk Douglas. I wanted to be seen by the guys back in Brooklyn, you know. But all of a sudden someone taps me on the shoulder. "The director doesn't want you anymore." He gave me five vouchers, each worth $7.50. First show I worked on, first show I got fired from.
I heard about a Clark Gable show shooting in Durango, Colorado, so I started hitchhiking. That was Across the Wide Missouri , and I went right up to Gable's trailer. He at first took me for the guy playing the other lead. When he realized his mistake, he didn't talk to me again. I played a dead man with my face down in the water. They made a big thing of it in Brooklyn.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done different?
[Long pause.] I wouldn't conceal my farts. I wouldn't change anything. I've always wanted to do things my own way. Same with the play I've been writing for some years now, The Insect Trainer [about a man tried for murder after farting on a woman, more or less based on the French entertainer Le Petomane (a.k.a. The Fartomaniac). The play, funded in part by Martin Scorsese, was produced by Romeo Carey and premiered at the Heliotrope Theater in Los Angeles on May 30, 1996]. I know it's not gonna make it. Somebody else said that, too . . . . But that's the kind of thing I like—something that reaches out.