An asp with ample sideburns, Ed Lauter has the squint of a serpent. He not infrequently appears cool to the touch. His forehead, which begins rising at his scowl and never stops, has the polished menace of a bullet or a smooth, potentially lethal stone. You’ve seen him dozens of times, as hammerheaded toughs on TV and along the jagged crevices of the big screen, lolling silently in shadow, waiting to scurry out from beneath a rock whenever death drew near. Alfred Hitchcock hired him to play one of his last great heavies, the arsonist-turned-gas-station-owner Joe Maloney in Family Plot (76). Robert Aldrich (The Longest Yard, 74), Nicolas Roeg (Eureka, 83), Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July, 89), and Tony Scott (True Romance, 93) have all featured him as well, for Lauter is a man’s man, a male director’s ideal male character actor—carved from granite and malice, his uneasy grin and testosterone gravitas lending a sickening, sinking feeling to almost any scene he joins.
Born on Long Island, New York, in 1940, Lauter followed in his mother’s footsteps (she was once a Broadway actress in the era of Belasco and Jolson), studying with the great William Hickey (the cookie-loving capo of Prizzi’s Honor), and doing stand-up comedy in Sixties Manhattan. Soon to become one of the Seventies’ defining featured faces, Lauter raced into his screen career in 1972 with the help of the decade’s top casting director, Lynn Stalmaster, who’d seen the actor in a Broadway production of The Great White Hope. In his first year in Hollywood alone he appeared in six features (beginning with Stan Dragoti’s snot-nosed oater, Dirty Little Billy, a vehicle for Michael J. Pollard) and three Quinn Martin–produced television series. Well-liked and quick to make lasting friends, Lauter fast found himself in a position to learn from older Hollywood icons like Burt Lancaster (in Executive Action, 73, and The Midnight Man, 74), Robert Ryan (in unfilmed rehearsals for John Frankenheimer’s 1973 adaptation of The Iceman Cometh, and in Richard C. Sarafian’s Lolly-Madonna XXX, 73), and George C. Scott (in Richard Fleischer’s The New Centurions, 72, and Scott’s own Rage, 72). His still-growing list of 200-odd film and television appearances suggests what fans and filmmakers already know: “reliability” is Lauter’s middle name. (Well, actually it’s Matthew.)
Of German and Irish descent, Lauter does both redneck and roughneck with great relish and subtle variation, and though he excels at looming and hulking, he appears equally at home (and equally unnerving) behind a clipboard and a white lab coat. As Jeff Bridges’s speedway rival in 1973’s The Last American Hero, he looks eerily like Hunter S. Thompson, complete with aviator glasses and a cigarette holder clinched in his death’s-head grin. He’d been shot dead by Bridges the year before, in Robert Benton’s bitter boy’s Western Bad Company (72), and the actors would reunite in Dino De Laurentiis’s disco-era King Kong (76), with Lauter fishing Jessica Lange’s wet-ballgowned body up out of a life raft, only to be later dispatched by the colossal ape into a mile-deep trench. Lauter appears in John Frankenheimer’s French Connection II (75) for only a minute or two, but the mere sight of him shooting pheasant with Fernando Rey’s “Frog One,” or hefting the transparent garment bag that holds his U.S. Army general’s uniform in a portside restaurant in Marseilles, allows the film to make character-cued connections that further globalize its narcotic web.
Today instantly recognizable among acting aficionados and occasionally to be glimpsed in late-model Oscar bait (look, there he is in The Artist!), Lauter may have given his greatest (and all too little known) performance as Hawk Feather, the showboating rapist and batshit-crazy offspring of Rod Steiger in the unhinged hillbilly roughie, Lolly-Madonna XXX (aka The Lolly-Madonna War). Shirtless and furry beneath a cutoff denim vest, Lauter flaunts his puckered-leather leer and shoots for the moon: singing, crying, laughing, aping Elvis, cross-dressing, molesting, and dying with the sort of Oscar-winning gusto that should have initiated a long string of awards. But Lauter’s is the sort of go-to-work-every-day artistry that sits uneasy with the Academy: he makes breathing his trademarked mix of mercenary malice and madman gleam into myriad combustible characters seem as effortless as Satan flicking his tongue.