Published at: Dec. 13, 2006, 1:37 p.m. CST by Moriarty
I remember the first time I saw Peter Boyle.
When I was a kid, the Clearwater Six had Saturday morning kid matinees, where they’d show two features as well as cartoons and Three Stooges shorts and all sorts of oddball surprises for us. As a result, my first viewing of James Whale’s original FRANKENSTEIN was in a theater. As we were leaving that day’s screenings, I saw a poster for what looked like a sequel to it, and I asked my dad (who came to pick me up) if he would bring me to see it. I didn’t understand why he laughed when I pointed out the poster, but he agreed.
And so it was that I found myself in a darkened theater watching YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, completely blown away by whoever that glorious freak was playing the Monster. Even at the age of six, I found the film hilariously funny, and when I watch the film today, I still get the giggles at so much of what he does, at the way he and Gene Wilder play off of each other in the “Puttin’ On The Ritz” number, at his amazing scene with Gene Hackman. It’s a brilliant comic performance.
And it was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Boyle was capable of.
My wife discovered EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND last year, and she started watching the DVD box sets obsessively. I would have gone mad if not for the presence of Boyle in the show. As Frank, patriarch of the extended family, he was a deadly comedy weapon who would come in and steal every scene. He brought real nuance to the role, and I loved how he would reveal surprising tenderness underneath his gruff exterior.
Look back at his filmography, and you see all sorts of great films, and in each one, his contribution is part of what makes the film great. I’m still shocked that JOE didn’t launch him to startdom right off the bat. If you haven’t seen this 1970 classic, then you need to start there if you want to really appreciate what Boyle was capable of. Directed by John Avildsen and written at fever pitch by Norman Wexler, JOE is the ultimate expression of the fury that erupted between mainstream America and the counterculture, and Boyle plays a racist, sexist, loudmouthed embodiment of an America whose time has passed. Boyle attacked the role, and the result is still hard to watch. He somehow manages to be funny and horrifying and heartbreaking all at once, and the film’s final thirty minutes represent a high point that I’m not sure he ever quite achieved again in any other film.
THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE is an underrated gem starring Robert Mitchum, and Boyle plays the pivotal role of a bartender who turns informer. It’s wrenching character work, an indicator of just how good Boyle could be when turned loose with the right material. Film after film, he kept turning in great work. TAXI DRIVER, HARDCORE, THE BRINK’S JOB. When directors used him in comedy, there was almost always a dangerous edge to that laughter, like in WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM, where he played Carl Lazlo, that film’s version of Hunter Thompson’s monstrous attorney.
As the ‘70s faded and the ‘80s rolled on, it seemed like people didn’t know what to do with him, and there just weren’t as many good roles available. Even so, he managed to make an impression in films like OUTLAND, YELLOWBEARD, JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY, and even TURK 182. His career reached its nadir with the 1990 TV series POOCHINSKI, in which he played the voice of an awful stuffed dog puppet, reincarnated from Boyle. It was depressing as a fan to see him used that way. The ‘90s were a long dry spell, and when he did pop up in something like THE SHADOW or WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING (the closest precursor to his work on RAYMOND), it was always welcome. Maybe his most memorable mid-‘90s moment was a guest appearance on THE X-FILES as Clyde Bruckman, and I’ve got to believe that was a big part of why he was cast in RAYMOND, which started in 1996. For the next decade, he had a home, and he was on TV every week. If for no other reason, Boyle will be remembered by a new generation of fans, and I’m sure today his loss is being felt by every one of that show’s viewers.
He was one of a kind. He was an original. And he will be deeply missed. Our thoughts are with his friends and family today.
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles