Actors — especially those that occupy, time and again, screens of varying sizes and uses — are inevitably quirky, because they inhabit the life and lives of other people, most of them fictional, and make them real.
Few of them attain the status of legend, unforgettable or superstar, in which their life and work reach the point where they are beyond criticism (if not entirely beyond reproach), the ones that become all the parts and sums of parts they played: Chaplin, John Wayne, Monroe, Bergman, Flynn, and so on. As one irreplaceable movie star, Kirk Douglas, said of another: “The trouble with John Wayne is that he really thinks he is John Wayne.”
But the environment of movies en toto is such that it is peopled by both stars and their foils, the villains and the sirens. Casts are filled out by actors and actresses who are not stars but who are as necessary as stars, and who at times deliver the moment or the role that becomes indelible. You never forget them. They add to the sum and essential total of movie lore, history and genealogy.
So here are Peter Fonda, Rutger Hauer and Rip Torn.
Peter Fonda’s connective fame and movie tissue is made up of famous family ties, of a certain time and cultural climate and of one particular role and film, which came to symbolize the time in a “Woodstock” sort of way. Fonda, who died on Aug. 16 at the age of 79, was the instigator and star of “Easy Rider,” which elevated co-star Dennis Hopper, who directed, and made a star out of then-little-known Jack Nicholson.
Fonda was Captain America in “Easy Rider,” on a bike, sidekicking and tripping with Hopper. He wrote a part of the script with some help from Terry Southern of “Candy” fame, and the movie became an above-ground underground hit, no doubt helped by Fonda’s previous incarnations of a biker named Heavenly Blues in Roger Corman’s 1966 “Wild Angels” and a role as an over-the-top-and-out-of-body acid tripper in “The Trip.” If none of that — plus a soundtrack that included the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, the Moody Blues and so forth — don’t give you a hippie contact jolt, well, it’s all right, don’t think twice.
Fonda had another slice of icon and perhaps a burden, too, because he was, well, a Fonda. That meant he was the son of Henry Fonda, maybe the best “serious” movie actor ever (plus he played Lincoln and Wyatt Earp), and the younger brother of Jane Fonda, who was no slouch as an actress, star and legend herself and remains so. Plus, he’s the father of Bridget Fonda.
To many of us who came of a kind of age in the ’60s, he’ll be Captain America — and not the Marvel Comics version — riding toward a violent destiny with Billy.
Dutch actor Rutger Hauer died at the age of 75 on unspecified causes in the village of Beetsterzwaag in the Netherlands on July 19. Hauer, who had those intense blue eyes that could turn medieval or vampiric, or skeptically modern, was a gifted European actor with a hefty credit list, respected and varied. With his blond, leading man looks, he could cross from villainous to valiant effectively.
He made the crossover to American audiences with “Nighthawks,” playing an international bad guy pursued by Sylvester Stallone, then made himself memorable in a forever kind of role in the sci-fi classic “Blade Runner,” in which he played a fierce replicant — a near-human robot trying eloquently to come to life while being hunted by the nominal hero, played by Harrison Ford.
Made in 1982, it was set oddly enough in a futuristic 2019 Los Angeles, a place that was noir in a seedy, polluted way, as the remnants of a group of replicants were hunted by police and corporations. It was a 2019 already deep down the path of environmental poisoning, so filled with nighttime smoke that it made you want to cough. Haeer’s character, replicant Roy Batty, was the most compelling character in the movie, certainly more so than his nemesis.
Batty’s sonorous lines stating his human case are often quoted: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”
Then there’s Rip Torn, who died on July 19 at age 88. Torn had a reputation trailing him like dangerous dust. He was supposed to have a temper — and he said he did — a dangerous quality that he brought to his various roles played on television, in the movies and onstage.
He could also and oddly play funny. His lasting fame may still reside in the role of Artie the producer on HBO’s edgy and cult comedy “The Larry Sanders Show,” a critical and financial boon for Torn and for the show’s star, the late Garry Shandling. Torn was nominated a number of times for an Emmy, won once, and was also nominated again for playing the GE CEO Don Geiss on “30 Rock.”
Thinking of Torn as a funny man may seem strange because there’s always been something deeply dark and even menacing in his roles — violently opposite Paul Newman in the throes of Geraldine Page in Tennessee Williams’s “Sweet Bird of Youth,” on stage and in the film; the belligerent swamp rat in “Cross Creek” (Oscar nominated); a nasty, ego-swamped country singer in “Pay Day.” He was married to Page, a brilliant, exotic diva of fragility, for over 20 years; one might hope for a printed version of their table talk.
Someone called him an actor’s actor, which may be true, the best hope of an actor who called himself “irascible.” “I get angered easily,” he said. “I get saddened by things easily.” Fair enough.
Sad to see them go and glad to see them again popping up in long-ago credits at the end of their lasting and best work.