Veteran actor Michael Parks in Santa Monica. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
Writer-director Kevin Smith describes Michael Parks as "porn for actors. If you like actors and you discover Michael Parks in a scene and you have never seen him before, your brain explodes. He will take a page of dialogue and deliver it in a different way than anybody else."
Parks, 71, is starring in Smith's latest film, "Red State," available on video-on-demand, as Abin Cooper, a Fred Phelps-like preacher. In this thriller, Cooper and his cult have been kidnapping and killing teenage boys they believe to be gay. What makes Parks' performance terrifying is how he deftly blends a soft-spoken demeanor with a charismatic intensity and venom.
The film, said Parks, "is horrific. There are no vampires. It is a true horror. It is not of our imagination."
The tall and lanky Parks is sitting in a corner booth at Planet Raw in Santa Monica. It's often difficult to hear him because he speaks softly and the music in the small eatery is loud. But ask him a question and he may answer with a quote.
Was it difficult to play someone as insane and murderous as Cooper?
"[Director] Jean Renoir said, 'The greatest sin is to deny anyone their religion,'" Parks responds. "Voltaire said, 'Why rattle on and on about God? What you say about Him can't be true.'"
Parks first came to public attention in the early 1960s as a James Dean-esque, moody young actor in such films as the 1965 potboiler "Bus Riley's Back in Town" and as a young man traveling the country on his motorcycle in the 1969-70 NBC series "Then Came Bronson." Parks, who sings in "Red State," hit the charts with the TV series' catchy theme song "Long Lonesome Highway."
He's no Dean
Though he continued acting in the 1970s and '80s, there was a lot of downtime when the phone didn't ring.
Part of the problem was the comparison to James Dean. "It hurt more than helped," Parks said. "From what I gather, he was cantankerous.... He could be mean, and people who knew him said [about me], 'Another James Dean,' without even knowing me."
And a contract dispute with Universal labeled him a headache. "Universal owed me money and put me on suspension," he said. "I went to Mexico and chopped wood for a living." Universal executives eventually called and told him if he would do a TV movie for them, they would let him out of his contract. "But when someone says you're trouble, whether it's true or not...."
His difficulties began to end when he was cast as French-Canadian gunrunner Jean Renault in David Lynch's 1990-91 ABC series, "Twin Peaks." Then he stole the opening scenes of Robert Rodriguez's 1996 vampire thriller, "From Dusk Till Dawn," which Quentin Tarantino produced, as the pun-loving sheriff, Earl McGraw. He reprised McGraw in Tarantino's 2003 "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" and in Tarantino and Rodriguez's 2007 "Grindhouse." Parks also has a small but flashy scene in 2004's "Kill Bill: Vol. 2" as an 80-year-old, smooth-talking Mexican pimp named Esteban Vihaio.
Rodriguez was introduced to Parks by Tarantino and found him amazing. "He was always considered to be the actor who should replace James Dean when James Dean passed, and his naturalism was just amazing to watch," the director said. "You would roll the cameras and watch the magic happen. We've both used him in several of our films now and love seeing how much he got after 'From Dusk Till Dawn.'"
Smith was won over
And if it wasn't for that film, Smith ("Dogma," Clerks") wouldn't have known about Parks. He saw an early screening of it. "I was not familiar with him," Smith said. "Never saw him. But he owns the first five or 10 minutes of the movie, playing the enigmatic sheriff. I was blown away. I said to Scott Mosier, my producer, 'I have to go work with this guy. Could you imagine being on the set with this man, sitting at the feet of this acting …Yoda?'"
But it took Smith 15 years to find something worthy of Parks' talents. "You just don't want to come to him and say, 'Hey, would you like to play Silent Bob's grandpa?' He is the goods."
Parks, who says he didn't feel he knew the craft of acting until he was 40, is good friends with Rodriguez, Tarantino and now Smith. In fact, he's set to play a French Canadian hockey coach in Smith's upcoming "Hit Somebody."
"I have been to Quentin's house two times," Parks related. "The last time was with Kevin. Quentin wanted to see 'Red State' again. In his theater [at his house], it was like old-school coming attractions. One of the coming attractions was 'Bus Riley's Back in Town' and the others were cassettes of scenes I had done. He would say, 'This is an awful B movie, but look at Michael's performance here.' It was embarrassing and sweet."