Life and Death in L.A.: Acting Through Clenched Teeth: Quirky Timothy Carey Performed in a Number of Noirs and Neo-Noirs … and Was Kicked Off Almost as Many as He Appeared In

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Acting Through Clenched Teeth: Quirky Timothy Carey Performed in a Number of Noirs and Neo-Noirs … and Was Kicked Off Almost as Many as He Appeared In

Timothy Carey, “The Killing” (1956).

By Paul Parcellin

Timothy Carey was the kind of actor who refused to fade into the background — even as a movie extra. That cost him a job or two, including one of his earliest acting gigs, an occurrence that would prove all too typical in his professional life. He’d hitchhiked to the New Mexico location where Billy Wilder was shooting “Ace in the Hole” (1951) and managed to get hired as a background performer playing a construction worker trying to free a man trapped in a cave-in. To ensure that his face got into the frame, Carey stepped between the star, Kirk Douglas, and the camera a few too many times and the director issued him pay vouchers and sent him packing.

The experience did not damped his urge to crowd the spotlight. In addition to Wilder, Carey worked with a number of other high profile directors, including William Wellman, Elia Kazan, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Andre de Toth, and John Cassavetes. How often he made it to the final print is another matter. 

When he did appear on screen, at times he had the curious habit of keeping his teeth clenched when speaking — that’s how the shady characters he often played would talk, he reasoned.

Film critic Grover Lewis said of the actor’s portrayal of loathsome genre heavies, “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 … ‘  He added, “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.” 

Born March 11, 1929, in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to a family of Italian and Irish descent, Carey made his way west as a young man to storm the gates of Hollywood. He eventually settled in the working class Los Angeles suburb of El Monte where he and his wife Doris raised six children: Romeo, Mario, Velencia, Silvana, Dagmar, and Germain. 

In 1951, Carey was a 22-year-old acting school graduate making his film debut playing a corpse in a Clark Gable western, but it was his brief, uncredited part as Chino's Boy #1, a member of Lee Marvin's motorcycle gang in “The Wild One” (1953) that began his run of unsavory onscreen characters. Going out on a limb as he usually did, he came up with the idea of squirting beer in Marlon Brando's face — Brando wasn’t wild about the idea.

He played Joe, the bordello bouncer who threatens James Dean in “East of Eden” (1955). Both roles were uncredited.

He was the go-to guy for a certain kind of Hollywood tough character, whether he was an abortionist in “Unwed Mother” (1958), a wino, in a silent walk-on in the Susan Hayward melodrama “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” (1955), a “hulking mental patient” in “Shock Treatment” (1951) or the pool shark South Dakota Slim in “Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965). As the heavy Lord High-and-Low, he menaced The Monkees in the Jack Nicholson-penned “Head” (1968) — Nicholson was one of his biggest fans. He acted in "One-Eyed Jacks" (1961) with Brando and in John Cassavetes's “Minnie and Moskowitz” (1971) and “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" (1976). 

But it was the role of  Nikki Arcane, the sharpshooter who is recruited by a gang plotting to rob a racetrack in Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956) that was among his more memorable and disturbing screen appearances. 

Timothy Carey, Ralph Meeker, Joe Turkel,
“Paths of Glory” (1957). 

The following year he portrayed French soldier Pvt. Maurice Ferol in Kubrick’s World War I drama “Paths of Glory” (1957). However, Carey’s outlandish behavior did not amuse his fellow thespians. During filming in Munich the film’s co-star, Adolphe Menjou, complained that Carey had disgraced the company with his behavior. 

“I had a toy monkey with me, and I was walking around with holes in my shoes,” said Carey. Producer James Harris said Carey embarrassed the crew, and that the Germans wanted to throw the whole company out of the country. The real reason for the uproar had little to do with the actor’s toy monkey or the holes in his shoes. The New York Times reported that Carey was found handcuffed and gagged on a desolate road outside Munich. Police said the actor had been picked up hitchhiking and was robbed by two English-speaking men. 

At a posthumous screening of Carey’s work, his son Romeo explained that his father staged the abduction because he was frustrated that Kirk Douglas and other cast members were getting all of the press interviews.

Timothy Carey, “The World's Greatest Sinner” (1962).

Equally outlandish was the film Carey wrote, directed, produced and starred in, “The World's Greatest Sinner” (1962), a 77-minute black-and-white feature that was filmed fitfully between 1958-’61 for a total cost of approximately $100,000 and was released in 1963. Carey plays Clarence Hilliard, an insurance salesman who quits his job, changes his name to God and starts his own political and religious movement, promising to turn everyone into millionaires, gods and super humans. Promotional material called it “The most condemned and praised American movie of its Time.” 

It wasn’t in theaters for long, but among the few people who saw it was Frank Zappa, who wrote the film’s score. He called it “the world’s worst film.” However, John Cassavetes held it in higher esteem, proclaiming that the film had the “emotional brilliance of Eisenstein.” Lacking a wide commercial release, “The World’s Greatest Sinner” achieved cult status as a midnight movie in Los Angeles in the 1960s.

It’s worth noting that the roles Carey turned down or self-sabotaged his way out of are as impressive as the ones he played.  He opted out of an offer to play Luca Brazzi in “The Godfather” (1972) and would have been cast in “The Godfather Part II” (1974) had it not been for a prank he played on the big shots. He smuggled a gun loaded with blanks, hidden in a box of cannolis, into a meeting at Paramount and proceeded to blast away at the mucky mucks. Producer Fred Roos was not amused and Carey was dropped from the production. “The Godfather” director Coppola also wanted him in “The Conversation” (1974) but contract haggling put the kibosh on that, as well. 

According to director Quentin Tarantino, Carey auditioned for the role of Joe Cabot in Tarantino's “Reservoir Dogs” (1992). Although he did not get the part, the screenplay is dedicated to him, among others.

In the twilight of his career, Carey saw fewer movie roles, appearing in a film every one or two years, the last one being “Echo Park” (1985).

He died of a stroke May 11, 1994 at the age of 65 in Los Angeles. His body is interred at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, Calif. 

Timothy Carey, Phyllis Kirk, “Crime Wave” (1953)

Here’s a sampling of Timothy Carey’s performances in films noir and neo-noirs:

Hired as a background actor for “Ace in the Hole” (1951), Carey plays a construction worker helping to free a man caught in a cave-in (uncredited and unconfirmed). He was fired for habitually stepping into Kirk Douglas’s shots.

Carey is uncredited in the role of Johnny Haslett, a psychotic drug addict who is on the run from the police in “Crime Wave” (1953). His performance is manic and unpredictable, displaying what might be the most strident example of scenery chewing ever committed to film.

In “Finger Man” (1955), Carey is cheap hood Lou Terpe, a suck-up to gangster Dutch Becker (Forrest Tucker). The sleazy Terpe disfigures prostitutes under Becker’s employ when they fail to toe the line. He’s dangerous and probably psychotic, which puts him in a league with many other characters the actor portrayed in noirs. 

As sharpshoot Nikki Arcane, Carey plays a significant supporting role in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956). Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) masterminds a plot to rob a racetrack as fans watch the ponies make their way around the oval. Arcane is recruited to fire one bullet that will throw the packed stadium into a panic. Carey has never been sleazier, particularly in his racist encounter with a parking lot attendant.

Gangsters meet greasers in “Rumble on the Docks” (1956), one of the few noirs with a rock ‘n’ roll interlude. Carey is Frank Mangus, a gangster’s flunky who helps him lean on a newspaper publisher who prints stories about the mob’s influence on the waterfront. Meanwhile, local teenaged hoods with D.A. haircuts rumble with rivals. Carey displays an exhaustive library of ticks and grimaces. Seated on a sofa he slouches, then throw a leg over a chair back  — he reaches deeply into his bag of hammy scene-stealing gimmicks.  

Carey is Carl Fowler, a violent thug with a grudge, in “Chain Of Evidence” (1957). He’s not above giving an unsuspecting man a savage beating. When questioned by the cops he’s a leather jacketed surly wise guy. A distraught woman whose boyfriend is missing is looking for answers. Fowler growls at her, “He ran out on you, baby.” But he knows different. It’s one of Carey’s more restrained performances.

In “Revolt In The Big House” (1958), Bugsy Kyle (Carey) is the grand poobah of the “big house” until stickup man Lou Gannon (Gene Evans) arrives. Together they work on a plot to bust out. Bugsy is the kind of guy who would stab you in the back — literally.

Jake Menner (Carey) is a mob guy who gets tangled up in Earl Macklin’s (Robert Duvall) plot to seek revenge for the killing of his brother, who made mistake of robbing a mob operation, in “The Outfit” (1973)

Flo (Carey) is one of the gangsters who leans heavily on Los Angles nightclub owner Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara). Cosmo has just paid off the mob loan he used to buy his club and now the gangsters want to take the joint away from him, in “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976). And with his 6 foot, 4 inch frame, Flo can be intimidating.

Ben Gazzara, Timothy Carey, Seymour Cassel,
“The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976).

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Paul. Timothy Carey's performances have always fascinated me, and I look forward to checking out some of the other ones you named.