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Today I had the displeasure of coming home to the news that my favorite actor had passed away. As of May 10th, 2017, Michael Parks, who was 77, is no longer with us, and it breaks my heart.
Parks was an actor, a singer, and a man who learned the hard graft of life long before he ever graced the silver screen or a recording studio. He was a drifter who found jobs picking fruit, digging ditches, and fighting forest fires just to make a few bucks. He also married at 16, raised a kid on his own and accumulated more life experience as a teenager than most people do in their entire lifetime. When you watch his performances, you see a man channel a life lived and stronger for it.
I first became aware of Michael Parks in the late ’90s after seeing From Dusk Till Dawn for the first time – long before I should have been watching it – and not thinking much of his performance because I was too young and stupid to appreciate it. As a kid, you don’t quite appreciate brilliant performances when all you’re interested in is monsters, slime, and blood after all. However, little did I know back then, but Parks had been shaping my cinematic taste for years, most notably through repeated rewatches of the Death Wish movies with my grandfather. Parks played the villain, Tommy O’Shea, in the fifth installment, The Face of Death (1994), and helped develop my appreciation for movie bad guys. Those movies meant the world to me back then – they still do – and while I wouldn’t call The Face of Death my favorite of the series these days, I still rank Parks as the best villain of them all.
Revisiting From Dusk Till Dawn in my teens was when I really started appreciating the man’s phenomenal talents. His character, Earl McGraw, appears in the film for a matter of minutes and steals the entire show. Watching that monologue is to see a master at work – the delivery of the dialogue, his facial expressions on his face, his simple mannerisms like opening a beer and swigging it – and realize that few actors could match that level of brilliance. Quentin Tarantino hailed him as America’s finest character actor and he wasn’t wrong when he said that. I bought the DVD box set of Twin Peaks because Michael Parks was in five episodes, not because it’s one of the best shows of all time.
Many viewers will recognize Parks from his performances in the Rodrigeuz/Tarantino-verse. In addition to From Dusk Till Dawn, he would don McGraw’s stetson once again for Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003), Death Proof (2007) and Planet Terror (2007). For Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004), he played the retired Mexican pimp, Esteban Vihaio, and stole the show once again, despite only appearing on screen for a few minutes. His last appearance in a Tarantino film was 2012s was a brief cameo in Django Unchained as a mining employee. To be honest, I’m disappointed that Tarantino didn’t make better use of him in his Westerns. Michael Parks was perfect for Westerns, and he starred in some great ones like The Last Hard Men (1976), The Return of Josey Wales (1986), and the fun horror-crossover, From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter (2000).
To traverse Michael Parks’ filmography is a gold mine worth exploring. Capturing the spirit of life on the road and freedom counterculture, Then Came Bronson (1969-1070) was a short-lived series that gave him the platform to showcase his skills as a leading man, while 1990s TV movie, The China Lake Murders, is much better than it has any right to be thanks to his chilling performance as the homicidal police officer, Donnelly. In 1976 he would team up with the almighty Larry Cohen for the criminally overlooked biographical drama, The J. Edgar Files, and he’d often lend his talents to enjoyable trashy efforts like Nightmare Beach and Caged Fury (both 1990). In 1991, he would cross paths with Chuck Norris in the action thriller, The Hitman. As much as I love these movies, they aren’t exactly what you’d call popular and acclaimed, and these were the types of roles Parks was offered for the most part.
One notable filmmaker who did take notice of Parks’ prowess was Kevin Smith, and he wrote a film just for him. Red State (2011) is arguably Parks’ finest performance, and I firmly believe that he should have won the Best Actor gong for it. Inspired by Westboro Baptist Church lunatic Fred Phelps, he played Pastor Albin Cooper, giving a performance so magnetic that he somehow managed to make hate speech sound like poetry, while also being oppressively menacing and terrifying. In 2013, Jim Mickle cast him as Doctor Barrow in the acclaimed family drama-cum-cannibal horror, We Are What We Are, and it proved to be inspired casting yet again. In fact, any director who cast Parks struck gold.
Part of Parks’ charm is that he spent his career as Hollywood’s best-kept secret. There’s something mythical about that, and for generations to come film buffs are going to discover his work and appreciate him for it. However, I can’t help but feel upset that he didn’t experience the widespread recognition and endless plaudits he deserved either. That said, for nearly 60 years he gave us his all in every role he took, and even in “lesser films” he was every bit as any Oscar-winning actor.
It makes me happy to know that there are still Parks movies out there waiting for me to discover them, but it breaks my heart knowing that we’ll never see him get the due he truly deserved as well. R.I.P. Michael Parks, and thank you for making my world a better place every minute you appeared on screen.