Happy New Year, Mr. Dourif

The Color of Night

I first developed a crush on Brad Dourif when I saw him in Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1981)… Yes, that’s right, you heard me, Brad Dourif, the guy who voiced Chucky and who has played all manner of neurotically disturbed characters over the years.

RAGTIME, Brad Dourif, 1981, (c) Paramount
RAGTIME (Forman, 1981), (c) Paramount

But have you seen Ragtime? I haven’t seen it in a long long time because it’s shamefully hard to get. (I will get it though and post about it another time.) It’s the last feature film of both James Cagney and Pat O’Brien which is cause enough to be riveted. I was an adolescent when it came out, so I related instead to Dourif’s oh-so-vulnerable portrayal of the idealistic and explosive (literally) Younger Brother.

I hadn’t yet seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, 1975) which launched Dourif’s film career, else I would have recognized a similarity. If you haven’t seen that one it is, of course, a fantastic Oscar-winning film, but be warned: Dourif’s Billy Babbit will vice-grip even the hardest hearts.

I suspect he taps into the frightened child-animal in all of us — well, in me, at any rate.

Wide-eyed, nervous, and stuttering Dourif projects the kind of raw, exposed, fragility that makes one want to jump into the screen to protect him. Then he turns on a dime and becomes defiant and even dangerous, often tragically so. I suspect he taps into the frightened child-animal in all of us — in me, at any rate.

He was quite celebrated after Cuckoo’s Nest and has worked steadily since then. In between Cuckoo’s and Ragtime he had notable supporting parts in Eyes of Laura Mars (Kershner, 1978) and Heaven’s Gate (Cimino, 1980), again playing nervous, “troubled” characters.

Wise Blood
As Hazel Motes in WISE BLOOD (Huston, 1979)

He has since had a long, illustrious and steady career, but I can’t help feeling he hasn’t been fully appreciated, and rarely has he been given roles that allow him to plumb the depths of his talent — one notable exception being his role in John Huston’s Wise Blood (1979). What can one say about that crazy movie? Huston had wanted Tommy Lee Jones in the lead role. Dourif was in line for a supporting role but campaigned for the lead, and when it turned out Jones was unavailable, he got it. If you watch the movie now, you won’t be able to imagine anyone else in that part. It’s a tour-de-force performance. Dourif plays Hazel Motes, a displaced WWII veteran who becomes an unsuccessful curbside preacher in his own “Church of Christ Without Christ,” “where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.” Based on Flannery O’Connor’s first novel, Huston’s film is a barrage of eccentric grotesques, each of which pops up like a specter to tease and torment Dourif’s edgy and volatile Motes. The movie manages to be wacky, dark and not-entirely-anti-Christian all at the same time. [Here’s a nice essay by Francine Prose on the Criterion site.]

There is something awkward about the film overall though, and one can see that while cinephiles and Criterion embrace it, it was not hugely commercially successful and is now somewhat forgotten by film buffs and revival festivals.

As Piter De Vries in DUNE (Lynch, 1984)

So Dourif went from Wise Blood to Heaven’s Gate (and we all know what happened with that film) to Ragtime which was also critically acclaimed but publicly forgotten. Next thing he knows he’s doing TV guest spots and roles in Dune and Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1984 and 1986) with almost no dialogue in the later. Then Child’s Play (Holland, 1988) and Mississippi Burning (Parker, 1988) brought him back to the foreground, though he was firmly type-cast as a wacko.


“Mr. Dourif?” I said, tilting my head and trying to look as small and cute and innocuous as possible.

Back in the 1990s, Disneyland was not so unreasonably expensive and was actually a cool place to spend New Year’s Eve even if you were in your mid-twenties and childless. I was there with my then-boyfriend and my then-best-friend and her then-boyfriend, and we were having a gay old time. Both of our beaus were musicians; mine a scrawny ex-punk Angeleno type, and hers a big cajun blues guy… if you can sort of picture that…. And we had just come off Space Mountain, giggling, with our hair all wind-blown.

The Space Mountain exit dumps you at a photo counter and adjacent bathroom area from whence there’s only one rather narrow way out past an arcade. There is always a pile-up at that restroom area as one parent waits with strollers for the other to emerge.

My friends and I were inching through that restroom crowd when suddenly I noticed, leaning against a pillar outside the Ladies Room, waiting with all the other waiting men, yep —

“Ohmygawd,” I swatted my friends, “isn’t that Brad Dourif?!”

He was a mere 20 feet away. We all stood on tip-toe and bobbed and weaved to get a good look through the crowd. He still had mostly red hair then, and stood, arms folded, staring at the ground, looking every bit as nervous as any character he’d ever played.

“Let’s go say ‘hi’!” I piped up, giddily.

My friends looked away from me as if I was the ultimate embarrassment. “No no no.” But they still snuck him sideways glances, the chickens.

I am not a celebrity chaser, but no one at all had recognized him, and there he was looking all nervous and fragile — even though he was over 40 at the time — and I had a protective impulse to jump in and cheer him up. So I stalked away from my friends with a contemptuous glance back at them, and snuck up on the poor actor whose every fiber, as I drew nearer, seemed to telegraph, “Leave me alone.”

“Mr. Dourif?” I said, tilting my head and trying to look as small and cute and innocuous as possible.

He shot me a spooked glanced that hit me like a dart. “Yes?”

Despite his posture, I hadn’t expected him to actually be as nervous and vulnerable as the characters he plays, so I was taken aback, but also instantly realized that he was trapped there, waiting for — probably his daughter(s) — with nowhere to hide from lame-os like me. Then it was me stammering. “I just — I mean — my friends and I — we’re really big fans.“

He narrowed his eyes at me suspiciously. What friends? I was standing there alone! So I stupidly twirled and pointed back across the crowd where my friends stood waiting by the shrubery. He followed my point, bobbing his head and squinting through the crowd to see them. They sort of jumped, waved back, and grinned like idiots — my skinny bimbo friend, her big cajun boyfriend in overalls, and my own scruffy boyfriend in a thrift store bowling shirt. They looked like refugees from Wise Blood. I mentally slapped my forehead.

Trying to recover, I smiled my most non-threatening smile and stammered, “Well, we just wanted to say, we love you, and we wish you a really happy new year.”

“Oh,” he said, nodding and relaxing some, “thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” I started exiting stage right, turning red. “Have a great night!”

“You too,” he said with what I still believe to be more generosity than I deserved. “Happy New Year.”

I fled to my friends and didn’t dare look back, though I imagined his eyes following us, making sure we left, and glancing about for the nearest cast member in case he needed to call for “Security!” I shoved my gang out of the area toward the submarines.

Beyond the Sea
X FILES “Beyond the Sea” episode

Yes, I was a dork. Do I wish I hadn’t made a fool of myself? No! Brad Dourif at Disneyland on New Year’s Eve, ok.

I didn’t need vindication but I got it a year later. My high esteem was confirmed and then some when Dourif guest starred as Luther Lee Boggs on the X Files “Beyond the Sea” episode. As a psychic, mind-gaming, lonely and vulnerable serial killer, he got to hit all his high notes: pathos, neurosis, wisedom, malevolence, vulnerability, calm reserve, woundedness, and rage – alternately and sometimes all at once, like a diminished seven chord, baffling, heart-rending, and bitterly tear-jerking. He is disarmingly good in that role. I don’t want to say more in case you haven’t seen it. See it now!

Dourif has had plenty of great roles since then. He is stellar — or rather, inter-stellar (yuck yuck) — in Herzog’s Wild Blue Yonder (2005), and much beloved on Deadwood. Other fun roles:  Alien Resurrection, Halloween, Lord of the Rings: Two Towers. Everyone loves him, but I still can’t help but wish someone would give him a BIG role again. He’s a great character actor, but he is so much more than that. Hello, Hollywood, can you hear me?

Two Character Play
Dourif and Plummer in TWO CHARACTER PLAY

I should mention that he did get a BIG role recently, on Broadway in 2013, opposite my other “friend,” Amanda Plummer in Tennessee Williams’s Two Character Play. Apparently and unsurprisingly they were both fantastic, but to my chagrin, I was not in New York to see them. If anyone out there did get to see that production, I’d love to hear about it.

In the meantime I’m still crossing my fingers for someone to give Mr. Dourif his My Favorite Year role and a chance to really show off again. He’s top-billed in a few upcoming films. Maybe….

Video for Fun:

Dourif as a hitch-hiker, possible killer in Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, “Number Eight” (1984) – simple plot with twist you see a mile away, but Dourif will make you squirm with his aggressive creepiness.

Dourif as a supposed-to-be-dead 60s musician in The Hitchhiker, “The Legendary Billy B.” also starring Kirstie Alley in blonde 80s hair and Andy Summers of the Police – 80s camp fluff.

Dourif on playing Hazel Motes (I believe this is the DVD extra interview)

One thought on “Happy New Year, Mr. Dourif

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: