DAN BUSKIRK REMEMBERS: Peter Boyle didn’t look good bald. Actually, he didn’t look good with hair either, and perhaps you should put aside your warm memories of the recently departed actor and take a good look at his picture. His eyes are partly unreadable because of his natural squint, his lips are thin and seem to rest in a perpetual smartass smirk, and that forehead! With its thickened brow leading up to that bulbous dome, Boyle’s swollen head seemed to suggest both the primordial brute and the large-brained thinker.
Within that physical paradox might lay the root of why a performer of his unmannered ease would end up as a character actor and only occasional lead. But in fleeting screen time, Boyle — like Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr. and Steve Buscemi — became a figure who could make as big an impression as the film’s lead. In the Paul Shrader’s 1979 film “Hardcore” Boyle plays Andy Mast, a sleazy detective who seems to be the perfect man to discover that George C. Scott’s teenage daughter has run away and into the world of low-budget porn. Without warning, Boyle sits the devout Calvinist down to show him one of his daughters XXX-rated loops. In the grandstanding performance, Scott whimpers, screams and breaks down while Boyle stands by, unmoved. After the 8mm film unspools, Scott reaches for it and Boyle snatches it back. “Gotta hold on to this — evidence,” he replies, at once sadistic and matter-of-fact.
In the Boston mob film “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” Boyle plays Dillon, the man assigned to whack the broken-down Robert Mitchum. Boyle takes him to a Bruins game, offering endless affable small talk on the ride home till he finally gives his “nephew” the sign to shoot Mitchum through the head. The whole business goes down easily, and all the while Boyle’s manner is no different than if he was delivering flowers. And in Scorcese’s masterpiece “Taxi Driver,” Boyle is a cabbie they call The Wizard. His co-workers seem to respect this bullshitter, and DeNiro’s Travis Bickle finally seeks him out for help, the only confidant he turns to in the film. Leaning against his cab, The Wizard listens to Bickle confess he is feeling compelled to act on the “bad thoughts” in his head. His sage advice? “We’re all fucked” he says, finally reassuring the time-bomb Bickle, “relax, killer, you’re gonna be alright”.
In these three films combined, Boyle is probably on screen for less than 10 minutes, yet suggests complete, complicated characters that give the illusion that a whole world really does exist just outside the camera’s range. In rare leads like his 1970 breakout film “Joe” he showed that he could command a whole film, and his role in “Young Frankenstein” proved his gift for comedy. But it is the small character roles that showed Boyle off best, perfectly personifying that old showbiz saw, the one about always leaving them wanting more.
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