With the smashing success of our recent list of cool Clint Howard credits came a suggestion from one of our regular readers, John Hanna: that we ought to give a similar treatment to character actor Tracey Walter. Honestly, we’re a little bit embarrassed that we didn’t think of this ourselves.
Who, after all, is more deserving of nerdy adulation than Walter, who has lent his keenly squinting, weathered face and weird lovability to movies from Rumble Fish and City Slickers to Erin Brockovich and Death to Smoochy, and TV from Amazing Stories to Reno 911! to Airwolf to Alf? Here are a few, a very few, of his nerdiest, most memorable roles:
10. Assorted Bad Guy
The trailer for Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann, a peculiar 1982 sci-fi-wheeler-western hybrid produced and co-written by Mike Nesmith of The Monkees, tells us that it’s about, “a desert racer, a beautiful gunslinger, a renegade priest and assorted bad guys.” Said bad guys include such veterans as Peter Coyote, Richard Masur and, of course, Tracey Walter.
A specialty of Tracey Walter is, as we shall see, being among the Assorted Bad Guys. And like the cashews in a bag of mixed nuts, he is usually the most savory and memorable Assorted Bad Guy.
9. Ted Bundy’s Landlord
Ted Bundy, Matthew Bright’s 2002 chronicle of the serial killer, is a fairly loathsome bit of business. It’s by no means an unskillful piece of filmmaking, but it doesn’t seem like a healthy choice for lots of re-watching.
Toward the end, however, the title character (Michael Reilly Burke) puts out a feeler with Tracey Walter, as the guy from whom he’s renting, trying to see if he can make the killer of coeds in the newspaper seem like an admirable daredevil. The guy reacts with disgust and storms off, giving us a small buoy of human decency in the movie’s ocean of depravity. The moment starts at 2:22 in the clip above, if you want to see it in isolation from the surrounding ghastliness.
8. Kayron the Ferengi
Here’s another Assorted Bad Guy role. Along with Armin Shimerman and the late Jake Dengel, Tracey Walter capered around as one of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s original Ferengi in this first-season TNG episode.
Walter returned to the series as a different Ferengi, Berik, in the 6th-season TNG episode “Rascals.” So the makeup must have hung comfortably on his face.
The black comedy Drowning Mona, set in an unhappy New York town infested with Yugos (it had been a test market), was not exactly rapturously received on its release back in 2000. But it has a certain grungy screwball appeal, and as part of a cast that included the likes of Bette Milder, Danny DeVito, Jamie Lee Curtis, Neve Campbell, William Fichtner and Will Ferrell, it offered Tracey Walter a key role as Clarence, a local fisherman who may be more knowing than he seems.
Clarence initially seems like a standard-issue foggy-brained simpleton, but in the film’s Rashomon-for-morons scheme, he’s eventually revealed to be an essential, and possibly even a noble, player. He might even be considered the hero, insofar as the movie has one.
6. Bob the Goon
At the suggestion of his real-life pal Jack Nicholson, Tracey Walter played the Joker’s loyal sidekick in Tim Burton’s original Batman. He’s one of the most generically-named of all henchmen and yet one of the most memorable. He should more respectfully be addressed as “Robert the Henchman.”
He’s also perhaps the most ill-used. His notorious send-off is one of the great moments of ingratitude in the movies. Yet so total is Bob’s devotion you sense he might not mind that much.
Bob is also available, by the way, as “Bob, the Joker’s Goon,” in this Batman tie-in action figure from Toy Biz.
The likeness of the doll to Walter isn’t too bad (by 1989 standards), but the illustration on the card looks a little fresh-faced and youthful. He even has “Power Kick!”
As with henchman and Assorted Bad Guy duty, sidekicking is a field in which Tracey Walter has toiled for years, rarely more memorably than for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan. As Malak in Richard Fleischer’s Conan the Destroyer, the cheesy but fun 1983 follow-up to 1982’s sober-minded Conan the Barbarian, Walter cringed and cowered like a champ alongside the brawny Schwarzenegger. Gabby Hayes never fretted better for Hopalong Cassidy. At the beginning of the picture, when Conan nonchalantly speculates, of some approaching strangers, “Maybe they want to capture us and torture us to death,” Malak seems to find this prospect less cheering than his pal does.
Malak was just one member of Conan’s band of brothers and sisters in Destroyer, tasked with transporting a Princess (Olivia d’Abo), on a magical errand, along with Grace Jones, Mako and the double-agent Wilt Chamberlain. At the end, all of the survivors, except of course the free spirit Conan, are rewarded with gigs in the new court. Malak’s is that of court jester, at which one suspects he’ll excel.
Incidentally, it may be that, like with the Bob the Goon action figure packaging, the comic book version of this movie demonstrates how tough it is to capture Tracey Walter’s likeness in two dimensions. In the Marvel Super Special adaptation of Conan the Destroyer from 1984, reprinted in two issues the following year, you get the sense that artist John Buscema may not have been able to get a good fix on Walter’s mug.
Throughout the comic, Malak is almost always seen at a distance, and/or with his face in profile. This is even the case when he’s optimistically putting the moves on Grace Jones.
4. The Country Squire
Along with the likes of Charles Napier, Chris Isaak and “Sister” Carol East, Tracey Walter has long been a member of the Jonathan Demme stock company, appearing in a half-dozen of Demme’s films. He was the pervy Mr. Chicken Lickin in the delightful Married to the Mob (1988), was a perfect fit for the role of Lamar the shrewd small-town undertaker in Silence of the Lambs (1991), and also appeared in Philadelphia, Beloved and the director’s Manchurian Candidate remake. It was rather disappointing not to see him turn up in Demme’s current Ricki and the Flash.
But he was especially memorable in his Demme debut Something Wild (1986) as “The Country Squire,” a liquor dealer who sported a big Sherlock Holmes-style calabash pipe and a genteel if somehow suspicious English accent. He’s even attended by a handsome, relaxed English bulldog, who fails him utterly as a watchdog.
3. Phil Swill
Tracey Walter seems like a natural for the western genre, and has indeed done some time in it, in titles like Goin’ South and Young Guns II and TV movies like Buffalo Girls and High Noon II: The Return of Will Kane. But few of his western credits have the same nerd cred as his turn on two episodes of the steampunk-ish cult oater The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.
Walter played Phil Swill, one of the Swill Brothers, who “burned down an orphanage in Gila Bend,” and are cited by Brisco as an example of “why inbreeding is a bad idea.” Walter was in fine Assorted Bad Guy company here: The other members of the scurvy clan included Bill Swill, played by Jeremy Roberts, Will Swill, played by the late Denis Forest, and Gil Swill, played by Judson Scott, aka Khan’s long-suffering sidekick Joachim.
A different short-lived facetious western series, ABC’s Best of the West from 1981, gave Tracey Walter another prominent early role. In this too-little-remembered one-season wonder, family man Sam Best (Joel Higgins) stumbles into the role of lawman in a small western town. As with Blazing Saddles, the classical western trappings were all in place, down to an opening ballad sung by no less than Rex Allen, but the tone was campy, goony-bird farce, and often pretty funny.
Probably the best of Best of the West was Leonard Frey, with his deliberate, supercilious line readings as the no-good Parker Tillman, and a youthful, surprisingly baby-faced Tracey Walter as Parker’s witless sidekick Frog. Alongside poor Frog, Conan’s Malak was close to a Rhodes Scholar.
But there can be little argument as to the top spot on this list: Tracey Walter’s finest onscreen hour to date has surely been the role of the metaphysical-minded lot worker Miller in the 1984 punk sci-fi classic Repo Man, written and directed by Alex Cox (and executive produced by Timerider‘s Mike Nesmith).
Miller is unusually aware of what he calls the “lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything,” which he feels shows itself to us through phrases like “plate of shrimp” turning up in conversation just as you’re thinking of them. Significant though this sort of thing obviously is, Miller cautions our hero Otto (Emilio Estevez) against seeking any explanation for it; the Universe remains inscrutable in such matters. Miller also discusses the interconnectedness of flying saucers, time machines and mass disappearances in South America, as well as the superiority, for a reflective person, of riding the bus over driving. He concludes with the hard-to-dispute assertion that “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”
All this is in just one scene. Elsewhere Miller holds forth on, for instance, the sexuality of John Wayne, and at the very end he has a transcendent ascension, as he and Otto fly off over L.A. in the alien-irradiated Chevy Malibu, like the title characters in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, or Danny and Sandy in Grease.
It’s a plum of a role, but Cox gave it to exactly the right actor. Nobody else could have brought the part the same combination of skewed, spaced-out profundity, innocence and otherworldly sweetness.
Now I would like to go and, in Tracey Walter’s honor, eat a plate of shrimp…
M.V. Moorhead won five Arizona Press Club awards for his work in Phoenix New Times. His reviews, essays, poetry, fiction and other writings have appeared in Wrangler News (wranglernews.com), Phoenix Magazine, USA Today, Weird Tales, Elysian Fields Quarterly, The Big Click and many other publications in the U.S. and Australia, and may also be found at his own blog, Less Hat, Moorhead ([email protected]). He's also a produced playwright, and was a talk-radio host in Phoenix for two years. A native of Pennsylvania, he lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife, his daughter and three Chihuahuas with five eyeballs between them.