Lorna Thayer, the character actress probably best known for her role as the waitress who refuses to take Jack Nicholson’s order for toast in Five Easy Pieces, has died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Thayer's 39-year career as a character actress in movies and TV began inauspiciously in 1952 in a B-western called Texas City, with her first big role coming four years later in The Beast with a Million Eyes. Although she would work with directors such as Robert Wise and Billy Wilder (she played bit parts in I Want to Live!, The Andromeda Strain and Buddy Buddy), her film career was largely limited to roles defined as often by societal position as by name—Grocery Clerk, Prison Guard, Passenger on Mexico Flight, Hospital Attendant and, of course, Waitress. TV would be slightly kinder, as it would to a lot of working actors throughout its history; she appeared in roles of varied importance in the ‘50s and ‘60s on such shows as Medic, Studio 57, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Dragnet, Have Gun-Will Travel, Johnny Ringo, The Untouchables, Bonanza, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Garrison’s Gorillas, It Takes a Thief and, after a long hiatus from TV, a final guest appearance on CHiPs in 1977 in a role described in the credits (and on the Internet Movie Database) only as “Matron.”
That famous scene from Five Easy Pieces, an awards-show favorite from the 1970 Academy Awards straight on up through today, is funny and entertaining, all right, but I’ve always found that standoff with Nicholson also quite uncomfortable and not just a little disingenuous on the part of Nicholson, writer Carole Eastman, and director Bob Rafelson. The movie was one of the few post-Easy Rider pitches to the sympathies of alienated youth that actually succeeded in making a cultural ripple all its own, and as such was loaded with anger, toward the older generation that had frittered away the opportunity to connect with their sons and daughters and toward the Establishment that allowed for that older generation’s calcified morality and corruption. So when Nicholson begins his tug of war with the waitress over the toast, which ends with him trashing the table and leaving the diner trailing an air of frustration and, of course, a sense of triumph, of having in some way stuck it to the Man, the audience is primed and ready to go with him, laughing all the way at his subversive outrage. The problem is, the movie scores all its points in this scene by Nicholson berating a woman whose sole function is to exist as an Establishment symbol, when the reality is, this waitress is far more the victim of any Establishment repression, being a minimum-wage worker in a diner, than is our hero, a cultured, piano-playing oil worker who walks off his job without a second thought because he knows he’s got his (corrupt) daddy’s money to fall back on. (Substitute "struggling actress" for "waitress" and "pampered movie star on the rise" for "cultured, piano-playing oil worker" and maybe my point becomes clearer.) The waitress plays by the rules of the restaurant in refusing Nicholson’s order because if she doesn’t, she’s likely to lose her low-paying job and have to hit the pavement in search of another one that might not even be as good as the one she’s got. Rafelson and Eastman’s point might have gone down a little smoother had Nicholson demanded to see the manager and taken out his self-righteous frustration on him. But would our sainted antihero have had the balls to stand up to a man, perhaps one far bigger of frame and weight than him, in a similar situation? We never find out, because it’s easier and funnier to let Nicholson have his way with someone who’s sassy enough to spar with him a little but who won’t fight back when he loses his cool over a piece of toast.
It’s a tribute to Lorna Thayer, as “Waitress,” that the thing I remember most, and most fondly, from not only that scene but from the whole of Five Easy Pieces, is the disgusted smirk on her face as she reads back the order that last time, before asking him, “You want me to hold the chicken?” Would there were an alternate-universe director’s cut in which she, not Nicholson, gets the last word: “No, you hold it between your knees, asshole!”