When I think of Peter Boyle, certain images, certain characters inevitably come to mind-- the Monster, aka Zipperneck, “hphhhutteen arh dii Riiiiiiii” in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974); Lucas, the no-bullshit bullshitting campaign manager to Robert Redford’s gossamer candidate in Michael Ritchie’s prescient 1972 film; Carl Laszlo, Esq., the first screen incarnation of Hunter S. Thompson’s belligerent, out-of-control lawyer, defending convicted pot smokers and running guns into the night in Where the Buffalo Roam (1980); Frank Barone, the crude, cynical and borderline vicious dad to Ray Romano’s beloved Raymond; even his role as a cop cut down in the line of duty who gets reincarnated into a crime-fighting dog in the 1990 TV pilot (which, mysteriously, was not picked up for a series run), Poochinski; and, of course, the bigoted, eponymous hardhat Joe (1970).
I was 10 years old when Joe became a sensation for its depiction of the brutally racist, potentially homicidal antihero Joe Curran, played by Boyle with just enough empathy, as he goes on a search through the counterculture underworld for a missing girl, whose father has killed her drug-dealing boyfriend, to make audiences (and, reportedly, Boyle himself) nervous. Obviously I was too young for such a movie. But I got to know Joe, and Boyle, through the Mad magazine parody of the film, dubbed in typical cornball fashion Shmoe. In fact, I think I saw and became used to Mort Drucker’s uncanny characterization of Boyle’s face and imposing working-man’s build before I ever laid eyes on the actor in anything other than a newspaper ad for Joe. So when Young Frankenstein came along, I definitely knew who Peter Boyle was, but I had no idea what he was like on screen, and I had no idea of the initial risk Brooks took in casting this man, largely known up to that point only for his earthy depictions of working class, often criminal characters in violent, gritty films like The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Steelyard Blues. But Brooks knew the actor had a comic heart, and he found a way to cut right to it; for all I knew, Boyle could have been a seasoned comedian when I first saw Young Frankenstein, so naturally did he come by the art of harvesting laughs.
But for all these well-observed, fascinating characters that he has brought to life, in bad films as well as good, I’ll most vividly remember Boyle for two specific performances. As Wizard, the taxi driver who hangs out at the all-night diner with a group of hacks that includes the insomniac loner Travis Bickle, Boyle is completely mesmerizing. When Travis comes to him, basically reaching out for some kind of recognizable human connection as his mind becomes increasingly overwhelmed by a crescendo of disillusionment, despair and loneliness, Wizard finds himself stuck between the world of men he’s used to living in, one in which emotions are kept in check and talk goes no further than current events, sports and their own economic miseries, and his natural impulse to try to help this socially inept man who fumbles his way toward something deeper than a typical conversation. Boyle’s hulking frame, as he leans up against his taxi, makes him look, in comparison to Bickle, like a bastion of stability and common sense, and the audience sees Wizard, as it does most everything in Taxi Driver through Bickle’s eyes—Bickle sees Wizard, a man he has had no real meaningful connection to in the past, as the one person who might help him make sense of the warring impulses in his heart and mind. Boyle imbues the man, who has only one other brief scene in the movie, with the qualities that make you believe Wizard is somehow close to the type of person Bickle might have related to in his long distant past. As Wizard tries to work his way toward some way to give something to this strange man in obvious need, he achieves his own kind of eloquence, that of a man who cannot communicate comfortably but senses the urgency of doing so. Yet Wizard misses Bickle's most obvious admission of his tortured inner life-- "I get some real crazy ideas, you know?"-- because of the simple enjoyment he's taking in being seen, even by someone as disturbed as Bickle, as being worthy of the kind of respect that would cause another man to ask him for advice. When Wizard retreats to the cover of platitudes and self-deprecation, you can feel Bickle slipping further away, and you can sense on Wizard’s face that, despite his reassurances, this “killer” will not be all right.
In case you can’t get to a DVD player right now, here’s the scene between Bickle and Wizard, from BFI’s published version of Paul Schrader’s script:
TRAVIS follows WIZARD out onto the sidewalk. TRAVIS follows
WIZARD as he walks toward his cab. He has something on his
mind, something he wants to talk to WIZARD about.
WIZARD leans back against the cab. TRAVIS is about to speak
when he spots a GROUP of BLACK and PUERTO RICAN STREET
PUNKS, ages 12-15, jiving down the sidewalk toward him. ONE
tosses a spray paint can around his back, basketball style.
ANOTHER mocks as if he's going to scratch a key along one of
WIZARD has no visible reaction. A flash of controlled anger
crosses TRAVIS' face. He stares at the BOY with the poised
key. It is the same look that crossed his face in the
Harlem Deli. We are reminded with a jolt that the killer
lies just beneath TRAVIS' surface.
The BLACK PUNK must instinctively realize this too, because
he makes a cocky show of putting the key back into his
pocket and be-bopping around TRAVIS and WIZARD.
The YOUNG MEAN-STREETERS continue down the street and TRAVIS
turns back to WIZARD.
Across the street, in the background, a JUNKIE nestles in a
Look, ah, we never talked much, you
I wanted to ask you something, on
account you've been around so long.
Shoot. They don't call me the
Wizard for nothing.
Well, I just, you know...
Things got ya down?
Sometimes it gets so I just don't
know what I'm gonna do. I get some
real crazy ideas, you know? Just
go out and do somethin.
The taxi life, you mean.
Like do anything, you know.
Travis, look, I dig it. Let me
explain. You choose a certain way
of life. You live it. It becomes
what you are. I've been a hack 27
years, the last ten at night.
Still don't own my own cab. I
guess that's the way I want it.
You see, that must be what I am.
A police car stops across the street. TWO PATROLMEN get out
and roust the JUNKIE from his doorway.
Look, a person does a certain thing
and that's all there is to it. It
becomes what he is. Why fight it?
What do you know? How long you
been a hack, a couple months?
You're like a peg and you get
dropped into a slot and you got to
squirm and wiggle around a while
until you fit in.
That's just about the dumbest thing
I ever heard, Wizard.
What do you expect, Bertrand
Russell? I've been a cabbie all my
life, what do I know?
I don't even know what you're
Neither do I, I guess.
You fit in. It's lonely, it's
rough at first. But you fit in.
You got no choice.
Yeah. Sorry, Wizard.
Don't worry, Killer. You'll be all
I seen enough to know.
The other performance that I take as a gift straight from Peter Boyle is his brilliant, Emmy-winning characterization as Clyde Bruckman, a lonely insurance salesman cursed with the ability to foretell the circumstances of other people’s deaths, and unable to stop conjuring up dream images about his own. In Darin Morgan’s amazingly lucid, limber and funny script for "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose," one of the best hours in the entirety of the The X-Files, Bruckman is dryly amusing. But Boyle’s unique ability to access pathos without lapsing into embarrassing overmodulation, and the clarity of his stare as he doles out the most ominous information with the surety and matter-of-factness of a slightly bored salesman, is perfect to fully flesh out the painful comedy and longing buried between the lines of Morgan’s words. Boyle richly deserved the award he received for this episode, and the rejuvenated career that followed on Everybody Loves Raymond as a result. Thanks must go to Morgan for writing such a wonderful story as “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” but even more so, I think, to Boyle, who, along with Gillian Anderson (Scully) and David Duchovny (Mulder), truly turned this into a classic stand-alone episode, one of the best of any TV show I’ve ever seen. Imagine this exchange between the three actors, and then go home and watch it. I can think of no better tribute to Peter Boyle, on the occasion of his death, from complications related to heart disease, than this.
CLYDE BRUCKMAN: I guess you run into a lot of dead bodies in your line of work.
SCULLY: You get used to it.
CLYDE BRUCKMAN: I never have. I'm not sure you're supposed to.
MULDER: Do you remember the first time you foresaw someone's death?
CLYDE BRUCKMAN: 1959.
MULDER: What happened in 1959?
CLYDE BRUCKMAN: Buddy Holly's plane crashed.
SCULLY: You prognosticated Buddy Holly's death?
CLYDE BRUCKMAN: Oh, God, no. Why would I want to do that? But I did have a ticket to see him perform the next night. Actually, I was a bigger fan of the Big Bopper than Buddy Holly. "Chantilly Lace," that was the song.
MULDER: I'm not following.
(Bruckman sighs. They stop walking.)
CLYDE BRUCKMAN: There's-- The Big Bopper was not supposed to be on the plane with Buddy Holly. He won the seat from somebody else by flipping a coin for it.
MULDER: I'm still not following.
CLYDE BRUCKMAN: Imagine all the things that had to occur, not only in his life, but in everybody else's, to arrange it so on that particular night, the Big Bopper would be in a position to live or die depending on a flipping coin. I became so obsessed with that idea that I gradually became capable of seeing the specifics of everybody's death.
SCULLY: Well, Mister Bruckman, I'm not one who readily believes in that kind of thing and if I was, I still wouldn't believe that story.
CLYDE BRUCKMAN: I know it sounds crazy, but I swear it's true. I was a bigger fan of the Big Bopper than Buddy Holly.
Rest in peace, Peter Boyle.