An entire generation of moviegoers who came of age in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s will probably only remember Roberts Blossom, if they remember him at all, as the mysterious old man Marley who lived across the street from Macaulay Culkin in Chris Columbus and John Hughes’ Home Alone (1990). Marley was, for better and worse, Boo Radley grown old and writ in the broadest possible strokes, the possibly foul stranger who is revealed to be simply lonely and misunderstood, less a character than a receptacle for the kind of misplaced sentimentality that would often serve as a sweet cherry on top of the smoking pile of wreckage and bad taste that often characterized late-period John Hughes family comedies. There was true sweetness, however, in discovering how Blossom could temper the synthetic pleasures of a movie like Home Alone by the simplest shift of those piercing blue eyes, which could cut through the crass maneuverings of scripted plot or insensitive direction and anchor his own moments, if often not much else surrounding him, in a kind of simple, serendipitous and often slightly uncomfortable reality.
However, those of us who grew up on the movies of the ‘70s will remember Roberts Blossom, who died this past Friday, July 8, at the age of 87, as something more than an afterthought to a hugely commercial and iconic Hollywood hit. Blossom, who had a distinctively weathered, poker-faced countenance, spent a long career in the theater, dabbling in TV projects in the ‘50s and ‘60s on the side. But he really hit his stride as a character actor of few words in the movies, where during the ‘70s he had the good luck of appearing, however briefly, in some of the most beloved films of this movie-bred generation. In looking over Blossom’s résumé what’s immediately surprising is how few movies he was actually in—a mere 20, from his debut in Arthur Hiller’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s The Hospital (1972), where he played a man doomed to be victimized by a heartless medical administration, through to his last movie, Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead (1995). He worked a lot in television, especially from the ‘80s on, but for those of us who haunted cinemas in the ‘70s it seemed like Roberts Blossom was in everything. The truth of it was much closer to the fact that Roberts Blossom was so good at what he did that it just seemed like he was everywhere. He had the good luck of being in films that mattered, films that made an emotional impression, and even some not-so-good films which are remembered to this day simply on the strength of his participation.
In his '70s films, Blossom personified the mysterious, cranky, perhaps possessed spirit of middle-aged and senior citizens who floated out on the fringes of society, the kind of characters for whom immediate assessment and snap judgments do not apply but are so often offered by us self-satisfied “normal” folk anyway. Blossom’s characters had a way of staring at, down and through the people with whom he shared the screen, and often the members of the audience too who were so often incorrect in trying to figure out the direction, purpose and sometimes level of his characters’ intellect. He has only two lines in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and this is the one that most will remember: “I saw Bigfoot once. 1951. Back in Sequoia National Park. Had a foot on him 37 inches heel to toe. It made a sound I would not want to hear twice in my life.” (Reader and pal Robert Hubbard supplies the other line in the comments section following. Thanks, Robert!) But no one who ever saw Close Encounters will forget the piercing look in Blossom’s eyes as he leaned forward to offer his testimony, a wild blue yonder flaring in his irises that spoke to his utter conviction and, perhaps, a benign madness.
In Don Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz (1979) Blossom was Doc, a beaten-down prisoner whose tenuous grip on reality is severed when sadistic warden Patrick McGoohan robs him of the means of his only expression— painting. In what could have been a stock role, Blossom revealed the tenderness of spirit, and the self-destructive impulses, of a man whose criminal past is left largely unsketched. The actor had become, in a few short years, an adept, eloquent poet of the souls hidden beneath the masks of character of a score of beady, inarticulate men. Many character actors thrive on artistic bravado, the meat of the big, showy scene, the energy derived from clever writing and crafty direction which will lead them to stand out in smaller roles even up against the magnetism of the lead actors. But Blossom’s game was always precisely the opposite of this tack. In movies like Escape from Alcatraz, or with his other great, imploded senior citizen, Papa Thermodyne, in Jonathan Demme’s magnificent Handle With Care (1977), Blossom retreats, hunches his shoulders, and stares. In Alcatraz the stare is averted, to preserve his thoughts, but also to preserve his dignity. Papa Thermodyne, however, stares with a mixture of faraway wistfulness, perverse refusal of emotional directness, and simple defiance. Papa Thermodyne is a retired trucker, a lonely patriarch of a broken-down family unit that consists now only of two brothers (Paul LeMat and Bruce McGill) who cannot bear the presence of each other, and his trusty dog whose company he both enjoys and endures. He sits at the head of an often-empty dining table in a ramshackle house, surrounded by the detritus of his past and only coming to life when he hears the crackle of the road and the voices of other truckers, those still engaged in life and work, on his CB radio. Blossom’s brilliance really shines in Demme’s hands, a director who would make a career out of guiding actors to bravely court an audience’s misunderstanding. Papa Thermodyne is, to the casual eye, a cantankerous and unbearable coot, but it takes the mischievous kaleidoscope that Blossom manages to turn on and off in his peepers at will to clue the audience in to his true spirit, glimpsed briefly through the curtain of antisocial indifference which he’s drawn around himself.
Blossom could fix that stare and use it for insinuating evil too. He personified the decrepit and antagonistic George LeBay, for whom all the rest of the world with their prying eyes were lousy “shitters,” the old bastard who palms off a 1958 red and white Plymouth Fury on the mousy and as-yet-undefined Dennis Guilder (Keith Gordon) in John Carpenter’s streamlined and terrifying Stephen King adaptation Christine (1983). And in 1974 this great character actor had the lead in a film for the first and only time in a lesser-known drive-in exploitation classic called Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile. Written by Alan Ormsby and directed by Ormsby and Jeff Gillen, Deranged takes off, as did great seminal horror films like Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, from the legend, as it were, of real-life serial killer Ed Gein. Like Tobe Hooper’s film, Deranged is largely unadorned with the trappings of art, and it may even hew closer to the fine line separating quality and queasiness than does The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But where that nasty classic of nightmarish brutality had Hooper’s relentless and fearless intent (and a genuinely fearsome savage at its center), Blossom is the key to appreciating, or enduring, the ghastly inevitability of Deranged. Never before or since would Blossom have the opportunity to stir the pot of sociopathic impulses, sympathy and grotesque character traits-- his Ezra Cobb, like Gein, is a taxidermist and grave robber who keeps the corpse of his recently deceased mother strung up in a farmhouse, along with those of his ever-increasing number of victims. As the embodiment of pure evil, Blossom never draws us in with those haunted blue eyes the way he might have with Demme or Siegel or Spielberg. Here that stare is a storm warning, a glassy projection of the unsettled weather brewing just behind the eyes. His shuffling, recessive demeanor is a dodge to lure the sympathies of unsuspecting neighbors and potential victims, and if the movie never explains convincingly how such a fundamentally creepy individual might engender enough social reaction to gather victims to his slaughterhouse, it’s not for Blossom’s lack of trying. Ezra Cobb is sealed off, pickled, delivered to the devil, unresponsive to the pleas of the rational or of sickening fright, but it’s the singular blessing of Deranged that Roberts Blossom, the actor, is not. He allows just enough humanity to creep across Cobb’s unblinking death mask of a face to make us wonder at what point this man was lost, to tacitly acknowledge that he is, despite his ghastly deeds, human after all. The movie isn’t sharp enough to follow through on the implications of those realizations, but thanks to the artistry of Roberts Blossom they spark nonetheless.
Blossom, through his characters, even ones as vile as Ezra Cobb, seemed like so many men I knew growing up—cranky, arrogant, defensive, deluded, yet proud and certain about aspects of life, their own and others’—that I could never take my eyes off him when he was on screen for fear of missing some crucial illumination about men for whom self-revelation was never a priority, often a sin of vanity. His were men lost among the echoes of what might have been and the laughter of a society that has already closed them out.
Roberts Blossom was born in 1924 in New Haven, Connecticut and grew up in Cleveland. In 1941 he enrolled in Harvard but joined the army a year later. Upon returning from Europe during World War II he trained as a therapist but was soon acting in productions based in Cleveland, and eventually New York, where he made his off-Broadway debut in Shaw’s Village Wooing, for which he won the first of three Obie Awards. He also appeared on Broadway in Edward Albee’s adaptation of Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Café and Sam Shepard’s Operation Sidewinder. He retired from acting in 1999 to pursue writing poetry. Blossom is preceded in death by his second wife, Beverly Schmidt Blossom, and is survived by his daughter Debbie and son Michael.