It never really occurred to me, until his death last week at the age of 90 in San Luis Obispo, that I never knew, nor did I ever feel compelled to look up, what the initials in G.D. Spradlin’s name stood for. I guess it seemed to me that a man who could simultaneously project rectitude, disgust, corruption and a sense that he could size you up with one withering glance deserved a little mystery. And the letters' slight nod toward blasphemy seemed right too. Spradlin was independently wealthy, perhaps another source for that strident authority he accessed so well on screen; he got rich during the oil boom of the 1950s and became involved in politics, running for mayor of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1965, and serving as John F. Kennedy’s Oklahoma campaign adviser during the lead-up to the 1960 election. Legend has it that upon delivering his daughter to a casting session for a play he was cast himself, thus launching a second act as a soon-to-be-renowned character actor. Spradlin toiled in television, appearing on everything from The Iron Horse (1966) to Gomer Pyle USMC, The Big Valley, The Cimarron Strip, Mannix, Dragnet, The Virginian, Bonanza, Alias Smith and Jones, Kung Fu and Adam-12, and he didn’t make a movie until director Tom Gries hired him for a small role in Will Penny. Not unlike Roberts Blossom, another signature face from the movies of the ‘70s who passed away recently, Spradlin’s power as a presence was such that it seemed like he was everywhere, in everything, when in fact he only made something like 25 appearances in feature films, and many more TV appearances than that, before he retired in 1999. But also like Blossom, the movies that he did show up in tended to be the ones that made an indelible impression on audiences, no matter how big his actual role.
As Senator Pat Geary, who wildly overestimates his political cleverness and connections when initially playing hardball with Michael Corleone at the beginning of The Godfather Part II, Spradlin oozed the kind of oily patrician condescension that could only assure that he would end up dangling on the family’s puppet strings, if he was lucky. His contempt for the “Eye-talians” he ends paying tribute to at Anthony Corleone’s confirmation, after having just handed Michael his ass (or so his advisors would have him think), is a petite marvel of unctuous political corruption funneled through the movie’s ambivalent Watergate-fueled gaze. (How perfectly fitting then that Spradlin would end his career portraying Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post who headed up the Watergate investigation, in Andrew Fleming’s crackpot comedy Dick.) Spradlin’s other appearance for Coppola was just as indelible—as the army officer who details Martin Sheen’s mission during the opening minutes of Apocalypse Now, Spradlin seems mired in the malaise of Vietnam (as it is reinforced by Coppola and Vittorio Storaro’s razor-thin depth of field), his disgust for Kurtz barely held at bay, fighting for face time with a slight sense that he wishes he were anywhere, even on the boat with Willard, rather than trapped in this humid hell behind a desk.
Around the same time Spradlin appeared as Robby Benson’s martinet basketball coach in One on One, a movie I thought was decent at the time, though I remember nothing about it, not even Spradlin, except for how lovely Annette O’Toole was in it. But One on One provided Spradlin with a nice warm-up exercise for what I think is his finest hour on screen, standing in for Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry in the movie adaptation of Peter Gent’s rollicking football expose North Dallas Forty (1979). In this profanely funny picture Spradlin’s initials undoubtedly would have stood for the kind of blaspheme his Bible-quoting head coach would certainly have eschewed. His character, however, adopts another set of intimidating initials; here he’s known as B.A. Strothers (Bad-Ass?), a coach prone to homilies and platitudes, as well as the occasional fiery jeremiad when one of his players gets really out of line. (The real yelling is left up to assistant coach Charles Durning, whose vocal cords, to say nothing of his blood vessels, are in constant danger of exploding.) This is the quintessential G.D. Spradlin performance in that it nails the patriarchal aloofness and condescension he was so good at delineating, the moral righteousness in which that condescension (or was it really contempt?) was cloaked, and the pinched disgust landing on his face like a death mask when sour defeat is finally tasted. I will never ever forget the look on his face, like the look of a severely dejected and disappointed father, when a kicker misses a crucial field goal that prevents the North Dallas Bulls a shot at the championship. If G.D. Spradlin never made another movie, this performance would be justification enough.
He did make other movies, and lots of TV too, including portrayals of two presidents—Andrew Jackson and Lyndon Johnson. He matched perfectly Hollywood’s way of looking back on this country’s authoritarian figures with a mixture of salutary respect and mistrust. And I always remember him as the befuddled minister presiding over the baptism of a gaggle of Hollywood fringe folk in Tim Burton’s sublime Ed Wood. As for those initials, seems they stood for Gervase Duan. Gervase Duan Spradlin. Might be easy to imagine a schoolyard full of punks who’d think a name like that was worthy of some jeering and physical abuse. But somehow, if the man G.D. Spradlin projected through his characters was anything like the real person, I might also imagine that he was able to take care of himself well enough to dissuade a whole lot of name-calling. He could be Gervase Duan at home with his family; he is survived by his second wife, Frances Hendrickson, his daughters, Tamara Kelly and Wendy Spradlin, and five grandchildren. But to us G.D. is goddamn good enough, the letters themselves lending credence to his ability to access the tough, laconic, partially hidden men he so excelled at portraying.