Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Peter Boyle may be best known these days as Ray Romano's father on Everybody Loves Raymond, but those of us who have watched his career over the years remember how he used his working class looks and acute understanding of human behavior to create unexpectedly compelling characters.

His big breakthrough was playing the title character in the indie-before-indie film,
. Iconoclast Norman Wexler created an unnerving contemporary story of one night when a wealthy businessman who has just accidentally murdered his strung-out daughter's drug dealer boyfriend befriends a blue collar reactionary, played by Boyle things end very, very badly. Joe also has the distinction of being Susan Sarandon's first movie -- she's the junkie rich girl.

Joe was better known than seen, being such a breakthrough for 1970 -- All in the Family was just hitting the airwaves and Boyle's Joe was the terrifying version of Archie Bunker -- and soonafter, 1972, Boyle did my favorite of his performances, as Robert Redford's honest but always political campaign manager in The Candidate. The final moments, with Boyle unable to understand what Redford is asking him from across a crowded room, is an extraordinarily powerful supporting character curtain, the moment everyone talked about when they walked out of the picture.

He received a special billing block for the couple scenes he did in Taxi Driver, playing The Wizard, the senior cabbie of the coffee shop bunch, and the one guy Travis Bickle goes to for advice. Boyle delivers a monologue on life that's memorable for being unmemorable: "You get a job. You become the job." Even The Wizard admits that what's he's just said is probably a load of shit. Boyle made you wonder, The Wizard of What?

Then there was his Season One Saturday Night Live hosting gig, where again there was a highlight everyone still talks about, his
"Dueling Brandos" routine with John Belushi, trading classic Brando movie lines in between snatches of that banjo number from Deliverance, climaxing with their mingled cries of, "Stellaaaaaaaaaaaaa..."

But there's nothing comparable to his brilliant turn as the monster in Mel Brooks' career-topping classic, Young Frankenstein, and no scene comparable to his dancing and, uh, singing centerpiece number with Gene Wilder, "Puttin' on the Ritz". If you haven't seen the scene you own it to yourself to click on the link; if you have you owe yourself, and maybe even Mr. Boyle, the encore.

Peter Boyle seemed older than what we currently take for 71, but no matter how young it might seem these days, you can't say he didn't have a fascinating life. I never even knew until today that John Lennon was the best man at his wedding. And I liked reading that Boyle was still married, with two daughters. Maybe it was the monk in him (for three of his early years) that understood the morality of the characters he played, and then had the ability to stand outside of that morality and just play the role.

It just seems that you couldn't have played The Monster that way, so brutal, so funny, so successfully poignant, without having been a lovely man yourself.

Peter Boyle. What wizardry.

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