Veteran movie ‘That Guy’ Charles Napier died this week at the age of 75. Napier was probably best known as Murdock in Rambo First Blood Part II or Jack in Three Ninjas Knuckle Up, or for looking sort of like a thin Brian Dennehy. Napier had been a long time resident of Bakersfield, California (“home of the easily contented”), and the local paper there provides the most thorough eulogy:
Though the Kentucky native was most proud of his work as a thoughtful judge in the Oscar-winning 1993 film “Philadelphia,” it was his go-to role as a steely-eyed tough guy in movies that ranged from pure schlock to Hollywood blockbusters that assured his legacy.
“I always felt I played myself or some kind of version of myself. If you think about it, old actors probably don’t even have a self,” he told The Californian in March before the release of “Square Jaw and Big Heart,” the refreshingly candid and high-spirited memoir of his life as an actor.
Napier was born on April 12, 1936, in Allen County, Ky., the second of three children born to a homemaker and tobacco farmer. He joined the Army out of high school, despondent after an athletic scholarship to college failed to materialize. He was stationed in Germany for three years and credited his time in the service with developing social skills he never learned during his rural Kentucky upbringing. He earned a bachelor’s degree in art from Western Kentucky University in 1961 and appeared in his first stage play, “Love Among the Ruins,” a short time after graduation.
After bouncing around Florida, New York and San Diego, Napier arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. He found work as a substitute teacher and made mischief with a bunch of unknown actors on the cusp of counterculture fame: Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Harry Dean Stanton. After Nicholson helped him find an agent, Napier soon landed his first bit part, on the television series “Mission: Impossible.” Napier played a military guard, who patrolled alongside a German shepherd. The first line he would ever mutter on screen was fitting for a career that would feature a rogue’s gallery of heavies:
“He only bites when I smile.” [Bakersfield.com]
Napier seemed like a decent actor, despite almost always playing military or police guys, so this is only partially relevant, but it’s amazing how much of a career an actor can have based solely on looking a certain way. Specifically, I was thinking of James Rebhorn, who I just saw in Real Steel playing (shocker) a stuffy, A-hole rich guy (they even put him in an ascot, because that’s not cliché at all). He plays that same character in everything and he’s not even that good at it. The guy’s made hundreds of movies, based solely on the idea that someone who didn’t know anything about him saw him one day and said, “Hey, Tommy, don’t that guy look like a rich douchebag?”
“Oh wow, he really does.”