Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
Jean Renault is my favorite kind of villain. A man who slowly enters a room and comforts us with his charm. At first, we think nothing of him; just a normal guy with an amusing little French accent. But in truth, Renault is a master criminal, in town to settle a personal vendetta, and do a little business at the One Eyed Jack’s brothel. The more we get to know him, the more we fear him. What the Renault character does so well is remind us how charismatic Parks can be. He’s known mostly for playing brute, straight-shooter tough guys, but Renault has an ease to him that makes him oddly likeable. Renault is a bad, bad man, but rarely does rooting for the bad guy feel so good.
From Dusk Till Dawn/Kill Bill: Vol. 1/Planet Terror/Death Proof (1996-2007)
I’m not an easy laugh. If I think a movie or TV show is funny, I’ll usually let out a slight chuckle and mutter, “Yeah, that’s funny.” But on very rare occasions, a film or film character will make me laugh. That good laugh. That can’t-catch-my-breath laugh. Michael Parks’ continual incarnation of cantankerous lawman Earl McGraw is one such character. And although Parks has appeared as McGraw in a few films by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, the character’s crowning achievement is in the opening scene of From Dusk Till Dawn.
Seriously, every time I watch this film, I lose it the moment Parks pulls up outside of Benny’s World of Liquor. He walks inside to shoot the shit with John Hawkes and when asked how he’s doing, Parks lets out this doozy: “Well, it’s been one long goddamn hot miserable shit-ass fuckin’ day every inch of the way.” And we’re off and running. Genuinely, Parks’ work in this film is one of my all-time favorite cameos. Just priceless.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Police commissioner Henry Craig is an essential component to the demise of Jesse James. After gaining the trust of the coward Robert Ford, Craig introduces Ford to the Governor of Missouri (James Carville), who tells Ford he has 10 days to kill or capture James. I always loved this brief segment in Andrew Dominik’s masterful film, mainly because of Parks’ no nonsense demeanor (and, it should be said, for Carville’s splendid little turn). Hearing Parks tell off Casey Affleck with that perfect Michael Parks cadence is simply delightful. “You think it’s your goddamn comin’ out. You think you’re the goddamn belle of the ball. You get upstairs and try to keep your identity a secret, you silly little bastard.” Heaven.
Red State (2011)
In one of his few recent starring roles, Michael Parks’ fire and brimstone manifestation of Pastor Abin Cooper is proof that Parks can carry a film. Cooper is a dedicated Westboro Baptist Church-type who preaches the fury of God, and condemns those who question him. And really, the scariest part about Abin Cooper isn’t necessarily the crimes he himself commits, but rather that he can actually find people to follow him. But such is the unique presence of Michael Parks. His work as Cooper makes for an intensely ferocious performance, but one we can’t take our eyes off of. I didn’t hold out much for Kevin Smith’s Red State the first time I sat down to watch it. But the moment Parks appeared on screen and began spouting endless rhetoric, I knew I was in for a hell of a ride.
We Are What We Are (2013)
Doc Barrow is a rare good guy for Michael Parks. But beyond simply being good, what really distinguishes Doc Barrow is how normal he is. No sarcastic dialogue, no 10-gallon hat, no purposefully slow delivery of lines – Doc Barrow is just a guy. A regular guy who becomes rather curious. Barrow is a doctor in a small town, and after a local woman dies gruesomely for inexplicable reasons, the good doctor begins asking questions. He soon finds a bone fragment in a nearby creek and suspects the worst. No need to divulge where Barrow’s suspicions ultimately lead him, but it’s important to note that after more than 50 years in the business, Michael Parks is still able to show us something new. Who knew Michael Parks could make ordinary so compelling?
The Best of the Best
Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
If you’ve made it this far in the post, then you know how much I adore Earl McGraw, and appreciate the command of Abin Cooper. But when I rewatched Parks’ single scene from the second volume of Kill Bill, I was once again reminded of his magnificent performance as Esteban Vigaio. Where to begin? First, rather infamously, Ricardo Montalban (Khan from The Wrath of Khan) was already cast as Esteban, but when he failed to show up to the table read, Michael Parks offered to read Esteban’s lines. So impressed was Quentin Tarantino that he offered Parks the part. The thing is, I knew none of this when I watched Kill Bill Vol. 2 the first few times. And when I learned that Earl McGraw and Esteban Vihaio were actually played by the same actor, I didn’t believe it. Excellent make-up is much to thank for this, but it’s also in Parks’ performance. His perfect Mexican accent and tediously slow speech pattern help create a singular character that is unlike any Parks has ever played.
Truly, Parks’ four and a half minute scene near the end of this film is a master class in acting. Watch how he lifts his own leg up to cross it (fucking hell, what a great little touch), and the way he so slowly blinks his eyes, and the perfectly timed pause he allows himself before he eases out, “How may I be of service to you?” I could go on and on (how but the click of the tongue before, “Ahh, the pussy died.”?), but the point is that Parks utterly disappears into Esteban Vihaio. It’s a hidden, marvelous performance from one of the finest character actors of then and now. Damn if Michael Parks doesn’t steal scenes with the best of them.
Note: I’m wildly unfamiliar with Parks’ early television work, but looking over his IMDb page, he’s seemingly been in every TV show made in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Appears I have some cameos to hunt out.
The Bible: In the Beginning... (1966)
Then Came Bronson (1969-1970)
Between Friends (1973)
Hard Country (1981)
The Equalizer (1986-1988)
The Return of Josey Wales (1986)
Arizona Heat (1988)
The Hitman (1991)
Walker, Texas Ranger (1996-1999)
Niagara, Niagara (1997)
From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter (1999)
Big Bad Love (2001)
One Night with You (2006)
Django Unchained (2012)