Wednesday, May 17, 2017

In Character: Powers Boothe

We’ve lost another great one. Powers Boothe was a big man, a Texas man, an intimidating and charismatic man. His voice thundered and his fury raged. I say this a lot in these posts, but I genuinely liked Boothe in everything I saw him in. The performances below highlight his best work in rather fine films, but the man was no stranger to appearing in films that were not well received. Yet, he’s great in all of them. Red Dawn, Sudden Death, U Turn, MacCruber – line them up and I’ll watch them all, because Powers Boothe was the man. A sad loss indeed, but such a worthy career to revisit.

Five Essential Roles
Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980)
as Jim Jones
Many character actors have given excellent performances in decades-old made-for-TV movies. The not-so hidden secret about my In Character posts is that I often don’t include them among the performer’s best work. For one, such movies can be very hard to find, and secondly, most of them aren’t very well made. Guyana Tragedy is true of all three points. It is hard to track down (though grainy versions are available on YouTube), it isn’t very well made, and Boothe is incredible in it. Without Boothe’s performance as crazed cult leader/mass murderer, Jim Jones, Guyana Tragedy would fall flat. But Boothe keeps the film compelling. From Jones’ idealistic start to his devilish end, you can’t take your eyes of Boothe. This performance won Boothe his only major award (the Emmy for Best Lead Actor in a Limited Series or a Special), and if you’re a fan of Boothe’s, it is essential viewing.

Southern Comfort (1981)
as Hardin
If you read most any write-up of Boothe’s career, it will likely mention how well Boothe embodied hard men. He played a lot of evil guys – and he played them very well. Yet his first major film role, as Corporal Hardin in Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, captures a noble Powers Boothe. To be clear: Hardin is tough as hell – he’s smart, calculated, and afraid of little – but unlike most of the other men in his Louisiana National Guard squad, Hardin is an honorable man. He spends the entire film advocating for the proper, honest choice. When he’s forced into a corner, he certainly fights back, but being put into such a tense situation was not his choice. Hardin is a unique Boothe performance – calm yet decisive, earnest yet tough.

Tombstone (1993)
as Curly Bill Brocius
Curly Bill is arguably the most out-and-out villainous performance Boothe ever gave. There’s no redeeming quality within Curly Bill. He’s a vicious monster, a man who rapes, robs, and kills for the hell of it. You can tell Boothe loved the challenge of playing Curly Bill, capturing the man’s flamboyance and deranged mind with utter glee. Hell, Boothe manages to steal damn near every scene he’s in, which makes his moments with Val Kilmer (who has never been better than his work as Doc Holiday here), a real joy.

Nixon (1995)
as Alexander Haig
Boothe isn’t in Nixon very much early on, yet you’re aware that he’s constantly there. All the extended, deceptive Oval Office meetings, in which Nixon’s shifty Yes Men conjure up ways to preserve Nixon’s legacy, Boothe's Haig is standing in the back, dressed in full military regalia, witnessing the deception. You can tell Haig doesn’t agree with what is being discussed, yet he’s too disciplined to talk out of order. In the film’s final act (once Haig is made Nixon’s Chief of Staff), Boothe assumes a more prominent role, ultimately convincing Nixon that it would be best to resign. Boothe’s performance in Nixon is pure gravitas. It proves that the actor could do as much with silence as he could with pronounced monologues.

Frailty (2001)
as Wesley Doyle
There are more prominent Powers Boothe roles to occupy this spot, but I’m choosing his restrained work in Frailty as a way of highlighting Boothe’s everyman quality. Boothe could play it big, no question, but he could also play it muted, which is no easy feat. Powers Boothe spends most of Frailty listening to Matthew McConaughey tell a fantastical story about death at God’s hand. In doing this, Boothe’s character, FBI Agent Wesley Doyle, becomes the audience. He voices our suspicions and asks our questions. In rewatching the film for this post, I couldn’t stop looking at Boothe’s eyes. I kept wondering if Doyle assumed his own fate in talking with McConaughey’s character. It’s something I never saw coming, but it’s a joy to watch Boothe try and piece it all together.

The Best of the Best
Deadwood (2004-2006)
as Cy Tolliver
I recently spent a few days rewatching every episode of Deadwood in embarrassingly rapid succession. The series was perfect, one of HBO’s best. The first time I watched Deadwood, my attention was mostly stuck on Ian McShane’s fury (because, how could it not be?). But with this most recent viewing, I was able to focus more on other characters, namely Boothe’s haunting portrayal of Cy Tolliver.

For Deadwood’s first few episodes, Cy is the new man in town. He’s big, debonair, honest. He’s here to run his brothel/casino, Bella Union, and has no interest in stepping on anyone’s toes. But as the series progresses, we get to know the real Cy, the hard, violent, maniacal Cy. The way Cy’s devilish nature is slowly revealed to us (and then fully exposed), makes for one of Deadwood’s most compelling character arcs. Deadwood was a rare show that was constantly alive, no matter who was on screen. Having spent the past few days watching my favorite Cy Tolliver moments, I have to admit that Boothe’s work in the show now has a heightened intensity. Since the series ended a decade ago, there has been constant chatter of a film follow-up. McShane hinted recently that it’s happening. I hope it does, but it damn sure won’t be the same without Powers Boothe. Damn sure.

Other Notable Roles
in Sin City
Philip Marlowe, Private Eye (1983-1986)
Red Dawn (1984)
Extreme Prejudice (1987)
Rapid Fire (1992)
Blue Sky (1994)
Sudden Death (1995)
U Turn (1997)
Men of Honor (2000)
Justice League (2002-2003)
Sin City (2005)
The Final Season (2007)
24 (2007)
MacGruber (2010)
The Avengers (2010)
Hatfields & McCoys (2012)
Nashville (2012-2014)
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2015-2016)


  1. What an excellent post (and a fitting tribute). I'm not even sure of the specific role, but I have Boothe cemented in my mind as a hard-boiled guy who isn't going to take anybody's shit. And for whatever reason, I always felt like I couldn't trust any of his characters, and that left me absolutely riveted by his performances.

    As a teacher, obviously, I'm about to stumble into a serious amount of paid time off. I would be stoked as Hell to fill some of it with Deadwood, having never seen a minute of what sounds like my kind of party.

    1. Thanks man! Dude... Deadwood is a fucking trip. That show is such intricately detailed and magnificent. Brutal and beautiful, and everyone in it is perfect. I promise you'll dig it!

  2. With the exception of Tombstone and Nixon, the essential performances you listed I haven't seen. Yet, what is there to say about this man who can't fucking suck. You can put him in the worst movie out there and he can always be the best thing in that film. He's that fucking good. He will so be missed.

    1. Hell yes. Totally agree. They may defied sucking; he was good in every damn movie and TV show he was in. Definitely going to miss him.

  3. He was an absolutely fantastic actor. Every time he was on screen you couldn't not pay attention to him. Just his voice alone could send chills down your spine. I love him in pretty much everytjing i have seen him in. Tombstone, Red Dawn, MacGruber, Nixon, Sin City (even in the terrible sequel to Sin City) and the list goes on. Cy Tolliver on Deadwood is of course my favorite perfeomance from him as well. Deadwood is one of my all time favorite shows and he is a big reason for that. I don't even think i want a movie anymore without him. Another personal favorite from him not listed here is his performance in Sudden Death. My favorite Die Hard clone next to Under Siege. He really stands out in that movie and makes it something more than just another 90's Van Damme action film. He was so cool and yet terrifying at the same time. Never knew what he was gonna do.
    "What kind of lunatic are you?"
    "The best kind!"
    I need to watch that movie again now. It's been years.

    1. Totally agree with you here. And man, Sudden Death is awesome. Might be my favorite JCVD movie - tough call. It is very difficult to imagine a Deadwood film without him, but if they managed to get it made, I'm sure Milch will think of a great send of for Cy Fuckin' Tolliver.

  4. He's going to be missed a hell of a lot. Just that presence he brought to everything ensures he'll be remembered.

    1. For sure. That's what the man had, presence. Very well said.

  5. Sad to hear he's gone. For me, his work in Guyana Tragedy is his very best. Then again, I've never seen even one minute of Deadwood.

    1. He's so good in Guyana Tragedy. What a startling debut. Also love that he was the only nominated actor to show up to the Emmys that year (there was a strike going on). Shows that he had such audacity on and off the screen.

  6. Oh my Lord I recently tried sitting through Nixon as it is going to be featured in my Tuesday's post on Harris' performances from 1992 to 2001 and I couldn't finish it. I fast forwarded it to what appears to be Harris' only 2 scenes but really, it was just so slow paced. I sat through some truly atrocious films with him but this one is the only one I couldn't get through, a shame because Boothe included - there are so many wonderful actors there.

    "I recently spent a few days rewatching every episode of Deadwood in embarrassingly rapid succession." - this is true for me at least thrice a year. Deadwood remains my favorite dramatic show (The Thick of It being favorite comedy one). Boothe is the only one there who could go head to head with McShane. He was also so damn funny - that moment in 2x01 when Al and Seth go over balcony and he just goes "Awful possibility in these matters is both men sustaining mortal injury... But I'm rarely that fucking lucky." just slays me every time. And his acting in last season when Hearst was continuously humiliating him was incredible.

    My first thought was, after I heard the awful news, what a shame it is he won't reprise the role. But truth be told I'm doubting this movie ever happens :(

    1. Nixon is a tough one. It's a long fucker that jumps up down and around far too much and then settles into these 20 minute Oval Office scenes. Pace wise, it's all over the place. But when I rewatched it for this post, I was horrified how much of what is depicted in that movie is being repeated right now in real life. So... definitely not close to my favorite Stone film, but I do appreciate it. (Though, a bad film to watch for Harris alone, because like you said, he's in about 10 of its 222 minutes.)

      Oh my god that Boothe line is priceless. I LOVED his portrayal of that character.

  7. Alex, I'm way late to the party on this one, but I had to swing by and talk about just how great Boothe can be. I can still remember seeing Tombstone in the theater and enjoying how much fun that he had in the role. What I've noticed over the years is that he often plays intense, quiet guys that show no emotion until it's absolutely needed. Curly Bill was actually a bit out of character for him. Boothe even makes bad films like Sudden Death better. I've only seen the first season of Deadwood, and I can't wait to get back and see him (plus obviously the other big stars) in the upcoming seasons.

    1. Hey Dan, thanks so much for the comment. So glad to hear you're a fan of Boothe's work. A sad passing, but his work will live on. Very excited for you to see the remaining seasons of Deadwood. Boothe gets more to do in the later season. So deliciously evil.

  8. I didn't know this! So sad to read about it… Man, in Spain they didn't even mention it on the news (it's not like they don't talk about cinema, but I guess they assume he wasn't "that" famous, such a shame). I loved his acting too. He was someone that even is the smallest role you couldn't forget about him. I liked him a lot on Frailty. And like how you’ve described his Deadwood role. I watched Deadwood last year for the first time (I loved the first season but since the middle of the 2nd one and specially the 3rd one I felt it was a bit of a let-down) so I remember his performance quite well. I loved his scenes with Joanie (big fan of Kim Dickens too). I read that Garret Dillahunt talked about that possible movie last year (wonder which role he would play this time). I haven't seen Boothe as Jim Jones but I'm sure he was great because you're right about those TV performances; I remember watching a TV adaptation of Crime and Punishment where Patrick Dempsey delivered a brilliant performance, and same with John Cusack on The Jack Bull.

    1. I really hope they get that Deadwood movie made. McShane and Dickens have both talked about it recently, but who knows. It would be interesting, certainly. Milch has such a verbose style of writing, I'm not sure how a two hour film could do a 36 hour series justice, but hopefully we'll get to see!

  9. Thanks ever so much for this lovely article. :-) I truly consider myself to be Powers Boothe's biggest fan in the whole wide world, & I was positively crushed when my mom told me he had passed into the next dimension. :-( I love him, his voice, his work--everything about him!--to pieces, & I would have loved to use him in some of my movie & television projects...even to be his friend & companion. It's been about four months since he crossed over to the next life, & I miss him so very, very much. I wish he could come back to all his loving family, friends, & fans... :-( Until we meet again in Heaven, I'll never stop thinking about him, or admiring his wonderful works.

    1. I'm so glad you liked the post. I will certainly miss Boothe's work. What a tremendous performer he was.

  10. Excellent, underrated actor, one of my favorite actors. Even if he starred in a movie that wasn't very good, Boothe would probably be the most memorable part. This post was a great Powers Boothe tribute. What did you think of his performance in the Emerald Forest by the way?

    1. Totally agree, he always delivered. And I haven't seen Emerald Forest! Pretty good?