Last week character actor Charles Napier passed on. Who’s Charles Napier? You totally know the guy. He was in everything.
Napier resigned himself long ago to the character actor’s lot: familiarity without celebrity. “Wherever I go, people will look at me as though they recognise me,” he wrote in his 2011 autobiography, Square Jaw and Big Heart: The Life and Times of a Hollywood Actor. “They see that square jaw with the big smile. They may not know my name, but they know that face.” Napier remembered accompanying his then girlfriend to an audition for Meyer’s 1970 film Cherry, Harry and Raquel!: “I walked in, and [Meyer] basically said ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ And I said ‘Well, she doesn’t feel comfortable around you.’ And he said, ‘Do you feel comfortable around me?’ And I said, ‘About as far as I can throw ya.’ And I wound up in a movie.” Napier was cast as a sheriff involved in drug smuggling, but his responsibilities stretched to more than acting. “We took two cameras, [Meyer] handheld both of them, edited all of them, and I did all the stunts, I did all the car driving, I did all the makeup and that shit.” The actor was cast again by Meyer in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and The Seven Minutes (1971).
His decision to take a two-year break from acting to become a writer-photographer on Overdrive, a trucking magazine, was inspired by his experience making Moonfire (1973), a little-seen thriller about truck drivers hunting a Nazi in Mexico. In the 1980s, Napier worked mainly in television, with some notable exceptions: Demme’s Melvin and Howard (1980), in which he played a mysterious associate of Howard Hughes; a brief but unforgettably caustic turn as an aggrieved country-and-western musician in The Blues Brothers (1980); a duplicitous bureaucrat who provokes the hero’s ire in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985); and against type as a hairdresser in Married to the Mob (1988), also by Demme.
A fantastic and, well, diverse career (to say the least). Rest in peace. But before he does, here’s a snippet from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, one of the more criminally underappreciated films in my lifetime.