Uno Mas Magazine 1996 article by Alex de Laszlo

THE WONDERFUL HORRIBLE LIFE OF
TIMOTHY CAREY

Timothy Agoglia Carey, iconoclastic wild man of Hollywood, passed away on May 11, 1994.  The loathsome villain and tragic-comic character actor made an indelible mark as Hollywood outsider-as-inside in innumerable films and worked with classic directors such as Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, John Cassavetes and Stanley Kubrick.

Pounding the pavement of Bay Ridge in hot pursuit of his own myth, Timothy Carey’s youth presaged John Travolta’s Tony Manero (Saturday Night Fever).  Carey was born in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn in 1929 to a tightly knit Italian-Irish Catholic family. 

At age 15, Carey used his brother’s birth certificate to enlist in the marines.  After an unsuccessful tryout for pitcher for the Boston Braves “B” team, Carey became a member of Bay Ridge’s Iron Masters Club, where he devoted much of his free time to weight lifting.  Carey’s interest in body building carried over to his acting career, where he was often used for his physicality.  His large, deft frame would spider across the screen and carry a role with little dialogue.

Carey expressed his acting “technique” plainly: “If you wanna be a good actor, go to the zoo and watch the rhino - look at the way he moves.  Watch the weasel, every part involves a new body pattern.”  This focus on the representational ran contrary to the internalized method acting of his peers.

Although Carey is often characterized as a method actor (particularly due to his later association with John Cassavettes), he was, in fact, more likely to throw away the book, appropriate at part, and infuse it with energy.

Carey’s career as a character actor began with the role of a dead man in Across the Wide Missouri, directed by William Wellman, who, Carey recalled, “was a great director and a tough director.  I had two arrows in my back laying in the water.  I couldn’t hold still, it was so cold my teeth were chattering.  The director said, ‘Keep that jerk still, he’s supposed to be dead’.  I had just come from dramatic school in New York.  I thought I was a great actor.  I’m the only one who did”.

The pattern for Carey’s acting career was set.  Director and player wrestled for control of a scene.  Directors who afforded Carey room to operate, those who were able to understand his capabilities, worked well with him.  Carey played the absolute heavy to the relative heavy in a string of hard-boiled dramas of the early ‘50s including Hellgate, The Big Carnival and Fingerman.

Fingerman, in particular, is a good example of his early work.  Carey plays the right hand goon to mastermind pimp/bootlegger Forrest Tucker.  Tucker conveys a cunning and diabolical type; Carey, however, defines a true sociopath, unbridles by gangland criminal codes.  He is seen roughing up a woman in one scene, moving her around the set as if she were a small piece of cheap furniture.  Later in the film, Frank Lovejoy, the hero, turns on Carey with menacing rancor.  Carey reveals himself as the coward we know that all bullies are.  This sort of scene is familiar  to American film; the difference is, Carey drops the bottom out and operates in the realm of pathos alien to American movies of the ‘50s.  America likes a winning quality to its losers.

By the mid-50’s, Carey’s work had attracted the attention of a number of directors.  Elia Kazan cast him in East of Eden, playing the bouncer at a brothel owned by James Dean’s mother.  This experience would produce the only serious regret of Carey’s professional life.  Kazan decided that the actor’s Brooklynese was not to his liking, and had Carey’s voice dubbed over, significantly marginalizing his presence in the film.  He and Dean bonded during the production.  This culminated in one of Dean’s infamous reckless Sunday drives through Salinas.  After they returned to the set Carey said, prophetically, “I’m never getting in a car  with him again.”

Stanley Kubrick first saw Carey in Fingerman and cast him in his first professional feature, The Killing.  As James B. Harris, producer of The Killing, Paths of Glory and Lolita states, “he was every bit effective and powerful as we thought he would be.  Film acting is one thing, screen presence is something else.  He was good at playing himself.”

Carey’s next feature with Kubrick, Paths of Glory, got made largely because Kirk Douglas’s involvement facilitated backing of the film.  Carey found himself in the company of seasoned actors like Adolph Menjou, not to mention Douglas himself, with whom he had a number of tense off-screen moment.

Carey had already developed a reputation as a scene-stealer, his 6’5” presence dominating most situations.  It was necessary to build a mound of dirt to offset Douglas’s diminutive stature in scenes where he and Carey appeared together.  Location shooting was well under way for Paths of Glory when Carey decided to pull an elaborate stunt – he faked his own kidnapping.  As James B. Harris remembers, “Tim seemed to be reveling in all the attention.  He was milking it for all it was worth.”  Meanwhile, the entire production was held up.  Carey was getting over a thousand dollars a day for his work.  Harris eventually had to fire Carey from the project.

That same year Carey did his first lead in a low-budget drama, Bayou.  The film was produced by M.A. Ripps, a Mobile, Alabama-based owner of a chain of drive-in movie theaters.  Carey plays the backwoods primitive Ulysses caught up in a love triangle with sultry Cajun beauty, Lita Milan and a city slicker architect, Peter Graves.  The climax of the film involves a hypnotic rubber-leg voodoo dance improvised by Carey – he reaches a fever pitch and goes wild with frightening intensity.

After a few years in release, Ripps bought back the rights to Bayou from United Artists and re-titled it Poor White Trash.  The new version had some added nude scenes and additional gore.  Trash stayed in marginal release for nearly a decade, grossed about 10 million dollars, and was seen by more people than any other Carey production!

By the late 50’s, Carey was gaining a reputation as a problem player.  Undoubtedly, this hurt his ability to get work in bigger budget production.  He reflected with little regret, “I’ve been fired from several shows,” he says, “I’m not proud of it but I do hold the all-time record.”

       In the early 60’s, Carey’s career took a nosedive, He did a lot of television and bit parts in lesser-than-high quality exploitation flicks like Mermaids of Tiberon ( a.k.a. Aquasex) and teen movies like Bikini Beach and Beach Blanket Bingo.

         Carey’s frustration with the Hollywood establishment inspired him to create his own vehicle, which ended up a psycho paean to power. The World’s Greatest Sinner was

Carey’s first attempt to write, produce, direct and act. Carey plays Clarence Hilliard, everyman insurance agent, who decides one day that he no longer  wants to sell insurance

And becomes a rock’n’roll singer. Clarence manages to generate a cult based on no musical talent and uses his messianic status to run for president. Hilliard then changes his name from “Clarence” to “God” Hilliard, has his followers wear “F” { for follower) arm patches and proclaims “ every one of us here, super human beings!”He then breaks into his voodoo dance as the rock’n’roll grinds away. Hilliard’s “sins” include fornication with an underage girl, seducing a rich widow for her money and driving one of his followers to suicide.

             The World’s Greatest Sinner is a film of dubious distinction, shot over a period of three years ( 1958-61), for a budget of  over  $100,000. Continuity and technical polish

are absent; the film must be understood as a phenomenon to be fully appreciated. Sinner

resulted in a coalescence of the LA underground of the time. Frank Zappa provided the theme song  and composed the score, he also appears in the crowd in several of  the performance scenes. (Zappa would later condemn the film in an appearance on the “Steve Allen Show” during Sinner’s limited one theatre run in 1962).

Ray Dennis Steckler ( later of Wild Guitar and Incredible Strange Creatures fame). Developed his craft as a cinematogrpher on the project. As Steckler recalls,

“I was living in Tim’s garage with two dogs, a boxer named Ceasar and some poor old German shepherd…. He did run out of money and I stayed with him for as long as I could. We’d shoot a little here and there, and then all of a sudden it became years. He was always good at buying a lot lunches, he’d always pick up the tab….I think he was kinda hurt that I didn’t finish the movie.” Steckler further adds, “Tim Carey was having an adventure- whatever happened, he thought it was great. As far as the script goes, it never made sense at the beginning when I read it. He didn’t care about that cause he just threw the pages away anyway.”

                  The cynical irreverence, riotous crowd scenes and social upheaval were foreshadowing of events of the late 60’s. Riot in the Street, Medium Cool and Putney Swope, which all came after Sinner, owe much to its groundbreaking style. The film straddles the 50’s and 60’s literally and figuratively, Hilliard transforming himself from an everyman, frustrated by his own power. Notoriety of the film has grown over the years. While Carey was working on Change of Habit  (1969) with Mary Tyler Moore and Elvis Presley, Elvis asked Carey for a 16 mm print of Sinner for his private collection.

                     Carey’s  carrer moved in an overtly tragic-comic direction in the mid and late 60’s. He played Hilb, a half-man, half-goat outlaw in Blake Edwards comic western, Water Hole Number Three (1967). The following year he did a cameo as a demented soothsayer in the Monkey’s rock group vehicle Head.

Carey scripted, produced, directed and acted in a television series, Tweet’s Ladies of Pasadena, in which Carey plays Tweet Twig, the only male member of a   knitting club run by old ladies who teach him how to knit with dropping a stitch. Tweets is a rustic living in surburban California who harbors a lifelong desire to clothe all the naked animals in Pasadena. The baroque decadence and a manic insanity make the early work of John Waters look mainstream. Unfortunately, the networks agreed.

John Cassavetes, a close friend of Carey’s directed two of the more substantial films of Carey’s later career, Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Minnie and Moskowitz. Each of these films contain performances by Carey at the height of  his craft-a convincing and captivating character player. Carey was immersed in what was to be his magnum opus during most of the 80’s.

                 He wrote and produced a three-act play, The Insect Trainer, loosely based on the life of Le Petomane (The Fartomaniac), a 19th century cabaret performer who

had the uncanny ability to create musical  flatulence. In 1892, he became the toast of the Moulin Rouge. In Le Petomane, Carey found a kindred spirit, a marginal figure who skirted the fantastic and realized his own means of self expression. Salvadore Dali produced a treatise on the importance of breaking wind. This would become an inspiration to Carey

who became obsessed with the great surrealist.

                The Insect Trainer’s main character, Guasti Q. Guastis convicted of murder after farting so powerfully that a woman falls from her chair, hits the floor and dies. The play is characteristic theatre of the absurd, full of non-sequiturs and jarring stage action. Carey was hard at work rehearsing the play before his passing and created a philosophical tract about the virtues of flatulence.

                 Carey’s son Romeo is planning a revival of The Insect Trainer, due to premiere in Los Angeles this spring. Romeo hopes to take the production on the road. For all of  Timothy Carey’s antics, he remained a devoted family man with a wife (only one) and six kids and endless dogs, cats,chickens,and horses. He lived out his life in the quiet suburb of El Monte, preferring the company of his animals to the unearthly world of Hollywood society. As he admits, he “made lots of fast enemies” during his career, but readily forgave his antagonists, as they were often just ready to appreciate his uniqueness.

James B. Harris, the crusty producer/director who had many a run-in with Carey over the years acknowledges, “I know he’s so bizarre and I don’t think it’s gratuitious. I think  there is enough humanity in this man. I think he could make a scene better than anyone else”. This humanity described by Harris encompassed a sympathy for the underdog: Carey was a supporter of Palestinian and Native American rights. The romantic equation,

The ability to triumph despite the odds, played a great part in his art and his outlook.

 Alex de Laszlo is a librarian/archivist living in New York City. As a student of modern life, he has a predilection for the odd and arcane, past and present. 

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