I recently watched downbeat 1970s gangster movie The Friends of Eddie Coyle for the first time, and while it’s by no means a great film, or even a good one, it does feature another great turn from the wonderful Peter Boyle, here playing a Boston Irish barman/mobster with a contract on his fellow criminal Robert Mitchum.
For a large chunk of the 1970s, Peter Boyle seemed to appear in just about every fashionably counter-cultural film that Hollywood made, while remaining intriguingly ambivalent (or even oppositional) in his and/or his character’s attitude to that very counter-culture. He’s there in Medium Cool, one of the most avowedly “radical” and Godardian films ever to come out of mainstream(ish) American cinema, playing the manager of a gun club in Chicago around the time of the 1968 Democratic Convention, which saw running battles between anti-war protestors and “over-zealous” pigs. Fiction and fact blur amidst the tear gas as an off-camera voice cries “Look out Haskell, it’s real” and director/cameraman Haskell Wexler takes evasive action. It’s hard to describe the effect this had on me as a 14-year-old. There were militant negroes speaking to camera, berating liberal honkies. There were naked men running around flats with their genitals in full view. There was ice hockey sound-tracked by Wild Man Fischer and parties where they played Frank Zappa. There was a love story of sorts, between fictional cameraman Robert Forster (i.e. Haskell Wexler) and a working-class woman from the Appalachians in a yellow dress. And there was Peter Boyle, already tonsorially challenged.
Despite looking like a boiled egg, he was catapulted to infamy with the controversial Joe (1970) in which he plays the titular blue-collar worker, who helps an advertising executive to track down his drug-addict daughter, culminating in a kill-all-hippies climax which leads to the death of the very girl they are trying to rescue. The film’s critical distance from its anti-hero backfired and audiences lapped up the right-wing vigilantism it was lampooning (very blackly, it must be said). As a result, Boyle – who was opposed to the Vietnam War and firm friends with Jane Fonda – turned down the part of unorthodox cop Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, which went to Gene Hackman. The rest is history, for Hackman at least.
Boyle, it seemed, preferred free-wheeling, off-the-wall, anti-narrative films like Steelyard Blues, in which a bunch of social misfits, or actors as we call them, among them Fonda and Donald Sutherland, fix up a flying boat; Kid Blue, in which the cream of maverick Hollywood (Dennis Hopper, Warren Oates et al) get to play cowboys, and Slither, in which loveable hoodlums Boyle and James Caan are pursued by a sinister black van – actually several sinister black vans – in a race to find some embezzled money, a screwball comedy which meanders to a typically 70s non-conclusion.
Boyle then had another hit role playing the monster in Young Frankenstein, a rare example of a funny Mel Brooks film. It was on the set of Young Frankenstein that he also met his wife, Loraine Alterman, and, through her, Yoko Ono and John Lennon, who was best man at their wedding.
Despite his ability to carry films like Tail Gunner Joe in which he played Senator McCarthy, he was now typecast as a slightly eccentric supporting actor, as in Taxi Driver, where he plays Travis Bickle’s fellow cab driver Wizard, dispensing homespun wisdom to a Joe-like vigilante, or Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, where he’s the private detective hired to find George C Scott’s daughter in a hugely under-rated movie which shares some obvious similarities with the earlier Joe, although, as befits the late 70s, the milieu is now the sex industry, rather than the hippy underworld.
The 80s mark the start of a creative decline, from Hunter Thompson sort-of-bio-pic Where The Buffalo Roam via unfunny pirate comedy Yellowbeard and (Sandra Bullock alert) While You Were Sleeping to the Eddie Murphy vehicle Dr Doolittle. Such dumbass “comedies” probably explain how he landed the part of Raymond’s father in the long-running TV sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, which at least has the virtue of an ironic title since Raymond (Ray) Romano is in fact intensely annoying. There was then a flash of the old odd-ball brilliance playing Billy Bob Thornton’s racist father in Monster’s Ball but since most people were more interested in the celebrated Halle Berry/Billy Bob sex scene, they probably didn’t even notice him, and it was back to Raymond and Scooby Doo 2 after that.