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Michael Parks obituary

Michael Parks as a menacing preacher in the film Red State, 2011
Michael Parks as a menacing preacher in the film Red State, 2011, directed by Kevin Smith, who considered Parks to be the best actor he had ever known. Photograph: Harvey Boys/Everett Collection/Rex

Michael Parks, who has died aged 77, was a softly spoken character actor who enjoyed a prolific and chequered film and television career, largely in the exploitation genre. In middle age he was adopted as something of a mascot by the hip directors Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith. “Michael was, and will likely for ever remain, the best actor I’ve ever known,” said Smith, who directed him as a menacing preacher in Red State (2011) and as a sinister seaman with a bizarre walrus fixation in Tusk (2014). Both roles were written especially for him by Smith, who said: “He will take a page of dialogue and deliver it in a different way than anybody else.”

Parks had appeared earlier as the mobster and drug-runner Jean Renault in David Lynch’s cult television series Twin Peaks (1990–91), but his career resurgence really began after a scene-stealing appearance in the vampire movie From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), directed by Rodriguez and written by Tarantino, who also starred in the film alongside George Clooney. “His naturalism was just amazing to watch,” said Rodriguez. “You would roll the cameras and watch the magic happen.”

As the ornery Texas ranger Earl McGraw, he was shot dead by Tarantino’s character in the first 10 minutes, but both directors later cast him as McGraw in other films. He returned in Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) and Death Proof, and in Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (both 2007); the last two titles were released in the US as the double-bill package Grindhouse and internationally as separate titles. He also played an ageing Mexican pimp in Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004). With his profile raised, he went on to appear in prestigious, award-winning films such as the western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and the hostage drama Argo (2012). Tarantino cast him in his slavery thriller Django Unchained (also 2012).

Born in Corona, south-east of Los Angeles, Parks worked in various jobs and was at one stage invited to play minor league baseball, an offer he turned down because it paid less than his job at that time, upholstering coffins. He was discovered by the actor Frank Silvera while performing with a theatre group in Hermosa Beach, on Los Angeles’ South Bay coast, in 1958. He then worked prolifically in television from 1960 onwards, in series including Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, and the Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Michael Parks and Jennifer Jones in The Idol, 1966

In the drama Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965), he played the title character, a young navy veteran struggling with civilian life. The New York Times remarked on his “considerable charm and appeal” but complained about his “James Dean mannerisms”. The same charges were levelled at his performance in The Idol (1966), a melodrama in which he played a young man who seduces his friend’s mother (Jennifer Jones). Dean, to whom he bore some resemblance, was a name routinely invoked by reviewers, and Parks even claimed that the more famous actor’s reputation for surliness had a bad effect on his own prospects. “He could be mean, and people who knew him said [about me], ‘Another James Dean’, without even knowing me.”

John Huston directed Parks as Adam in The Bible (also 1966); in the same year, Parks was said to be one of the pall-bearers at Lenny Bruce’s funeral. He travelled the US on a motorcycle as the hero of the television series Then Came Bronson (1969-70) and scored Billboard chart success with his recording of the theme song, Long Lonesome Highway. He had a successful music career, recording a series of albums in the late 1960s and early 70s and appearing on the Johnny Cash Show. But his acting career hit a bump after a contractual dispute with Universal led to his suspension. His response was to go to Mexico “and chop wood for a living”.

He returned to television in 1973 and appeared occasionally in movies, among them North Sea Hijack (1980) starring Roger Moore, and the thriller Storyville (1992) with James Spader. Most of his work, including a recurring role on the Dynasty spin-off The Colbys (1987), was confined to television, at least until Rodriguez and Tarantino revived interest in him. His last completed film was the crime drama The Queen of Hollywood Blvd (2017).

He is survived by his wife, Oriana, and his son, James, an actor who has also appeared in several Tarantino movies.

• Harry Samuel (Michael) Parks, actor, born 24 April 1940; died 9 May 2017

This article titled "Michael Parks obituary" was written by Ryan Gilbey, for The Guardian on Friday 19 May 2017 03.56pm

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