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The Definition of Excellence: Charles Napier (1936-2011)

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The Definition of Excellence: Charles Napier, 1936-2011

Remembering One of Our Greatest Character Actors

Charles Napier in Cherry, Harry & Raquel! (Russ Meyer, 1970)Some character actors have a distinctive presence, or a face we’ve seen a million times, where we immediately recognize them without knowing their name, and say, “Oh, yeah, it’s that guy.”

With a jaw that could stop a truck in its tracks, an endless stream of teeth and a rugged, memorable face, Charles Napier was the definition of ‘machismo,’ before it was in vogue. He was immediately recognizable, with countless appearances in both film and television in a career that spanned over 40 years. He was usually typecast as a rugged, hard-ass authority figure, mainly a general, and sometimes a colonel on occasion.

Born in Mt. Union, Kentucky, Napier played high school basketball before joining the Army in the mid 1950s. After earning an art degree from Western Kentucky University, he held a variety of jobs, including an art teacher and basketball coach. In the early 1960s while attending graduate school, he got bitten by the acting bug and appeared in local theatrical productions.

After relocating to Los Angeles, he appeared in a small role in “Mission Impossible” in 1967. This was followed by his appearance as Adam, the space hippie on the 1969 “Star Trek” episode “The Way to Eden,” where he performed a now legendary musical jam session with Mr. Spock. Adorned in psychedelic finery and sporting a ghastly fright wig….you knew he was something special. Not only was he special, he was debonair; in my personal relationship with Charles Napier (which didn’t exist, but it does here), he served as a beacon, a symbol of the majesty of the unfathomable cheese of the 1960s and 70s, who appeared to take his work in stride with a sense of humor to match. The rest is history…

Enter Russ Meyer, who gave Napier his first role in a major motion picture, the soft core, surrealist exploitation film Cherry, Harry & Raquel! (1970); one of the weirdest, and funniest films ever made. Playing a hard-ass, sexist and racist border town sheriff (“I don’t like women messing around with women. It’s un-American.”), Napier brought a great comical vibe to the role and never seemed to avoid mocking his character, during the film’s many fantasy montages…especially the ones where he’s running naked through the desert wearing only boots and a cowboy hat.

His association with Meyer is what made him a pop culture figure with appearances in the director’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), The Seven Minutes (1971), and Supervixens (1975). Supervixens is especially notorious for its blatant raunch; smug, smarmy, perverse and bawdy as hell, it’s notable for a horrifically brilliant scene where Napier brutally kills Shari Eubank, by stomping her to death in a bathtub then dropping a plugged in radio and electrocuting her.

Charles Napier in Star Trek: The Way to Eden (1969)In addition to appearances on TV shows such as “Hogan’s Heroes,” ”Baretta,” and ”Kojak,” Napier gave memorable performances as the intelligence officer Murdock in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Judge Garnett in Philadelphia (1994) and Tucker McElroy of the Good Ol’ Boys in The Blues Brothers (1980). His numerous film credits include: Melvin and Howard (1980), China Lake (1983), Swing Shift (1984), In Search of a Golden Sky (1984), Instant Justice (1986), Something Wild (1986), Married to the Mob (1988), The Grifters (1990), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Cable Guy (1996), Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), Beloved (1998), The Big Tease (1999), Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) and The Manchurian Candidate (2004).

While his career was incredibly varied, on a personal note, I find his performance in Cherry, Harry & Raquel! to be his best. On the brink of his career, he is unfathomably funny and established the Napier persona. Never really a leading man, Napier’s raw and unbridled animal magnetism was John Wayne, Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds combined. He could play a tough guy, like Chuck Connors and Charles Bronson, and also be incredibly charming. He was never really in the spotlight, obviously lived a quiet life, but his presence often out-shadowed the competition.

He was one of our greatest character actors. He cut a rugged swath (his teeth alone could cut through barbed wire if given the chance) that spoke cinematic volumes. Even if he made a very brief appearance in a film (sometimes one scene and just a few lines) you recognized him and were fascinated and awestruck by his presence. Even if it was the most god awful cinematic atrocity, Charles Napier’s appearance was a beam of light.

A friend of mine recently claimed that “Charles Napier was always where the action was.”

How very true.

Dave Bower is Co-Publisher of The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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