Timothy Carey, the name has a certain aura to it. Some cinephiles know this feeling, those who go out on a limb and watch what little role he has. Carey, a character actor who zigzagged through the latter half of American cinema’s history, from A to Z pictures and everything in between, had a special talent. He could make a thin role into something memorable. He threw his 6’ 4’’ body around and spoke with a voice that sounded more like a cement mixer. He stole scenes, evaporating the memory of those that came before and after it.
Only Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes managed to integrate Carey into their films seamlessly. For both filmmakers, he appeared twice in their work. For Kubrick: The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957). For Cassavetes: Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). They were able to rein in Carey, controlling his high-strung acting for maximum effect. In Paths of Glory, in fact, Carey gives a career-performance. An interlude from the psychotics he often played, as Private Ferol, Carey is a smooth man, someone who would fit in with Jack Kerouac and co., not WWI France. By film’s end, he becomes unraveled. Along with Ralph Meeker and Joe Turkel, he’s one of the soldiers court-martialed and executed. “I don’t want to die,” he repeats, sniveling, whimpering, and crying as he faces the firing squad.
For every friend, Carey had three or four enemies, people who couldn’t tolerate his brand of free-wheeling, combusting improvisation. Fact and legend often blur in Hollywood history. In Carey’s case, there seems to be more legend than fact. His bouts with actors and directors are tabloid-worthy and tailor-made to his outsider persona. Billy Wilder and James B. Harris fired him. Elia Kazan dubbed his guttural lines. Richard Widmark and Karl Malden beat him. Marlon Brando stabbed him with a pen. Always cheeky, Carey proclaimed that he was fired more than any other actor in Hollywood.