Quote of the Week

Whether looming over the strangely invertebrate James Dean as the muscle of the local brothel in East of Eden or buying the farm in a whisker-quick saloon shoot-out with Marlon Brando in One-Eyed Jacks, the disheveled, vertiginous Timothy Carey performed, through much of his career, as the kind of thespian rarity whose flickering presence, even when bereft of a fleshed-out “character,” struck a loud, long-resonating note in the frequently seam-riddled “seamless narratives” it embellished. Like a portal into a reality hidden from view by scopophobic hysteria, Carey materialized from an alternate universe devoid of heroes and legible story lines.

Available accounts and filmographies of Carey’s early career typify his roles in exploitation pictures as “oozing malevolence,” citing creepy gangster turns in Andre de Toth‘s Crime Wave and Harold D. Schuster‘s Finger Man, as well as uncredited parts in Billy Wilder’s The Big Carnival [aka Ace in the Hole – ed.] and William A. Wellman‘s Across the Wide Missouri. In 1953’s The Wild One, he got to spray Brando in the face with a shaken-up carbonated beverage – some say beer, others soda pop. He was physically attacked by Richard Widmark during the filming of The Last Wagon in 1956, and pummeled by Karl Malden on the set of One-Eyed Jacks, or so the legends go; according to some of Carey’s enthusiasts, his parts got progressively bigger in B-circuit pictures for a time, then shrank as his uninhibited behavior off-camera, and scene-swiping on, earned him the poisonous sobriquet of being “difficult.”

Only the sharpest and restive of “great” directors, and the most cynically astute hacks, recognized Carey’s innate ability to enlarge a piece of cinema into something beyond cinema. Anecdotal evidence reflects how often even those who perceived Carey’s ungovernable grandeur were either prevented from casting him, or themselves provoked by his antics into tossing him out of a picture.

He was, in effect, too much of what he was, too formidably present to evaporate into a peripheral presence; both his imposing physicality and his avid wish to smuggle something living into something simulated got him scotched from films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Grifters; the insecurity of Harvey Keitel purportedly scrapped a  major role in Reservoir Dogs; Carey, by his own account, sabotaged his own way out of The Godfather and Godfather II.

Gary Indiana, “Timothy Carey: The Refusal of the Repressed,” from Dead Flowers (Participant Press/VoxPopuli, 2011)

East of Eden (1955)


Quote of the Week

Our quote for this week comes from John Baxter‘s biography of Stanley Kubrick. It may generate some discussion. Obviously, I don’t share his low opinion of Timothy’s acting skills. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on this one.

On Spartacus, Kubrick’s next film, stills cameraman William Read Woodfield asked him why he cast people like Timothy Carey, “who couldn’t act at all.”

Kubrick replied, “They bring a texture to the picture that a better actor wouldn’t.”

“Are you sure, Stanley?” Woodfield pressed. “Or is it that you don’t really like good actors?”

“That may be, ” Kubrick conceded.

What could Kubrick have against good actors? It’s Woodfield’s theory, borne out by Kubrick’s later work, that he prefers performances which remove the film from reality. Given capable actors like George C. Scott or Jack Nicholson, Kubrick forced them by repeated takes to abandon naturalism for mannerism and hysteria. A protean actor like Peter Sellers, who stuffed half a dozen characters into a single film, and an abysmal one like Carey, who always played himself, gave the same distancing effect.

Kubrick had a soft spot for Carey, a New York contemporary of his, though from Brooklyn, not the Bronx. The gangling Carey bluffed his way into the Marines at fifteen and, after demobilisation, joined the thousands of dissatisfied young men milling around New York in search of artistic fulfilment. He took advantage of the GI Bill to study drama, and agent Walter Kohner got him bit parts in Billy Wilder‘s The Big Carnival [aka Ace in the Hole] and Laslo Benedek‘s The Wild One. These led to a role for Carey as the brothel bouncer Joe in Elia Kazan‘s version of East of Eden opposite James Dean.

None of this experience refined Carey’s technique, which always hovered somewhere between Elvis Presley and Lon Chaney Jr. On Paths of Glory, he could never remember to tear into his last meal of roast duck the same way twice. “Every take required an untouched duck,” says Kubrick. “I think we used up sixty-eight or so ducks before we got it right.” Kirk Douglas despised such unprofessionalism, which may have been why Kubrick insisted on flying Carey to Germany for the film. During the court-martial scene, when Douglas was making his disgust at Carey’s bad acting obvious, Kubrick whispered, “Make this a good one, ’cause Kirk doesn’t like it.”

– from Stanley Kubrick: A Biography by John Baxter (Carroll and Graf, 1997)

Quote of the Week

This week’s quote is actually a newspaper article about Tim that deserves to be reproduced in its entirety. It’s one of Mel Heimer’s My New York columns, from the Simpson’s Leader-Times of January 18, 1958.


by Mel Heimer

I don’t want anyone out there to question my bravery ever again. I’ve just finished meeting Tim Carey and I’m still on my feet, still punching, still snarling all right, you guys, who’s next?

Timothy is this year’s Jayne Mansfield, male division. Ol’ Plain Jayne has slowed down a little now and no longer does anything short of murder to get her name in the publick printes. However, Timothy – “Hollywood’s wild man” – has taken up the slack.

He’s a big, black-haired Brooklynite of 24 [sic; he was actually pushing 29 at the time] who is, I am told, an actor. At least, he’s made pictures and currently is in Paths of Glory. Stanley Kubrick, its director, says of the wild man that he may be a clown offstage but he’s “an artistic giant” when you point the camera lens his way. Kubrick, of course, doesn’t have a detached viewpoint, so you’d better go see the picture and make up your own mind. I’ll go when I get my breath back.

“I’m in this other picture Bayou, see,” Timothy plunged in, smoothing out his Italian silk suit carefully, “and I do such a sensuous dance that it had to be censored. How about that? I got the inspiration for it from Lilli Christine, the burlesque ‘Cat Girl,’ who I saw dance in the 500 Club in New Orleans. It’s supposed to be an artistic dance. Hah, hah. It’s pure burlesque. Bayou‘s a good picture but you can’t understand most of the actors. Now Paths of Glory is a different kind of picture. It’s bold. You might say it’s brazen. Women get a spiritual cry out of it.”

Tim fingered his thick gold wristwatch.

“I’ve seen Paths of Glory 10 or 15 times. I think I’m very good in it. I was oh, kind of subdued in it. I liked the scene where I killed the cockroach.

“We were playing French soldiers and Ralph Meeker saw a cockroach on the table and said bitterly ‘Look at that cockroach; tomorrow we’ll be dead and he’ll be alive.’ So I slammed my hand on the cockroach and said ‘Now you got the edge on him.’

“I’m very good with snakes. I’ve got two, a 10-foot python named Zsa Zsa and an eight-foot boa constrictor called Emily. I hope they’re females. You can’t tell with snakes, you know.

“This friend of mine has a snake farm in Maryland and the first time he showed me some of his pets, I was enticed, you might say. I did a bit with a snake in the Oasis Club on Western Avenue, Los Angeles, and 30 people ran out of the joint. Snakes are all right. Once a snake is civilized, he’s no harm at all.

“I did a snake scene at a personal appearance in Hartford, Conn., and had trouble getting a girl to help. I mean, I didn’t want to get my mother for it. Got one, though. My snake-farm friend flew in from California to help out. He brought me a big python. Smuggled it on the plane by wrapping it around him.

“We registered the python at the Statler in Hartford as ‘Pete Cajun’ but it was disappointing; the hotel people didn’t bat an eye. Later I rode through the town with the python around my neck. I guess I might say I threw dignity to the winds.”

There was a lot more of this but maybe you should know some of Timothy’s background. He was expelled from five schools and joined the Marines at 15.

Billy Wilder, the director, who had had some unsettling experiences with Tim when the wild man was trying to break into films (Tim came into Billy’s bathroom at 4:30 a.m. when the director was getting ready for an early day’s work – and promptly asked him for a job, enraging Wilder so he slashed his chin), ran off the set when Tim turned up to act in East of Eden.

“I beat up James Dean in that picture,” Tim said thoughtfully. “It was a wonderful experience. In The Killing, I shot a racehorse. My mother wants me to be a priest.”

Tim’s the man who lasted a week with a Columbia, S.C., ballclub (he’s never played ball) by telling the manager he was a good pitcher but had a sore arm. There’s a studio in Hollywood that put up a sign reading “Let’s Make the Best Pictures Here But Let’s Make Them Without Timothy Carey.”

Tim is working on three projects: (1) to out-dance Elvis Presley in Macy’s window, (2) to kidnap Marilyn Monroe (“with her permission, of course”), and (3) to steal an Oscar.

“However, I’m pretty conservative now,” Tim concluded pensively. “I’m writing screenplays and I want to direct. Then I want to retire. Maybe I’ll go back to 79th Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to live. I’ve always been very proud of Bay Ridge.”

Tim's interview with Mel Heimer, 1958