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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

Lest we forget: Michael Jeter: August 26, 1952 – March 30, 2003  American Character Actor

Still hacking up bits of his lung (the Doctor Says until mid-July, "And I don't take your insurance."), George reminisces about a character actor to remember. 

For every star in the sky of the Hollywood heavens, there are supporting actors who allow the stars to stand on their shoulders to do their star thing. I often write about actors from the distant past that you may have missed. This week I would like to point out a more recent actor of note.

Still from the past but not too far. (To my kid, I state: "Yes, in a color film where people talk!)

Few actors can outdo Robin Williams in a comic role. In The Bird Cage, sure, he is upstaged by the brilliant Nathan Lane. Of course, that was the role Mike Nichols gave him. And Nathan embraced it wholeheartedly, camping it up to eleven and chewing on every piece of furniture. "I pierced the toast!" The roles would have worked reversed, and it may not have been quite as funny, and I suspect Robin would not have liked to have his ape-like body completely waxed for the role, but it would have worked.

However, in Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King, Robin Williams is blindsided, outperformed, and upstaged by a diminutive actor of exquisite silliness, Tennessee native Michael Jeter.

Perhaps best known as tortured, hard-boiled, mouse-owning murderer on his way to the electric chair in The Green Mile, or as Smokey in The Polar Express, or maybe you youngsters remember him as Mr. Noodle's brother, Mister Noodle on Sesame Street. Where he barely contains his silliness to try not to out-shine Elmo. He was a fine actor. Winner of the Tony Award, For the 1980s revival of Grand Hotel. He won an Emmy for playing a math teacher and High School football coach on Evening Shade. He also received an Outer Critics Circle Award and Drama Desk Award.

He was an actor of extraordinary range, but despite his talent and inner electricity, he was slight, balding, and spectacled. He often performed nerdy, eccentric, or downright strange roles. "Hey! There are no small parts, only small actors." Sometimes the actor is actually small, and the parts follow suit.  

Here is a short list of some films where you might have seen him plying his trade: Zelig, Miller's Crossing, Waterworld, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Drop Zone, Jurassic Park III, Air Bud, and Open Range. And he appeared in so many more. 

He is best remembered today for his role as Eduard Delacroix in The Green Mile, for which he and the cast got nominated for best ensemble by the Screen Actors Guild. As the prisoner Eduard, Jeter seems gentle but a little dangerous. Unfortunately, he gets picked on by a particularly sadistic corrections officer (is there any other kind?) who allows Eduard to suffer a truly horrible death in the electric chair. The rest of the prisoners get victimized by the equally less-than-large Sam Rockwell, who is really scary. Like the character Wolverine is in the comics, a terrifying little guy who is the best at what he does, bub. (And for a guy with character actor written all over him, Sam Rockwell has turned himself into a star. Proof it can happen.) 

Even in those disparate roles, once Michael Jeter is pointed out, a passive viewer can see what he, as an actor, is doing and get a sense of what he is holding back. When he appears in The Fisher King, he is allowed to let loose his inner self. And boy, does he! He doesn't even have a name in the credits, just Homeless Cabaret Singer. Yes, he gets saved by the Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges characters from suicide on the Central Park bridal path. He wants to die under the hoofs of rich people's horses.

From that first appearance onward, he steals every scene with abandon.

In Michael Koresky's introduction to the Criterion Collection's edition of The Fisher King, he opines that even though Jeter portrays "an unnamed homeless cabaret singer," he "shimmies across the screen with boundless confidence, turning what might have been a grotesque, or at least merely humorous, part into something noble, even indomitable... In a film that is unafraid of big acting, Michael Jeter goes bigger than anyone."

The only note: The Shot Heard 'Round the World" in Baseball was New York Giants Bobby Thomson's game-winning home run from Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca to secure the National League pennant in 1951 at the Polo Grounds. The game had millions of viewers across America and even more on the radio, including thousands of American soldiers in Korea listening on Armed Forces Radio. It was called "The Miracle of Coogan's Bluff" by the legendary sports columnist Red Smith. If you are a fan of Clint Eastwood, you may have seen his film Coogan's Bluff. (A pilot for television's long-running McCloud, if ever there was one.) That's where the Polo Grounds were, and that Tower was condemned when Clint shot there, and it is still condemned today. (Old-world construction!) It's across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium and just a short walk from my apartment in New York City. 

I feel that The Fisher King should have been Michael Jeter's "Shot Heard Around the World!" Could he be too much? I don't see it. He breathes truth into what lesser actors would have made a throwaway role. It should have allowed him better parts. It should have made him famous. Oh, he never stopped working. The highest accolade for a character actor is bookings. Michael Jeter probably never had a whole week where he wasn't employed. I want more people to appreciate him, to remember him. 

His work can be seen and heard in various movies, television, and animation. He was never a star, not even in edgy 1980s independent films. Michael Jeter would have kicked the ass out of playing a nun who falls in love with another nun of the Order of Saint Beryl or the Leaping Beryllians, who glorify their founder by jumping on trampolines and vowing silence and chastity. (Thank you, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore*) Sadly, that was not to be. In 2003 Michael Jeter died from an epileptic seizure. He was HIV positive but was spared much of the suffering caused by that terrible virus.  

He left us a curious body of work and never gave a role less than his all, which is more than most and all we can ask for. 

I Lied Note #2  Why all this baseball nonsense? It's not like me. But I live in New York City. Perhaps the greatest city in the world. I like it. However, it is home to the New York Yankees Baseball team, whose stadium is a half-hour walk from my apartment. (I have to cross a bridge.) The Yankees are perhaps the greatest single team ever to play the sport once called America's Pastime. Drafted straight out of High School, Derek Jeter played his entire 20-year career for the Yankees. I'm not really a baseball guy, but from what I picked up on the block. (Which is primarily Dominican, and they love their Beisbol.) He finished his career ranked the sixth-best player in MLB history and first among shortstops. In 2017, the Yankees retired his uniform number 2.

Side by side, you would never confuse the two of them. But I am writing on a janky new writing program. I have to specify because the program is a baseball fan and keeps changing Michael's name! 

I lied again. Note #3This just in: After a decades-long effort by the last five administrations (almost 50 years of politics), a few months ago, it was announced that the Tower is no longer condemned and is now a tourist attraction. You can go in it and climb to the top and look out the windows. There are a lot of stairs. I know where I'll be coughing this weekend.

*In the upcoming It Came From Hollywood Journal #5, I will discuss the fabulous 1967 film, Bedazzled and my Mrs. Robinson moment! 

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