Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Eulogy to a Scary Guy: Nicholas Worth

Character actor Nicholas Worth passed away back in May of this year, but there's nothing like Horrorpalooza to provide a nice excuse to tip a glass to the man's overlooked contributions to the genre.

Worth paid his dues for a good thirty years in showbiz, lending his stocky, imposing frame and cut-square-through-you gaze to villain roles of varying size and significance. For me, his presence was always welcome, whether he was menacing Starsky and Hutch, getting roughed up by John Saxon in The Glove, running nasty errands for Larry Drake in Darkman, or aiding and abetting the dapper Louis Jourdan's elegant villainy in a sublimely moronic turn in Wes Craven's fun Swamp Thing. Ironically, though, Worth's finest onscreen hour--and one of his few genuine leads--comes in one of his most hard-to-watch movies, making for an awkward but sincere recommendation from this neck of the woods.

In 1980's Don't Answer the Phone, he plays Kirk Smith, a violent Vietnam vet who's taken to strangling and mutilating young women. The movie's a lousy and pretty unconscionable little trash flick that compensates for its relative lack of gore by pushing the female suffering and misogyny meters to eleven: If it weren't so incompetently shot and goofily-acted by most of the cast it'd be outright unbearable. But the veteran heavy stands out like a twelve-carat diamond in a pail of shark chum.

Worth utterly immerses himself in this sweaty, fatigue-jacketed maniac, and Phone director Robert Hammer's one sustained flash of wisdom is the lengthy amount of time he devotes to Kirk Smith's day-to-day existance. Smith prowls Hollywood's mean streets with the quiet and disdainful resolve of a big carnivorous fish in a very small, seedy pond. When he's not killing, he spends his waking hours calling a local female radio psychiatrist and pestering her for a cure to his ever-present headaches (in an exaggerated Puerto Rican accent, no less), peddling photos of some of his wares to smut merchants, or lifting weights. In this mutant cross between Travis Bickle, Maniac-era Joe Spinell, and Frank Black of the Pixies, Worth pulls out one of the most completely fearless and bone-chillingly creepy portrayals of psychosis I've ever seen captured on film.

I had the very good fortune of being able to tell Worth this personally--albeit in less high-falutin' jargon than above--when Rita and I met him at a Star Trek convention five years ago. He was just another working-stiff character actor at the con (having logged in guest shots on both Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Star Trek: Voyager) and greeted my rather, um, unorthodox greeting ("Mr. Worth, I hope you don't take this wrong, but you scare the sh*t out of me") with a hearty laugh and copious thanks for affirming a job well done. He was a stitch to talk to, incredibly gentle and good-natured, and was obviously thrilled to meet someone whose interest in his career didn't begin and end with, "Space, the final frontier..."

Nice as he was, though, I was still scared a little sh*tless in his presence: He'd just done his past onscreen work too well for me not to be. All things equal, I'm sure he wouldn't have had it any other way.

No comments: