Sunday, July 19, 2009

That Guy! Joe Don Baker

It's possible that Joe Don Baker's name is as well known as his face, which sort of goes against the grain of those featured in the "That Guy!" franchise. However, one reason the name is well-known is that, in the last several years, it's picked up some currency as a punch line. Any name that starts out "Joe Don" and keeps going for another couple of syllables is apt to strike some people as that of a thuggish redneck hick, and that's how Baker was caricatured by the wisecracking robots of Mystery Science Theater 3000 when they ran a couple of his tackier starring vehicles in the 1990s. Is it out of deference to the fine tastes and sensibilities of the robot critical community that Joe Don has yet to appear on Inside the Actors Studio? This is one thing that sets him apart from, say, Billy Joel and Ricky Gervais. Another is that Joe Don actually attended the Actors Studio.

There is always cause to be wary whenever a white male claims to have suffered from discrimination based on his physical appearance. Usually there is cause to be openly derisive. Still, back in the 1980s, Joe Don Baker told an interviewer that it was very hard for him to get Hollywood to see him as anything other than a violent cracker with a pea-sized brain, and he told the interviewer this in response to a question about why he had taken to spending so much of his time working in England. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. In the '60s, Baker appeared in movies and on TV, in Westerns (Guns of the Magnificent Seven, Wild Rovers) and working-guy parts (Adam at 6 A.M.). He got a boost from the 1971 TV film Mongo's Back in Town, which served notice that he could bring a compelling degree of sensitivity to a tough-guy part, and also served notice that he might have to spend a certain amount of his career playing guys with names like "Mongo." He got a bigger boost the next year, playing Steve McQueen's brother in Sam Peckinpah's Junior Bonner, although he would later assure interviewers that he and Peckinpah were not the best thing that had ever happpened in each other's lives.

The success of his next film, Walking Tall, made him a star of a specialized, B-movie sort, and led to him taking pre-emptive measures against all many of unsavory types in a string of films, including Phil Karlson's Framed and the notorious Mitchell. His fling as a leading man burned out with the TV film To Kill a Cop and the short-lived TV series spun off from it, Eischied. After that, he settled into the familiar That Guy! routine of long patches of honest labor with the occasional stretch of lying in clover. He played a fictionalized Jimmy Hoffa in the TV film Power (1980), threatened Chevy Chase in Fletch, jousted with James Bond in License to Kill, got throttled by De Niro while attempting to enjoy a midnight snack in Cape Fear, had a high old time playing Joseph McCarthy to James Woods's Roy Cohn in Citizen Kane, stood viciously accused of being Winona Ryder's father in Reality Bites, did the dirty work for the man in Panther, took seeing his son get killed by evil white gorillas really well in Congo, kissed and made up with James Bond in Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies, and showed, in Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!, that he could make fun of his trailer-park image as well as any robot. For TV, he played Governor "Kissin' Jim" Folsom in the biopic George Wallace and buckskinned superlawyer Gerry Spence in The Siege of Ruby Ridge.

Where to see Joe Don Baker at his best:


Like it or not, the role of Buford Pusser, scary Tennessee lawman extraordinaire, will always be the first thing that leaps to most people's minds when Baker's name comes up. There are reasons enough to like that fine: Baker gives a strong star performance that endows the club-swinging sheriff considerable dignity. Like Dirty Harry, Pusser has to be portrayed as self-righteous, but Baker also gives him a quality that would be unthinkable in an Eastwood character: a longing for a peaceful life, a desire to just settle down and raise his family and tend to his own back yard, which the villains, by the sheer spreading force of their wickedness, have made an untenable option. (The movie opens with Buford bringing his wife and kids back to their country home, presumably to escape the corruption of the cities. If someone doesn't step up, the small-town corruption may make the country culture just as dangerous and unlivable.) Walking Tall is a primitive, pro-head-cracking movie, but Baker gives it its human dimension: he's the hero partly because he suffers for his actions, never because he happens to be the one who looks coolest when blowing people's heads off.

Even in the wake of the film's success, there were signs that Baker might not be looking to retire from acting and get into the more profitable business of Charles Bronson imitations. One was that he followed up Walking Tall with the supporting role of the Mafis enforcer Molly in Don Siegel's The title character is played by Walter Matthau; he's a bank robber who has chosen his bank recklessly and wound up with several hundred thousand dollars that Molly's employers very much want back. Baker swaggers through the role with a vast grin on his face, as if he never quite got over the kick of seeing his character's name in the script. The film is one of those twist-upon-twist capers in which the omniscient hero is always at least a couple of steps ahead of everyone else, which could easily become tiresome. It benefits greatly from Baker's way of making it clear that, as far as he's concerned, Molly is very much the undefeatable star of the movie playing out in his head. His confidence almost makes you think that he might just turn out to hold the winning hand after all, whereas the glee with which he looks forward to indulging in his full capacity for sadism when he dispatches the hero makes you glad that he doesn't.


In the early '80s, Baker had dropped far enough off the radar screen that his cameo here as "the Whammer"--i.e., Babe Ruth--amounted to a juicy comeback. The movie is a travesty of Bernard Malamud's baseball novel, but Baker does full justice to his end of it: he tears into the role of parodying the Babe as if he were playing a contemporary figure who had seized control of the globe's supply of penicillin. He gives the Whammer a magnified version of Molly's gloating self-satisfaction in what a hot shit he thinks he is, and some of Molly's sadism, too: engaging the green kid Roy Hobbs in a contest, batter versus pitcher, in order to impress a mystery woman (Barbara Hershey), he sums Hobbs up, wrongly, as an innocent hick, and still licks his chops at the prospect of humiliating him. Yet you can't help rooting, or at least feeling for him a little. He lives up to the descriptions of Babe Ruth as the ultimate Jazz Age celebrity, a one-man parade through Times Square.


This six-hour British TV miniseries is the proudest accomplishment of Baker's time across the pond. It was directed by Martin Campbell, who later made Goldeneye, as well as the Daniel Craig Casino Royale and the Antonio Banderas Zorro pictures, and who is now readying a big-screen remake of Edge of Darkness with Mel Gibson and Ray Winstone. For the love of God, try and get your hands on the original so that when you see the remake, you can better appreciate all the ways in which they're certain to fuck it up. The TV series is a Thatcher-era paranoid thriller about the dangers of nuclear proliferation. The late Bob Peck plays a Yorkshire police detective who witnesses the murder of his daughter (Joanne Whalley), which he and his colleagues assume must have been a botched attempt on his own life; it turns out that she was active in anti-nuclear politics and involved in what the government considered to be terrorist activities.

Baker enters the picture playing Darius Jedburgh, a CIA agent stationed in the country who is aware of some sort of skulduggery that might be connected to the daughter's murder. Baker, who took a cut in his usual salary for the chance to be a part of this, took full advantage of the opportunities that acting in a miniseries can provide for fleshing out the odd little corners of a character's range of personality. The memory of his big climactic moments, bawling out the assembled guests at a NATO conference while disintegrating from radiation poisoning and brandishing a pair of plutonium bars, stays fresh in the mind, but so does the image of him sitting in front of the TV in his house in London, cradling a huge bowl of popcorn in his lap and watching the ballroom dancing competitions, marveling, "How do they move like that?"

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