Michael J. Pollard – Actor
Born May 30, 1939; died November 20, 2019
Michael J. Pollard, who has died aged 80, was an actor whose cherubic looks gave him a puckish air that added edge to his many outsider roles. This was defined in Bonnie and Clyde, director Arthur Penn’s iconic 1967 vehicle for Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, which saw Pollard nominated for an Oscar for his breakout role as dim-witted gas-station attendant, C.W. Moss. In the film that helped kick-start the American new wave in style, Pollard’s depiction of Moss gave him the air of someone slightly stoned, but with more rebellious manic tendencies that filtered through after he fell in with a bad crowd.
It was a character trait that fed into later parts, including Robert Redford’s sidekick in Sidney J. Furie’s 1970 biker buddy movie, Little Fauss and Big Halsy. It was there too in the title role of Dirty Little Billy, director Stan Dragoti’s gritty reworking of the story of wild west outlaw Billy the Kid’s early days. Posters for the film featured the headline, ‘Billy The Kid was a Punk.’
There had been hints of Pollard’s raison d’etre previously when he appeared in Miri, an episode of the original series of Star Trek as the malevolent leader of a planet occupied solely by children who contracted a fatal disease once they hit puberty. With his doll-like demeanour and already in his late twenties, Pollard resembled the precocious guru of a hippy cult of orphans gone wrong. He had been a Peter Pan-like boy in an episode of Lost in Space, and was there too as Pigmy in The Wild Angels, Roger Corman’s 1966 biker movie starring Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern that was famously sampled on Primal Scream’s indie-dance hit, Loaded.
Early TV roles included bit parts in westerns such as Gunsmoke, The Virginian and Branded. Pollard met Beatty in 1959 on the set of TV comedy, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Pollard was supposed to become a series regular as replacement for Bob Denver, who’d been drafted into the U.S. army, but was hastily dropped after Denver was classed unfit to serve and returned to the series. By that time, Pollard had played the lead role of Homer McCauley in a TV adaptation of William Saroyan’s novel, The Human Comedy, and for the next decade played a succession of socially awkward oddballs.
The effect of Bonnie and Clyde was huge. Pollard’s scene-stealing turn saw him win a BAFTA for Best Newcomer, and tapped into pop culture in unexpected ways. A model kit of the 1936 Ford car driven by Moss in the film was issued, but here given a groovy makeover as Michael J. Pollard’s Flower Power Ford, complete with orange paint job and hippy stickers. Pollard was also the subject of Michael J. Pollard for President, a pop single cut by DJ turned singer Jim Lowe, who had scored a hit with The Green Door a decade earlier.
Pollard also gifted English psych-rock band Traffic the title of The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, after writing the phrase in the notebook of band member Jim Capaldi when the pair were in Morocco planning the sort of movie indulgence the era was rife with. This may have been the one mentioned in a 1969 interview with film critic Roger Ebert he referred to as Goodbye, Jesse James, but was never made.
“Pollard and I would sit around writing lyrics all day, talking about Bob Dylan and the Band, thinking up ridiculous plots for the movie,” Capaldi remembered of the inspiration behind what became the title track of Traffic’s 1971 album. For Capaldi, the phrase summed Pollard up. “He had this tremendous rebel attitude,” Capaldi said. “He walked around in his cowboy boots, his leather jacket….It seemed to sum up all the people of that generation who were just rebels.”
Michael John Pollack Jr. was born in Passaic, New Jersey to his bar-tender father, Michael John, and his mother, Sonia (nee Dubanowich), who were both of Polish descent. He graduated from Montclair Academy, and decided he wanted to be an actor after seeing Marlon Brando in Elia Kazan’s 1954 film, On the Waterfront. He enrolled in the Actors Studio, studying under Lee Strasberg, and shared scenes with Marilyn Monroe acting out excerpts from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
In 1960 Pollard appeared as Hugo Peabody in the original Broadway production of teen musical, Bye Bye Birdie, starring Dick Van Dyke. In 1963, he starred alongside Hayley Mills in Disney family musical, Summer Magic. A rumour that Pollard was being lined up by Disney to become a flesh-and-blood successor to Mickey Mouse came to nothing.
Ebert was a fan of Pollard, and singled him out for praise in Carl Reiner’s autobiographical comedy, Enter Laughing. ‘There is something about Pollard that is absolutely original’ Ebert wrote, ‘and seems to strike audiences as irresistibly funny and deserving of affection.’
Following Bonnie and Clyde, Pollard appeared alongside Oliver Reed as the inept leader of an anti-Nazi guerrilla squad in Michael Winner’s film, Hannibal Brooks. Later roles included Jonathan Demme’s 1980 cult classic, Melvin and Howard, as a firefighter in Cyrano de Bergerac reboot, Roxanne (1987), and as a homeless man in Scrooged (1988). He also appeared in Tango and Cash (1989), the same year he played sprite-like super-villain Mr Mxyzptlk in a TV version of Superboy. Somewhere along the way, Michael J. Fox acquired his initial in homage to Pollard.
Pollard reunited with Beatty in 1990, playing Bug Bailey in Dick Tracy. Latterly, Pollard was seen in horror films such as Skeeter (1997) and House of 1,000 Corpses (2003). He was also seen in Beautiful Darling, a documentary about Andy Warhol superstar Candy Darling, with the likes of Lou Reed, John Waters and Julie Newmar appearing.
Pollard last appeared onscreen in Michael Mandell’s 2012 thriller, The Woods. He will also be seen posthumously in The Next Cassavetes, a comedy currently in post-production.
Pollard is survived by his daughter Holly from his marriage to Beth Howland, and a son, Axel Emmett, from his second marriage to Annie Tolstoy.
The Herald, November 27th 2019