The maxim that there are no small parts, only small actors gets inverted wonderfully in Caelum Vatnsdal’s You Don’t Know Me, But You Love Me. This voluminous appreciation of the American character actor Dick Miller understands how its subject could turn a career full of walk-on roles into what is, for his modest but devoted cult of fans, a larger-than-life persona. “[He’s] not a household name; he’s a household face,” writes Vatnsdal in his preface, which outlines both how the book came to be – with the author journeying to Burbank to interview his octogenarian idol – as well as its mandate to fill out the backstory of an actor who didn’t always need dialogue or motivation to create indelible characterizations. He has the kind of face that only the camera can love.
Vatnsdal’s book isn’t salacious – it’s less Hollywood Babylon than a barnstorming tour of moviemaking’s minor leagues – but it’s not sanitized, either. The chapters about Miller’s adolescence in the Bronx are diverting and detailed, but it’s when the wannabe actor meets the future B-movie impresario Roger Corman that You Don’t Know Me, But You Love Me picks up steam as an affectionate and entertaining industry picaresque.
The collaboration between actor and director on the thrift-shop western Apache Woman – with Miller, a “Jew who looked vaguely Italian,” cast on the spot to play an Indigenous tribesman – becomes the precipitating scene in a long-running partnership that would see Corman’s exuberantly cheapjack mentality yielding all kinds of eccentric parts for his favourite performer. Miller was hardly the most successful of the actors who apprenticed in Corman’s company – by the end of the 1960s, he would be eclipsed by his co-star in The Terror, Jack Nicholson, whose impending ascent despite unconventional attributes suggests a path not taken for Miller.
What ultimately makes Miller an exception to that old line about there being no second acts in American lives is the affection he cultivated among Corman’s behind-the-camera protégés, including Jonathan Demme, James Cameron, and Joe Dante (and those are just the “Js”), who kept casting him throughout the 1970s and ’80s. Dante, a raconteur in the sweetest sense of the word, comes off as the book’s most vivid voice and Miller’s most devoted patron, gifting him with the plum role of Mr. Futterman in Gremlins. There is, perhaps, some sardonic symbolism in the section explaining why Quentin Tarantino cut Miller out of Pulp Fiction: Tarantino is a more heartlessly postmodern descendant of Corman and Dante and will doubtlessly one day be judged for the decision.
You Don’t Know Me, But You Love Me gets a bit redundant in the home stretch, reiterating evident points about Miller’s career and the accessible, working-class nature of his charisma. But even this repetitiveness can be forgiven in light of the project’s overall celebratory context. It’s lovely to read a book where the big names are reduced to cameos while the below-the-title player finally gets his close-up.