An unfortunate event has forced me to move on an idea I’ve been mulling over as a companion to this column. In addition to films that I want everyone to know about, there are actors I think everyone should know as well. I hope to post every few weeks about an unsung hero of the acting world. I want to sing the praises of men and women who have made my movie going special over the years. I could amuse you with my man crush on Gene Hackman, or get you to see how sexy Susan Sarandon is. Maybe I can convince you to go back and revisit Claude Raines or Jean Arthur. All of them will be well known however and while I want to share my enthusiasm, I want to spark a little fire for those who never really get the spotlight. It is with sadness that I launch this series with a few words about the late Ed Lauter.
For fifty years he has been one of “those” guys. You know, the guy you saw in that movie that time. He played the cop, killer, businessman, father, soldier. He was one of those guys that seemed like he was in everything because he worked a lot and he was good in what he worked on. While he was never cast in a role that would make him a star, he was often cast in a role that made the stars look better.
Ed Lauter’s best known role was probably Captain Knauer, the head of the guards at the prison where Burt Reynolds is being manipulated into playing a little football. In “The Longest Yard” he is the right hand to the evil warden played by Eddie Albert but more importantly he is the quarterback for the guards football team that takes on “The Mean Machine”. His steely blue-grey eyes hold no mercy for disgraced quarterback Paul Crewe, played by Burt Reynolds. He and the the other guards conspire to force Reynolds into a game and then to crush the inmates in a mismatch designed to show that the warden has the real power in the prison. It is his cruel treatment of the duplicitous Unger, that causes that snake to strike out at Crewe and accidentally kill Caretaker instead. Even though we learn to hate the character, he does show a spine at the end of the film when he refuses to gun down Crewe when ordered to. He is a better judge of his opponent than the warden and not nearly as bad a sport. The Captain also knows the score at the prison as evidenced by this exchange:
Captain Knauer: Dammit, Warden, I think this game’s a big mistake.
Warden Hazen: Captain, not only will you have the chance to hone our team to a fine edge, you’ll also have the opportunity to learn a great deal about life. Why is it, do you suppose, that I can walk through this yard, surrounded by hate, and in total command?
Captain Knauer: Because you’ve got 15 gun turrets all around you that say you can.
Lauter often played devious types and one of the greasiest was Joseph Maloney in Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, “Family Plot”. As an old accomplice of the main villain, Maloney is a secondary character but he has a couple of good scenes. He literally steals a scene away from William Devane by grabbing a handful of cigarettes and stuffing them in his pocket while Devane’s character has his back turned.
It was a move he had suggested to Hitchcock and they shot it without Devane being aware. The first time he knew of it was at the premier screening. The master director apparently took a shine to Lauter and planned on having him in his next picture, alas it was never to be.
One more film from the 1970s before we move to the next decade. Lauter was cast as the cuckold husband of Ann Margaret in the 1978 suspense film “Magic”. He is the thoughtless former high school star athlete, who married the prettiest girl and then proceeded to go to seed. When he comes back unexpectedly and interrupts the growing romance between Margaret and star Anthony Hopkins, we are all waiting for his violent nature to come out. When, while sitting in a boat supposedly fishing, he has a tearful conversation with Hopkin’s off balance magician/ventriloquist, we manage feel sorry for him.
In the 1980s, he costarred in multiple television shows and action films. He shared screen time with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charles Bronson. One very clear change of pace role he played was with a completely different kind of co-star. He played the father of Sarah Jessica Parker as a Catholic high school girl looking for trouble by dancing. “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” is a piece of bubble gum neon schmaltz from 1985. It rips off “Flashdance” and two years before it came out, “Dirty Dancing”. Yep, the dance films are so derivative that they have the same story and lots of the same dance moves. Lauter has the Jerry Orbach role, disapproving dad who tries to run his daughters life like she is in the military with him.
He has some nice scenes with Jessica Parker, especially this little comic exchange when he catches her coming in late after the secret dance practice with her crush. He is actually very tender hearted in the movie despite playing a stereotypical “Dad” role. Of course at the end of the film he is won over by his daughters talent and lets her know that he loves her by showing up at the TV studio where the big dance competition is happening. It is not a big part but it is out of his usual line and although the movie is a girls romantic dream feature he adds just a touch of reality and grit to the movie.
In the 90s, Lauter is featured in a film that we have already covered. Joe Johnson’s terrific nostalgia adventure film, “The Rocketeer“. He plays G-Man Fitch, the smarter of the two FBI agents who are trying to track down the stolen jet pack. Cliff Secord actually punches him at one point and there is a little bit of revenge motive added to his character’s desire to catch the hero. Here he shares the screen with Terry O’Quinn and Alan Arkin, two future subjects of this sideline column I’m sure. Ed Lauter worked well in most films because he has an interesting face that could belong to “every man”. He was an average guy playing against some of the biggest stars in the world and he brings them into reality. His voice and facial expressions often reflected the cynicism that most of us experience on a daily basis. He has over two hundred credits listed on IMDB, and I look forward to seeing as many more as I can. It is just sad that I won’t be able to smile with glee at seeing his face in some future cinematic experience. There is a small hole in my movie loving heart this week.
Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.