Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Late, Great Michael Parks

Michael Parks, the star of cult TV show Then Came Bronson, died yesterday, May 9 2017, at the age of 77.  Mr. Parks appeared on TV shows from Perry Mason to Twin Peaks, and in movies from The Happening (1967) to Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003) and Kill Bill Volume 2 (2004).

Michael Parks was born on April 24 1940 in Corona in Riverside County, California. He worked a variety of jobs when he was very young, including fruit picking, ditch digging, and fighting forest fires. He eventually found his way into acting and made his television debut in an episode of Zane Grey Theatre in 1960. The Sixties saw Michael Parks guest star on several different TV shows, including such programmes as The Untouchables, The Asphalt Jungle, The Detectives, The Dick Powell Theatre, The Real McCoys, Gunsmoke, Perry Mason (on which he played opposite Bette Davis), 77 Sunset Strip, Ben Casey, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Wagon Train, Route 66, and The Young Lawyers. It was from 1969 to 1970 that he starred in the cult TV series Then Came Bronson. On the show he played former newspaperman Jim Bronson, who travels around the country on his motorcycle in an effort to find himself. Although the series is often assumed to have drawn upon the film Easy Rider (1969) for inspiration, in reality it was in development wel before the premiere of that film. In fact, the pilot aired before Easy Rider was even released. Then Came Bronson only lasted one season, although even during its original run it developed a cult following that it maintains to this day.

During the Sixties Michael Parks also appeared in several feature films. He made his film debut in the title role in Bus Riley's Back in Town in 1965. In the Sixties Mr. Parks appeared in the films Wild Seed (1965), The Idol (1966), The Bible: In the Beginning... (1966), and The Happening (1967).

In the Seventies Michael Parks guest starred on such shows as Owen Marshall, Counsellor at Law, Medical Centre, Ironside, Movin' On, McCloud, Get Christie Love!, Baretta, The Streets of San Francisco, Ellery Queen, Police Woman, and Fantasy Island. He appeared in the films Between Friends (1973), The Last Hard Men (1976), Sidewinder 1 (1977), Love and the Midnight Auto Supply (1977), The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), Breakthrough (1979), The Evictors (1979), and ffolkes (1980).

In the Eighties Michael Parks played Phillip Colby on the TV series The Colbys and gunrunner Jean Renault on Twin Peaks. He guest starred on such shows as The Equaliser; Murder, She Wrote; and War of the Worlds. He appeared in the films Hard Country (1981), Savannah Smiles (1982), The Return of Josey Wales (1986), Club Life (1986), French Quarter Undercover (1986), Spiker (1986), Arizona Heat (1988), Prime Suspect (1989), Nightmare Beach (1989), and Caged Fury (1990).

In the Nineties Mr. Parks appeared in the films The Hitman (1991), Over the Line (1992), Storyville (1992), Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994), Sorceress (1995), Niagara, Niagara (1997), Deceiver (1997), Julian Po (1997), Wicked (1998), and Bullfighter (2000). He played Texas Ranger Earl McGraw for the first time in the movie From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). He guest starred on the shows Shades of L.A.; SeaQuest 2032; and Walker, Texas Ranger.

In the Naughts Michael Parks reprised his role as Earl McGraw in the films Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003), Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004), and both segments of Grindhouse (2007), Planet Terror and Death Proof. He appeared in such films as Big Bad Love (2001), The Librarians (2003), Miracle at Sage Creek (2005), One Night with You (2006), Fighting Words (2007), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Noble Things (2008), Satisfaction (2009), and Street Poet (2010).

In the Naughts Michael Parks appeared in such films as Red State (2011), Argo (2012), Django Unchained (2012), We Are What We Are (2013), Tusk (2014), Blood Father (2016), and Greater (2016).

Although he never achieved major stardom, Michael Parks was one of the great acting talents of the late 20th Century.  Early in his career he was often cast in roles associated with the counterculture. In the Perry Mason episode "The Case of Constant Doyle" he played troubled young man Cal Leonard and more than held his own with Constant Doyle as played by Bette Davis. In the movie Bus Riley's Back in Town he played a young man trying to adjust to life after several years in the Navy. In The Happening Mr. Parks played Sureshot, one of a group of hippies who "kidnap" gangster Roc Delmonico. Of course, what may be Michael Parks's most famous role was linked to the counterculture, that of wanderer Jim Bronson in Then Came Bronson.

While Michael Parks played a number of countercultural roles in the Sixties, the Seventies saw him beginning to play authority figures. He played a doctor in an episode of Medical Centre, Sheriff Noel Nye in The Last Hard Men, and Sgt. Anderson in Breakthrough (1979).  Michael Parks was capable of playing a wide variety of roles. The character of Texas Ranger Earl McGraw he played in multiple films was largely comedy relief. He not only played Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in Kill Bill Volume 1, but in Kill Bill Volume 2 he played retired pimp Esteban Vihaio as well.  It seems likely many viewers did not realise that both roles were played by the same man. Michael Parks even played villains quite well. Jean Renault on Twin Peaks was among the most ruthless of characters on a show that did not lack for villainous types. Michael Parks might never have become a leading man, but he will always be remembered as an excellent character actor who played a diverse number of roles throughout his career.

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