In Memoriam: Michael J. Pollard, Golden Globe Nominee, 1939-2019

by Yoram Kahana January 22, 2020
Actor Michael J.Pollard, Golden Globe Nominee

cbs/getty images

Michael J. Pollard’s acting career spanned more than 200 films and TV shows over six decades, but it was his part in Bonnie and Clyde that secured Pollard his place in movie history.

Arthur Penn's cult gangster film hit the late 1960s zeitgeist perhaps like no other movie of the period. Influenced by the French New Wave, it was one of the first movies of the New Hollywood era, breaking many cinematic taboos concerning sex and violence. It was welcomed by the counterculture and mainstream audiences alike. The Academy nominated it in ten categories and gave it two Oscars. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association bestowed on it seven nominations. In addition to Pollard's Best Supporting Actor and Most Promising Newcomer (a category discontinued in 1983), the HFPA nominated director Penn, leads Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the screenplay and the movie itself as Best Motion Picture-Drama. None won a Globe, Pollard losing to another newcomer- Dustin Hoffman for his role in The Graduate.

Pollard played an automobile mechanic, CW Moss, who joins the outlaw pair as their driver, and stays with them to the end. Pudgy, with a sheepish grin and an aw-shucks demeanor, he captured audiences' hearts in that breakout film and stayed a favorite in many other roles throughout his acting career.

As outlaws on the run Bonnie and Clyde stop at his gas station, Pollard's character reacts with befuddlement, disbelief and an array of quirky gestures when he realizes that his customers are the famous and wanted criminals.

He told film critic Roger Ebert: “That was the first scene we shot in the whole film...and we did it in one take. Then Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty spent the rest of their time making me play against that scene. I guess they didn’t want me to be too funny.”

A scene from "Bonnie and Clyde", 1967

Pollard (extreme right) with Faye Dunaway, Warren Beaty, Estelle Parsons and Gene Hackman in a scene from Bonnie and Clyde, 1967.

warner bros./shooting star

 

It was the contrast between the loss of innocence and the goofy behavior that made Pollard's acting appealing and useful. "(Directors) would say ‘Just do your thing, Michael, whatever it is,’” Pollard said later, “The same thing I’ve been doing for 10 years, man.”

Michael John Pollack Jr. was born on May 30, 1939, and raised in Passaic, New Jersey. Graduating high school there he decided he wanted to be an actor after seeing Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.(1954). He enrolled at the Actors Studio, in New York, where Lee Strasberg was an instructor and Marilyn Monroe was a classmate and a sometimes acting partner.

The young novice actor worked steadily in television, on stage, and in musicals, showing both his dramatic and comedic chops. He impressed Warren Beatty when they worked together in 1959 in the stage play “A Loss of Roses” and in the first season of the sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Years later Beatty would cast Pollard in Bonnie and Clyde, and Pollard never looked back.

He acted steadily for decades, but never as a lead, always as a loveable sidekick. He helped Oliver Reed transport an elephant over the Alps in Hannibal Brooks (1969), In Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970), a motorcycle racing movie that became a cult favorite, Pollard was the nebbish Little Fauss to Robert Redford’s womanizing Big Halsy.

He supported Steve Martin as a dim-witted fireman in Roxanne (1987) and Bill Murray in Scrooged (1988), playing a homeless man.  In Jonathan Demme's delightful Melvin and Howard (1980), Pollard played a friend of the main character, Melvin Dummar,(Paul Le Mat)  a gas station owner who claimed to be Howard Hughes’s heir. When Beatty directed and starred in the comic-strip adaptation Dick Tracy (1990), he cast Pollard as the surveillance expert Bug Bailey, another goofy, odd-looking character. Pollard played the lead only once, in Dirty Little Billy (1972), as Billy the Kid in the offbeat Western retelling of the early years of the legendary outlaw, in a grimy, downbeat style that allowed him to demonstrate his mastery of the acting craft.

Pollard was last seen in the thriller The Woods (2012). His last two movies have not been released yet.

According to writer-director Nora Ephron, it was Pollard’s looks that grabbed viewers'  attention, with his “Potato face,(looking) a little like a cherub blowing friendly winds on old-fashioned maps. A little hilarious.” Pollard himself said about his face that “when it was young it bothered me,...but then I became an actor and everyone started saying, ‘What a face. Wow.’ I believed all my publicity.”

Film critic Roger Ebert, a life long admirer of Pollard, once wrote about the actor's popularity: "There is something about Pollard that is absolutely original,...and seems to strike audiences as irresistibly funny and deserving of affection.” 

Rest in peace Michael Pollard, beloved original actor.