Born: December 25, 1928

Died: January 30, 2019

Dick Miller, who has died aged 90, was an American actor who compensated for a lack of leading roles with an enduring capacity for character performance.

Over 60 years, he appeared in more than 100 films, and while a great number of those in his early career were down to the patronage of the prolific B-movie director Roger Corman, Miller went on to work with a roll call of greats like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis and regular collaborator Joe Dante. Many might refer to the kind of roles Miller took as ‘blink and you’ll miss them’, but with his ruggedly frayed and no-nonsense tone, he was an actor to remember. Whether that was in, for example, Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), in which he played the gun shop owner who provided the arsenal to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s futuristic killing machine (Schwarzenegger famously demanded an “Uzi nine millimetre” from him), or as snowplough driver Murray Futterman in Dante’s pop-horror Gremlins (1984) and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990).

For Scorsese, he was a nightclub owner in New York, New York (1977) and a waiter in After Hours (1985), and for Spielberg he was an officer in the war comedy 1941 (1979). His first collaboration with Dante was in the director’s half of Dante’s debut, the low-budget portmanteau Hollywood Boulevard (1976), and Miller took parts in 16 of Dante’s films altogether; among them Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), Innerspace (1987) and Small Soldiers (1998).

Other notable films include Zemeckis’ debut I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), the Ramones-starring comedy Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) and early Tom Cruise vehicle All the Right Moves (1983). Beginning with 1955’s Apache Woman, he appeared in more than 20 Corman-directed films, including cult classic The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). An in-joke among directors who worked with Miller was that he would often return in films as the same character, Walter Paisley, which was the role he took in Corman’s beatnik-era horror comedy A Bucket of Blood (1959).

Born Richard Miller in the Bronx, New York, on Christmas day 1928, Miller was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants Rita and Ira. His young life was as wide-ranging as his filmography, with a spell in the US Navy bringing him a boxing title, and spells at the City College of New York, Columbia and New York Universities earning him a PhD in Psychology, which he practised at Bellevue and Queens County Hospital.

Singing at a Catskill mountain resort aged eight, painting scenery for a theatre company as a teenager and working as both a disc jockey and a talk radio host, he was interested in writing films, until a meeting with Corman put him in front of the camera. In later non-acting roles he gained script credits – including the Jerry Lewis-starring Which Way to the Front? (1970) and blaxploitation film TNT Jackson (1974) – and directed an episode of Miami Vice. His legend was such that a 2014 documentary film, That Guy Dick Miller, was made about him.

Miller is survived by his wife Lainie, daughter Barbara and granddaughter Autumn. Never a household name, his face and his filmography gave him a working history which would have been the envy of many more bankable actors.

By David Pollock