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A Real-Life Pixie: A Tribute to Michael J. Pollard in Four Roles

  Michael J. Pollard (1939-2019) was a character actor who could only have been a star in the nineteen-sixties, and that stardom translated into the equally sympathetic seventies. The diminutive performer had such a distinctive look and demeanour that he was embraced by the era that gave birth to the hippy, and he was always happy to identify himself as such, believing strongly in the peace and love ethos even when he was cast as characters who were not as allied to behaving themselves. A native of New Jersey, he studied at the Actor's Studio (Marilyn Monroe was a fellow student) and in the late fifties began to break through.

He will always be best known as C.W. Moss, his signature role as the getaway driver from Bonnie and Clyde, the cultural bombshell that shook up filmmaking across the globe, not only Hollywood, even to this day, but had been making progress on television, often cast younger than his years thanks to his impish, babyfaced looks and onscreen temperament. Two roles in science fiction series would make him indelible in the memories of those who saw them: In 1965, Irwin Allen's Lost in Space cast Pollard as the Peter Pan-esque denizen of a world inside a mirror; no explanation is offered for how his unnamed character ended up there.

When Penny (Angela Cartwright) and the comical villain Doctor Smith (Jonathan Harris) find the magic mirror, Smith wants it for its monetary value, but Penny and sister Judy (Marta Kristen) get into an argument about Penny having to act more like a girl now she is growing up, which angers her. For a series that was regarded as total camp, there was a more serious tone here which succeeded surprisingly well, and once trapped in the mirror with the Boy, this episode was genuinely scary for its younger fans, as rather than an Alice Through the Looking Glass, this was more a nightmare realm that unnervingly, Pollard is weirdly accepting of.

The story capitalised on how off kilter Pollard could be, at once friendly and unpredictable: he likes Penny enough to want her to stay with him as a companion (he alludes to what must be crushing loneliness) yet is otherworldly enough to make us realise that would be a bad idea. It was one of the most perfect bits of casting in sixties sci-fi, but there was more to come, as the following year Pollard was cast as another adolescent in the first, 1966 season of Star Trek. Now, he wasn't the top-billed guest star, that accolade went to Kim Darby, soon to be best known for True Grit, but it was he who made the strongest impression as the leader of a gang of kids.

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his team beam down to the surface of an Earth-duplicate planet to discover the adults have died, and when the kids hit mid-puberty they develop an accelerated ageing and madness disease. Now the representatives of the Starship Enterprise are infected and must first find an antidote, then persuade the children to accept civilisation again. Because he is Kirk, Darby's title character Miri falls for him, but Pollard is having none of this, and rallies his troops to "bonk, bonk on the head". The actor's ambiguity was again well used, making for one of this season's best villains despite appearing in only half the episode.

Then, in 1967, Bonnie and Clyde made Pollard familiar to his contemporaries, leading to an odd detour when he ran for President in 1968. It was a spoof campaign, but did spawn a single, recorded by Jim Lowe, a fifties artiste who had a big hit with The Green Door back then. "Hey man, President of what?!" asks the song at the end, but terrible timing prevented it from being a hit, for it sampled Robert F. Kennedy in the lyrics, just before he was assassinated. Nobody found it funny anymore, and Pollard's persona was channelled elsewhere. As for the ditty itself, it was what was commonly called back then "a goof" and is now a relic of another age.

Come the seventies, Pollard began to secure the occasional lead, most obviously alongside Robert Redford in disillusioned biker drama Little Fauss and Big Halsey, and as Billy the Kid in Dirty Little Billy, but more often support or at least co-starring parts were what he was offered. In 1975, like many Americans before him, he went to Italy to appear in Lucio Fulci's violent Western The Four of the Apocalypse with actual leads Fabio Testi and Lynne Frederick. The four were a group of prisoners released after a massacre kills everyone in town, and they make their way to safety across rough terrain - or that's the idea.

Pollard's Clem did not make it to the final act, but before that he showed off his risk-taking willingness as his character was an alcoholic willing to debase himself for his next drink. Hidden under a bushy beard, he meets up with Tomas Milian (always a bad sign) who proceeds to get the quartet high on peyote (this was an acid Western, after a fashion) and then roundly abuse them when they are insensible; he even spits whiskey into Clem's greedy mouth. After getting shot (spoilers!) he takes a long time to die, by which time the foursome is starving, so the craziest of them feeds the remaining three Clem's left buttock without them knowing (!).

That summed up the madness Pollard would bring to even his smallest appearances, and they did get smaller the longer his career went on. Nevertheless, he was handy to have around as producers cast him for a few scenes to energise a project that needed something quirky to sustain the audience's attention, should it be flagging. A case in point was 1992's Split Second, which was a 2000 A.D. comic book-style science fiction/horror/action hybrid with a very irreverent sense of humour. When the production hit difficulties, it was clear someone was necessary to energise the closing sequences and give that extra je ne sais quoi.

Hence why Pollard was parachuted in at the last minute for a touch of personality, playing off star Rutger Hauer in a too-short series of bits (too-short if you were a fan of either) as the "Rat Catcher", a quintessential later career appearance for the actor. In the run up to this, we had seen a not entirely serious plotline with a Satanic serial killer terrorising a flooded, future London (in 2008!) with more cliched lines than you could shake a big flipping gun at, but that was part of the fun, and when Pollard showed up in his extended cameo, he did what he did in anything from big hits like Roxanne, Scrooged and Dick Tracy to cult faves like Tango and Cash or Arizona Dream, he delivered the eccentricity that you knew was all the more compelling because he was not putting it on, he was really like that. And that's why so many cult movie fans treasured him.
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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