I owe Bradford Dillman, the movie and TV actor who died on January 16, an apology. I hope I learn something from it.
If you had asked me during the Seventies and Eighties who I regarded as the epitome of a hack actor, it would have been Bradford Dillman. For most of the period he was a guest star on every TV drama imaginable, usually phoning in the same performance as a serious, tense, often nasty weasl or jerk. I came to believe that he was a serious, tense, often nasty weasel or jerk; otherwise, why would he only play such roles? Although Dillman’s career began well, with his portrayal of a fictional version thrill-killer Dickie Loeb in Compulsion, the film version of the Leopold-Loeb murder and trial. “Bradford Dillman emerges as an actor of imposing stature as the bossy, over-ebullient and immature mama’s boy, Artie,” A. H. Weiler wrote in a Times review. Dillman shared best actor honors with co-stars Dean Stockwell and Orson Welles at the Cannes Film Festival, and that was about the last honor he ever got. His career went downhill from there.
I never forgave him for appearing as John Wilkes Booth in 1977’s horrible “The Lincoln Conspiracy.” I am a Lincoln assassination buff, and looked forward to the movie, braving a blizzard to see it and dragging my bride to be along with me as one of our first dates. I was embarrassed. The film was so bad I walked out of it, one of only five movies to force me out of the theater since I was a kid (The others, for the record: the original “Dawn of the Dead,” “The Silent Scream,” “JFK,” and “The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz.”)
As usual, it wasn’t that Dillman was bad, it was just that he was predicable, and the material he was acting in was lousy. Oh, now and then , a major film like “The Way We Were,” a couple of the Dirty Harry films, or a decent TV show like “Columbo” had a Bradford Dillman character, so they got, reasonably enough, Bradford Dillman to play him, but by then the cognitive dissonance scale—
—was working against Dillman. Bradford was already lodged at the bottom. If he was in it, whatever it was was pulled down below zero in my mind. Bradford Dillman? Yechhh.
This was a bias. I stopped really watching Bradford Dillman, and only reacted to him based on old grudges and assumption formed so long ago that I couldn’t even recite them. It was prejudice. It was unfair. It breached the Golden Rule. I never gave him a chance, for decades.
I didn’t know how unfair my Bradford Dillman bias was, however, until I read his obituary. He wasn’t a jerk. He was a pretty interesting, versatile and accomplished professional.. Dillman, it seems, was an iconoclast who thought Hollywood actors were rude, pompous creeps and that the mumbling angst-ridden method actors dominating his field were ridiculous. The Times’wrote: “Dillman is an individualist and a breaker of rules. He dares to dress neatly. He dares to be a gentleman. He scorns white buckskins, clean or dirty. He doesn’t scratch. He doesn’t mumble. He doesn’t spout phrases like ‘gas it, man!’ He doesn’t hate himself. He isn’t lonely.”
Hey! I would have liked this guy! He wasn’t just a lifetime performer. Dillman earned a degree in literature from Yale. He was a Marine, and served in the Korean War.
The reason he was in so many mediocre projects, over 140 film and television credits, was that he looked at acting as a job. He seldom turned an offer down. Dillman was a dedicated father who had six children, and who believed that his duty was to put food on the table, not chase high art. Hey! My DAD would have liked this guy too!
In his later years, Dillman found the time to write books of both fiction and nonfiction. His books include “Inside the New York Giants” (1995) and “Dropkick: A Football Fantasy” (1998), as well as the novels “That Air Forever Dark” (2001) and “Kissing Kate” (2005). He also wrote a memoir, “Are You Anybody? An Actor’s Life” (1997).
I am so sorry, Mr. Dillman. I was horribly unfair to you, judging you cruelly based on completely inadequate criteria, leaping to unwarranted conclusions, stereotyping, indulging biases and prejudice without caring about the real, complex, fascinating human being you really were. What an asshole I was, where you were concerned. Now I’m wondering how frequently I have treated other people like I treated you from afar. I know I am professionally critical of others who use false criteria, biases and snap judgments to deride individuals they don’t really know. I know I am angry and frustrated when people do to me what I did to you.
Starting today, this is going to change. I’m going to start applying the Dillman Principle, which holds that every human being deserves to be assessed according to his or her whole life, not just the most visible or apparent part of it. I’m indebted to you for that.