An Apology To Bradford Dillman, And Introducing The Dillman Rule

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.

Thank you.




13 thoughts on “An Apology To Bradford Dillman, And Introducing The Dillman Rule

  1. I don’t know if it’s true, but in an episode of How I Met Your Mother, Billy Zabka talks about how everyone hated him in real life for the role he played in the Karate Kid. Said he was actually a nice guy, tried to be friends with everyone, and even wrote a book on poetry.

    I imagine that typecasting can be difficult for people.

    Poor Sean Bean has to die every time.

  2. Disclosure: I LUVED Dirty Harry flicks!

    Captain McKay was the recipient of a couple of the best rejoinders

    Dirty Harry (after handing McKay his badge): “Put it in a seven-point suppository!”

    Mckay: ”What did you say?!”

    Dirty Harry: ”I said stick it in your ass!”


    Cpt. Mckay: “Callahan, you’ve been transferred to Personnel.”

    Dirty Harry: ”Personnel? That’s for assholes.”

    Cpt. Mckay: ”I worked in Personnel for 10 years!”

    Dirty Harry: ”Yeah …”

  3. Fine post, thank you. I am a huge fan of the confessional; perhaps the best ethics lessons are those learned the hard way, rather than those pointed out to us by others.

    (And for the record I’d have walked out on JFK too, though I had heard enough to know that before going in, so I didn’t).

  4. The time is right to ask you this (now that we have a principle to talk about):

    How can you reconcile the Dillman Principle with the concept of Signature Significance?

    They seem incompatible.


    • The difference is the failure to consider attributes other than merely mediocre examples of a persons work, versus being presented with a damning example of unethical behavior and concluding no more need be considered.

      Mediocre work is not necessarily an example of incompetence; he accepted whatever work was offered, and it was luck whether it was something he could make memorable or not. His virtue was in plowing through to keep food on his family’s table.

      Signature significance, is an unforced act within someone control, that one takes anyways due to gross incompetence or malice.

  5. I’ve grown to admire actors who act. For money. Michael Caine comes to mind. One of my favorite Dennis Miller lines is: “Was looking at my wedding video last night. Damned if Michael Caine wasn’t in it.”

    What’s the aphorism about walking in another man’s shoes? Not a bad idea.

    Another one I heard from a friend. May be a Jewish line: “Always assume someone is doing the best they can.”

    • I’d never heard that final proverb put so succinctly, but I try to live by it. It’s a good way to make enemies- just assume that the wrong person is doing the best they can, and all the right people will hate you for it 🙂

  6. With regards to treating acting like a job and cranking out a lot of roles, fantasy author Larry Correia is extremely vocal on the point that he will always be considered a hack writer because he treats his writing like a career, putting in full workdays with a solid schedule of producing a salable product and getting paid. He likes what he does and writes what he likes but never forgets that he’s doing a job. Sounds like Dillman, and you (and your father) could get behind that.

  7. “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”

    This wording is repeated in two paragraphs.

    Either your writing meta is levels beyond my understanding or that’s an artifact of editing and rearranging the composition…

    • Yikes. I thought I had fixed that. Now I will. It reads like the scripts of some of Brad’s movies.
      Now that I check, I see what happened. I decided to move that part down later in the post where it fit better, and forgot to delete it above after doing so.

  8. “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.”


    I don’t know. How a person comports in the most visible and apparent part of their life is probably 99% accurate to who they are personally.

    I think the error here is that 99% of an actors most visible and apparent part of their life is already the untrue facade (but not dishonest…) of playing a role. I can get behind the Dillman Principle ONLY if it is refined further to include the caveat that it is incumbent upon the individual doing the judging to FULLY consider everything about a person’s profession before assessing their professional conduct.

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