“Remember: there are no small parts. Only small actors.”
Konstantin Stanislavski was referring to the thespian ego of an artist considering the diminutive size of a role beneath them—that they should consider being given any part in the business as growth and a positive rather than something to be derided. Considering the career of an actor such as Michael J. Pollard, there are the rare folks in the arena of make believe, who toss aside the size factor, and focus their challenge on the type of character the role is and the complexities brought with it. These are the actor’s actors. They live for the difficulty of the project as much as for the money. Pollard was the epitome of this type of talent. The actor, who passed away on November 20, 2019, in Los Angeles at the age of 80, left exactly this legacy of roles, often varied in the extreme as to both length and personality.
Pollard was born Michael John Pollack Jr in Passaic, New Jersey, on May 30, 1939. If I hadn’t known where Passaic is on the map by already being aware of its existence as the birthplace of another favorite actor of mine, the delightful Millie Perkins of 1959’s Diary of Anne Frank fame, I’d have been relegated to research that tells of it being the fifteenth largest municipality in New Jersey. That’ll be significant to how he began his career with what appears to be a nose to the grindstone mentality—a needed drive, as his blue-collar upbringing would not offer the proverbial silver spoon. His dad, Michael Senior, made ends meet by working some sixty hours a week at O’Rourke’s Tap Room in Passaic. Still, Michael was able to attend the famed Montclair Academy and the even more iconic Actor’s Studio.
Equally adept in treading the boards as well as performing in front of a camera, Pollard veered between television and the stage in the early portion of his career. Even in the beginning, he showed a penchant for keeping the eclectic variety going. He appeared twice on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series (“Appointment at Eleven” and “Anniversary Gift”), a celebrated starring turn as Homer McCauley in a television adaptation of William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy in 1959, and delivered a truly bright work as Hugo Peabody in the 1960 Broadway run of Bye, Bye Birdie.
Though he was working quite a bit in New York during the early part of the 60s, as the decade began to descend, he and his wife at the time (Beth Howland, an actress who later came to prominence as the klutzy waitress Vera on the 70s classic sitcom Alice) spent their time living in Los Angeles. Pollard, in an interview with the renowned film critic Roger Ebert published October 19, 1969, in The Chicago Sun-Times, explains the palpable difference felt between life on east versus west coast.
“Hey, man, my wife and I were up until 7 this morning, rapping about things. It’s nice to still be able to talk to your wife after four years. Maybe it comes from living in Los Angeles. Andy Warhol’s dream city. New York builds hostility. If we had lived in New York, we might not have lasted three years. Well, we’ve been married three years, but living together four years. I moved in the very same day I met her. No flowers, no Whitman Samplers, nothing.” That is about as laid back and unconventional as it gets. Somehow the change of environment seemed to better fit Pollard in both his approach to acting and his view on life—rather take it as it comes, accept change with minimal stress, etc. In the years I’ve spent studying actors, acting on both stage and film, I’ve gotten the impression that the ones with the more varied resumes are most of the unwilling to settle grain. A favorite quote of mine comes from Steve Breese’s book On Acting: a Handbook for Today’s Unique American Actor and it is on the very subject of stagnation and impatience. “Young actors tend to be discontented and a little intolerant of the status quo. Who can blame them, given the restlessness of our American culture and ever more demanding of societal expectations?” Breese goes on to bring in the importance of patience during times of extended lull. “Patience, during times of stagnation, is more than a virtue; it’s a requirement. Hitting a plateau, or feeling stagnant-even when you are working hard-is absolutely normal. It is difficult to exercise patience under the circumstances, but there is a real consolation in knowing that, if you continue to work, the plateau will not last long.”
Pollard never stopped acting. What would ultimately prove to be one of his first big claims to fame was his casting as Jahn, one of a large group of teens immortalized by a scientist-created virus that kills anyone reaching the age of eighteen, tangling with one Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise on Star Trek. The episode was called “Miri”. According to Marc Cushman’s These are the Voyages: Season One, Pollard was twenty-seven years old, but was being considered for the character of Jahn in the episode, a teen all of the age of fourteen. Pollard’s agent managed to convince the producers that his baby face could carry things. His stature of 5’6” and weight of about 120 pounds, did not work against him either. It fell into Pollard’s mantra of taking on any role if it is physically possible. It was also interesting to discover that he was once considered for the role of seventeen-year-old super-powered teen Charles Evans in the Star Trek episode “Charlie X”. What is it with baby faces and super powers? What it was with Pollard was not settling, but always looking for the challenge and keeping busy.
Pioneering theater instructor Uta Hagen once said of Pollard. “We must overcome the notion that we must be regular… it robs you of the chance to be extraordinary and leads you to the mediocre”. This seemed to be what drove Pollard in both his career and life. He would go on to receive an Academy Award nomination in 1967 for his role as the getaway driver C.W. Moss in Arthur Penn’s classic Bonnie and Clyde. Pollard didn’t seem to be bothered by the audience and critics reaction to the level of violence the film showed. As he told Ebert: “Violence. Everybody’s criticizing violence. In Bonnie and Clyde, they criticized the violence. That’s dopey, man. Everybody’s violent. They’re criticizing themselves. Everybody will realize that in a year or so and move on to something else.”
Perhaps it is film critic Terry Ryan of The Montreal Gazette— in its September 27, 1969 issue—who sums up Pollard in his review of Derek May’s short, experimental gem Niagara Falls. As the protagonist, anti-tourist Pollard “is far from being the ideal tourist since he’s obviously a long-haired lout, a ne’er do well who falls.” The character is the definition of the guy who doesn’t quite fit in and likely has a permanent seat on the fringe of society.
Pollard would go to work on high art projects (Hannibal Brooks, Little Fauss and Big Halsey, Bless the Beasts and the Children), ambitious curios (Dirty Little Billy, Legend of Frenchie King) and the requisite working fare from the 80s to present (American Gothic, America). To be fair, the output during this latter time wasn’t all forgettable toss-off. His Little Red in Melvin and Howard (1980) is a delight. Ditto his character Andy in the charming Steve Martin effort from 1987 Roxanne. His cameo in the Bill Murray vehicle Scrooged (alongside character great, and fellow Trek alum, Logan Ramsey) is an absolute riot.
As it often stands with the creative fire of a performing artist, other interests come forth over the years in addition to just doing the film, TV, and stage work. For Pollard, it turned out to be painting and poetry. “I paint some” he told Ebert. “And I write…oh, little things. Maybe someday I’ll put them together into bigger things. Little poems and things… I have this white canvas and, on it in vermilion letters is spelled s-e-n-c-e. No, that’s wrong. S-i-n-s-e. Yeah, sinse”. The meaning for that is pure Pollard: “That words can’t express what you feel.” That was Michael J. Pollard, ever searching for the different approach, the unique tack, happily sitting outside while the conformity party raged on within, with no real desire to enter despite the door propped wide open. Thank you for allowing us to tag along and share the view of your skew on the world.