Thursday, June 21, 2012

Robber, Pimp, Militant, Cop: Meet Albert Popwell.

(Note: As you may have noticed, it's been a long, long time since I posted anything here at Filmiliarity. I've been in school for the past several years, and my schoolwork has consumed the vast majority of my free time. I found it difficult to justify spending time writing blog entries when I had assignments due. Now that I'm finished, I do plan to post here much more frequently. While none of my blog posts are - in my estimation - particularly profound, this one is perhaps a bit more lightweight than usual. In fact, my inspiration for writing it came from a comment I left on another blog, Neil Fulwood's fascinating The Agitation of the Mind. Nevertheless, it was fun to write, and I wanted to get something out there to help me get back into the swing of things.)

It's fairly commonplace to have the same role played by different actors in an ongoing film series. For whatever reason, be it advancing age, diminishing returns or dissatisfaction with the character (or for that matter, their compensation), actors aren't always willing or able to return to the roles they originated, and audiences, for the most part, accept the newcomers with a shrug and move on. The most obvious example would be the character of James Bond, who has been portrayed by six different actors over the past fifty years (not counting the unofficial 1967 spoof Casino Royale).

What's not quite as common is the same actor playing different roles in a related series of films. It's often done with character actors playing minor roles, and in most cases, while audiences might experience a hint of déjà vu, they probably don't give it too much thought. David Warner was in two subsequent Star Trek films, as a human ambassador and a Klingon, respectively, but the second role buried the otherwise recognizable actor in heavy makeup, so it wasn't as apparent. It can be more problematic, though. As Neil Fulwood pointed out in his recent blog post on the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (part of his currently ongoing Bond-A-Thon), the role of Bond's nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld was portrayed in that film by Charles Gray, who had played a completely different character, known as Dikko Henderson, four years prior in the Bond film You Only Live Twice. To add to the confusion, Henderson had briefly been an ally of Bond before being murdered by a Ninja assassin. Granted, Gray's role in the earlier film lasted all of a few minutes, and his appearance was somewhat different, so it probably wasn't enough to make too much of an impression. Still, devoted Bond fans were probably saying to themselves in 1971, "Wasn't that the guy...?"

Perhaps the most mind-boggling instance of this phenomenon can be attributed to actor Albert Popwell, who appeared with Clint Eastwood in the first four Dirty Harry films, each time playing a different but highly memorable role, and on a few occasions, meeting a violent end. Attentive viewers were probably left wondering just who the hell this guy was. If you haven't seen the first four films, there are a few minor spoilers ahead.

"Hey, man - I gots to know."

Popwell's first appearance in the series, as the character known only as "Bank Robber" in Don Siegel's original Dirty Harry (1971), comes near the beginning of the film, lasts only a few minutes and gives him one brief line of dialogue, but its brevity is tempered by the fact that it has become an indelible part of pop culture. Following an abortive bank heist stopped cold by six shots (or was it only five?) from Harry Callahan's .44 magnum revolver, Popwell's character, the only apparent survivor, lies bloodied in a doorway as Harry unhurriedly strolls up him. As Popwell feebly reaches for his shotgun, Eastwood raises his gun and blithely delivers his now iconic speech, imploring the wounded criminal to inquire of himself, "Do I feel lucky?" The bank robber decides he's not feeling particularly fortunate that day, and voilà - movie history is made. To be sure, it's an auspicious beginning to a fruitful, if somewhat bewildering collaboration.

Don't hide money from this dude

The followup to Dirty Harry, 1973's Magnum Force, again featured  Popwell as a lawbreaker, albeit with a decidedly more sinister bent this time. Playing a (once again unnamed) pimp, he brutalizes a prostitute in the back of a taxicab, ungallantly grabbing the wadded up cash she's hidden in her underthings before grotesquely murdering her by pouring a can of drain cleaner down her throat!

His last bribe

This atrocious act precipitates his demise at the hands of a rogue officer who belongs to an organized police death squad. This band of crooked cops summarily executes anyone they feel deserves to die, and the villainous pimp quickly earns a spot on their shit list. Pulled over for "speeding," he's blown away under the Golden Gate Bridge, totally ruining the plush white interior of his Cadillac. Popwell's brief performance is again quite memorable, thanks to the nastiness of the character, but his role in this film is a peripheral one, and he has no direct interaction with Eastwood.

Mustapha and mustache

Loyal followers of the Dirty Harry series were probably starting to put two and two together, and they were undoubtedly surprised to see Popwell turn up yet again in the third film, The Enforcer (1976), as the revolutionary "Big Ed" Mustapha. Along with the added bonus of his character actually having a name this time around, Popwell was granted a considerably larger role; he has a long conversation with Eastwood that allows him to exercise his acting chops much more so than either of his previous performances. While still ostensibly on the wrong side of the law, the smooth Mustapha comes off as a reasonably likeable guy, and he provides Harry with information he needs to track down a group of murderous terrorists. This sympathetic turn foreshadows Popwell's final appearance in the series seven years later.

He shoots, he scores

1983's Sudden Impact, the first and only film in the series to be directed by Eastwood, would mark Popwell's last appearance in a Dirty Harry film, and his role brings him a full 180 degrees from the first film, as he plays Horace King, a cop and a close friend of Harry's. Cleverly introduced in a scene that makes it look like he's sneaking up on Harry with bad intentions, it's revealed that they're actually participating in a bit of rural target practice together, though Horace's shotgun proves to be no match for Harry's new .44 magnum AutoMag. Throughout their conversation, Horace continually refers to Harry as a "JAMF," leading to this amusing exchange:

                                     Harry: "What's the hell's a JAMF?"
                                     Horace: "That means you're a jive-ass mother..."
                                     Harry (interrupting): "Forget I asked."

The end of the line for Horace

Unfortunately, later in the film, Horace stumbles into an ambush meant for Harry and pays for his mistake with a slit throat. To make matters worse, the bad guys injure Harry's dog, Meathead, who had been a gift from Horace. As you can imagine, he's not pleased.

Sadly, Popwell was unable to appear in the final Dirty Harry film, 1990's The Dead Pool, due to prior commitments. It would have been fitting if this veteran actor had appeared in all five films. As it stands, his four appearances demonstrate that, in Dirty Harry movies, you only die twice.


  1. Hi Michael

    A fun post for your return to the blog, and thanks for plugging Agitation!



  2. I had to know too, and I had a hell of a time pinning down Mr. Popwell's name, since IMDB didn't offer a photo.. But he was always memorable and a pleasure to see in action.