April 14, 1930 – January 16, 2018
He referred to himself as a "Safeway actor" (anything to put food on the table), but that masks his actual abilities to craft distinct characters out of even extremely poor or bland scripts. He took ridiculous melodrama and made it sublime. He took boring, steadfast characters and hinted at depths of something else--perhaps something just slightly crooked and off-putting.
Sometimes, all it took was a smile. A perfectly timed, slightly askew smile
That smile took a man who could have been destined for stolid romantic lead roles, and sent him straight into crooked, "wait, is he the villain?!" land. In Bradford Dillman's acting world, there is no overplaying or underplaying--there's just perfectly crafted characters. Each one so unique and utterly entertaining.
It is certainly true that some actors rely on sheer charisma to build their performances and connect to audiences. Charisma alone can be greatly entertaining--and even powerful. But, then it lacks depths and can lead to monotony. That is the danger of a charming performer: what happens when it just stops being charming? There is nothing else left.
Bradford Dillman never had that problem, because he methodically used his charisma and charm to malicious ends. He brought the audience closer, closer, closer--and then removed his mask and bared his evil smile...or sometimes it wasn't evil at all. He used it in service of gleeful egotistical murderers, and broken dupes, and trying-to-be-empathetic husbands, and unreliable narrators, and pious saints (hahahahaha!), and adorable architect dates for Mary Richards, and languid supervillains with ridiculous plans, and southern gothic werewolves.
These are just a small sampling of the variety of roles Bradford Dillman played with skill and delight. He is one in a line of overwhelming, brilliant, and charming character actors--who can just as easily steal a scene as lead a film. He is the heir to Peter Lorre and the predecessor of Michael Shannon. Perhaps, if he was working today, Bradford Dillman would be enjoying a career like Shannon's--playing complicated good men and complicated bad men in prestige dramas and genre films alike. (It is remarkably easy to imagine Dillman playing Michael Shannon's toxic, complex, and vicious villain in 2017's The Shape of Water.)
Bradford Dillman brought life to mundanity and fun to dullness. He was and remains deeply underrated and even unknown.
That unknown reputation of Dillman's is the reason behind why it took me a few days to write this post. Somehow, it is easier to speak your feelings loud in moments of global, collective grieving. When a beloved famous person dies, everyone gets to say something--and be heard--and no one has to stop and think of the purpose behind their grief.
But, here, Bradford Dillman died. And aside from a few good friends (most of whom had been indoctrinated in appreciation of The Dill Man by me), no one cared. Suddenly, my sadness at his passing seemed misplaced and self-serving. I did not know him, I never interacted with him, and I dearly hope he never googled his name and found this blog riddled with ridiculous, exclamatory posts and seemingly endless tribute videos.
Indeed, why was I sad? Nothing in my life had changed. He had already retired from acting just a year after my birth, and he had lived a long and full life--leaving this world surrounded by his family.
But, there's the source of the grief: he left this world.
Each human is so deliriously unique and extraordinary, that each loss is of a person who won't exist again. A substance of something that is gone forever.
I think that is why we so mourn the actors and performers and artists when they die--no matter their longevity. It is perhaps self-focused, but it is to the credit of the person we lose.
For me, Bradford Dillman wasn't just an extraordinarily talented and individual performer--he is moments in time. He is memories of where I was, and who I was with, and how I felt. He is friendships struck (love you forever, my Dill Man co-conspirator Niamh!). He is thoughts I mulled over, and words I furiously typed at 3AM. (There are posts on this blog mentioning Bradford Dillman that go back to me at age 15.) His performances are not just displays of art or skill or entertainment--they are pieces of the mosaic of my life and personality.
There is grief, because there was life and art and joy and ridiculousness and power and fun and love and slightly bent evil smiles.
Here's to Bradford Dillman, who never knew I existed (unless he did Google his name and/or actually read that likely very off-putting fan letter I sent him when I was like 13), but has been something of substance in my life nonetheless. Rest in peace and light, cool man.
^Watch one of my "great" Bradford Dillman tribute videos.