Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Unstrung Hero: Remembering Maury Chaykin (1949-2010)

Was Maury Chaykin not the best character actor on the screen? I certainly thought so. But then some actors get prickly when you describe them as a character actor, as if you’d just demoted them to the role of gaffer. But Chaykin, like J.T. Walsh, brought out compelling intricacies in the characters he portrayed, idiosyncratic aspects that couldn’t be conveyed in the script. He took those roles out of the shadows and lit up parts of the movie that just weren’t getting enough light.

Maury Chaykin in WarGames
I first encountered Chaykin under those circumstances. During a press screening of John Badham’s WarGames (1983), an anti-nuclear war civics lesson disguised as a movie, Chaykin shows up in a hilarious cameo. In the film, Matthew Broderick plays a Seattle high school student who’s obsessed with computers. He inadvertently hacks into the military supercomputer to play its simulated war games and begins steps towards a nuclear strike. Early in the picture, while he’s still trying to figure out what he’s done, Broderick goes to visit two other computer pals who might be able to help him out. One of them, Malvin (Eddie Deezen), is the personification of computer nerd, a wind-up toy who looks like he’s spent a short lifetime ingesting Jerry Lewis pictures. Deezen is a complete chatterbox. But Malvin’s co-worker Jim (Chaykin) creates a quiet space around himself as if he’d never been invited to take part in a conversation. Bearded with a smiling face on his T-shirt, Jim contemplates Broderick’s problem and slowly – with some pride – begins to figure out what Broderick’s hacked into. But Deezen keeps jumping in with his own answers until Chaykin explodes calling him “Mr. Potato Head” over and over until he quiets down. Once he does, he quietly reminds Deezen of how "Mr. Potato Head" once reminded him that if he ever became irritating, he was to be informed. I didn’t know who Chaykin was then, but given the tired and preachy anti-war plot to follow, I wanted to know more about that guy. Unfortunately, he then disappeared from the movie. But not from my memory.

Maury Chaykin as Hal C. Banks
But Chaykin was different from most character actors because he could also play lead roles with equal verve. I was once astonished seeing him portray the part of Hal C. Banks, the strong-arm American labour union leader who came to Canada in 1949 to lead a war between rival shipping unions, in Donald Brittain’s superb TV drama, Canada’s Sweetheart: The Saga of Hal C. Banks (1985). Chaykin used his bulking frame to lay claim to space that others thought was theirs. Like a corrupt and contented Pasha, his Banks found a comfort zone in the recognition of just how dangerous he really was. It was a commanding performance.

Maury Chaykin as Desmond Howl in Whale Music.
On the other hand, he could also convey the eccentric outsider without needless embellishment, as he did in Richard J. Lewis’s otherwise negligible 1994 adaptation of the late Paul Quarrington’s novel Whale Music. Playing a character inspired by Beach Boy recluse Brian Wilson, Chaykin is Desmond Howl, a former rock legend who lives in seclusion in a seaside mansion until he’s invaded by a young squatter (Cyndy Preston) who breaks into his home. Howl has been spending his years composing a symphonic piece for whales that congregate near his property. But the music is also supposed to be in memory of his late brother who died in a car accident. The stuff between Preston and Chaykin is predictable, broad comedy, but when Chaykin enters the world of his music, he’s like a deaf man who’s been restored to hearing again. There’s a touching quality to Howl’s melancholy which Chaykin doesn’t play for depressive behaviour. Instead we see a man who has lost the means to connect to everyday life because of the grief it will invoke in him.

Maury Chaykin, Nathan Watt & Michael Richards.
For years after, whenever I went to review a film and I saw Chaykin was in it, I perked up, eager to see what he might do. My favourite Chaykin role was in the wonderful, but sadly neglected, Diane Keaton film Unstrung Heroes (1995). Based on a memoir by journalist Franz Lidz, the story is about his growing up Jewish in the fifties with his rationalist inventor father (John Turturro) and his life-loving mother (Andie MacDowell). When she gets diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Franz goes to live with his eccentric uncles; one of them the paranoid Danny (Michael Richards), and the other, the quietly observant Arthur (Maury Chaykin). Unstrung Heroes, in one sense, is a moving story about the restorative power of memories. Chaykin’s Arthur collects knick-knacks which he places in a box and gives to Franz with the hope that he will treasure personal mementos because they gather all the memories of who we are.

For me, Maury Chaykin’s career is a lot like that collection box where inside it are memories of sharply defined roles that don’t fade into obscurity, or gallantly chew up the scenery, but instead awaken cherished moments when experienced again. Chaykin approached his work with a sly attention to detail and a love for the oddball charm of the outsider who is often silently hidden in the shadows. Chaykin’s art though wasn’t simply to cast light on those oddballs, he illuminated characters always from the inside. By having us accept those characters on terms that only he could find agreeable, Maury Chaykin became my idea of the perfect unstrung hero.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

3 comments:

  1. Nice tribute. I think I'm going to check out Unstrung Heroes now...

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  2. Thank you for this lovely tribute.

    Susannah Hoffmann

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  3. Maury played every part as if it was the lead and I really enjoyed the movies and shows where he was. I really loved his Nero Wolfe portrayal in the A&E series with Timothy Hutton.

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