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How one role can be a career killer

When actors can’t escape the roles that make them famous, where do they go?
/ Source: contributor

Let’s say you buy the official explanation that when George Reeves, star of TV’s “The Adventures of Superman” in the 1950s, was found dead in 1959, he got there via his own hard work and determination to kill himself, not because of some revenge-murder based on his affair with a studio executive’s wife. I’ll leave that to the new movie “Hollywoodland” to snoop around in.

And it could have happened that way too, I suppose. Because if you think famous actors are soulless you should meet the people they work for. But for the sake of this article let’s assume that typecasting killed him.

The story goes that acting roles dried up for Reeves. He was so identified and beloved as Superman that no one would consider thinking of him as anything but The Man of Steel. It’s one of the stupider side effects of celebrity.

We love what you do as that guy and have no use for you when you show up as someone else. We the people forget that an actor’s job is to change. Bob Denver is Gilligan, Sean Connery is James Bond, Mark Hamill is Luke Skywalker and on and on. Reeves considered going on the exhibition wrestling circuit. Back then that was the equivalent of doing infomercials or signing on for “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!”

If only he’d just bitten the speeding bullet and done his time at county fairs he might have come out the other side. Look at Adam West, TV’s “Batman.” That guy practically invented the selling of autographs at comic book conventions — whether he ever actually took a five for a signature or not — paving the way for “Family Affair’s” Johnny Whitaker and “Battlestar Galactica’s” Richard Hatch to make ends meet.

I’m sure it takes some radical rethinking of your purpose in the world to adjust to life as a resident of Not-So-Famous Anymore Town, but celebrities of all stripes have managed it and lived. And West got in on the ground floor, making self-deprecating light of his work — smartly realizing that being mercilessly grilled by Howard Stern and going along with the joke meant being seen as game rather than pathetic — and he did it all before he could be made to feel like a joke himself by the less kind. He took the dying bull by the horns and breathed ironic life back into it. He’s like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m Batman, you morons. Check out my Web site.” If there was a pageant held for the title of unofficial CEO of the nostalgia industry, he’d win the sash. And I bet he’d never take it off.

Can’t escape the fangsAnthony Perkins and Bela Lugosi got stuck in the same trap thanks to “Psycho” and “Dracula,” respectively. You have to wonder if Lugosi would have turned down that role if someone had been there whispering in his ear, “Not counting ‘Ninotchka,’ you’re going to be thought of as a vampire for the rest of your life. You’ll become a legendary heroin addict to numb the crushing weight of your defeat at the monster-hands of Hollywood and when you die, they’ll simply replace you in the last reel of your last film with some other guy holding a cape over his face. You will be that disposable.” Film history and the pop culture landscape would obviously be really different without him as that vampire, and Universal would have one less Famous Monster to generate income for them, but you have to wonder what sort of happy life he could have had if he’d never been fitted for those fake fangs.

Perkins fared a little better. No one expected him to always be Norman Bates, per se, and he kept working right up until the end of his life, and he made memorable films after “Psycho” that included cult cool stuff like 1968’s “Pretty Poison,” 1972’s “Play It As It Lays” and mainstream successes like 1974’s “Murder on The Orient Express.” But he was almost always given the role of twitchy guy, the man with a screw loose, the dangerously borderline mental case. And finally, he was the guy who sucked it up and gave in to “Psycho II,” “Psycho III” and “Psycho IV.” None of this is as horrible a fate as dying from AIDS-related pneumonia, something he did in 1992, but you want someone as cool as he was on screen to have had a better run of it close to the end.

Que sera seraAnd then there are the ones who, like Adam West, decide to just roll with it. The kids from “The Brady Bunch” seem to have all more or less resigned themselves to the fact that they’re cast in stone as groovy kids from 1971, even though the oldest cast members, Barry Williams and Maureen McCormack, are now in their 50s. More than any other batch of actors who’ve worked together on a single film or television show, these six people were never allowed to re-invent themselves in new contexts. So most of them gave up trying.

Of them, Eve Plumb seems the least interested in being a bell-bottomed souvenir and, weirdly enough, through a deliberate application of darker hair dye and what must have seemed like Herculean, teeth-gritting determination, works the most on non-Brady-related projects. But it’s “A Very Brady Middle-Aged Variety Hour” for the rest. And, publicly at least, they all act like they’re okay with this.

Finally, there’s Leonard Nimoy. He may have once written a book entitled “I Am Not Spock,” but the 75 year-old “Star Trek” actor learned over the years that you can’t fight the frenzied, overwhelmed imaginations of fans who’ve decided that you’re one of their leaders. Maybe you didn’t ask to be voted the King of Outer Space, but they installed you anyway. And there you stay, living off the adulation and checks from voiceover work. For all we know, the “Brady” cast looks to him for inspiration and guidance on how to dance with the ones what brung you. Once you’re there, it probably beats being asked to leave the floor. And it’s infinitely preferable to going out like poor old George.

Dave White is film critic for and the author of “Exile in Guyville.” Find more of him at .