Timothy Carey: A Genius Out of Both Ends

Whenever I lose my resolve or have doubts about my own quirks and eccentricities as an actor, I hope I’ll remember the example of Timothy Carey (1929-1994). Carey was a man with maximum integrity, zero boundaries, and a legend that grows with every passing year. John Lurie called him his hero. Hollywood’s top producers, directors and stars found themselves intrigued by him, repelled by him, or terrified of him, normally all of the above. His body of work ranges from top mainstream films to grade z grindhouse quickies to Quixotic self-produced fol-de-rol. The directors he worked with included Billy Wilder, Andre de Toth, William Wellman, Elia Kazan, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, and John Cassavetes, although he was just as often fired off a picture, never making it to the final print. Normally, I bemoan such “lost opportunities” and “never wases” but in Carey’s case you sort of relish them. His biography is easily as entertaining as his filmography, and his integrity, his refusal to be a hypocrite, means that we are spared the spectacle of ever seeing him humiliated or tamed or boxed in, as was often inflicted on bigger stars like Marlon Brando or Elvis Presley. Timothy Carey is to Brando as Esquerita is to Little Richard. He is much, much, much further out. He represents that place where method acting spiraled out into beatnik culture and the true avant-garde. His starting place was Stanislavski, but he LIVED Artaud. 

Standing 6’4″, with bad skin, drooping eyelids, and a propensity for talking with his teeth clenched, Carey was normally cast as psychotics, mental patients, hit men, henchmen, and hop heads. Even in bit parts he stood out, and was known for intentionally upstaging the stars he was supporting. His presence carried over into real life. He walked into a room, and people fled, and sometimes fainted. His habit of loudly farting — true story — whenever the mood struck him, no matter the company he was in, helped to marginalize him further from the more straight-laced and conventional people he dealt with (haha, I said “dealt”). That’s a good question to ask yourself: could I overlook such a thing, if the person had a reputation for being amazing? What’s important to you? Personally, I’d probably hold my nose and bear it. I’ve also always said that any singer who wouldn’t work with Phil Spector, loaded handgun or no loaded handgun, is crazy. But I’m a romantic.

Originally from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Carey was the nephew of Sylvester and Fiore Agoglia, associates of Al Capone, on his mother’s side. His father was Irish. As a teenager, he used his brother’s birth certificate to get into the Marines, an experience he hated. I have come across many references to him attending “acting school” in New York, but have not yet uncovered which one, or with whom he studied. He then hitchhiked his way out to Hollywood, getting picked up and jailed on vagrancy charges many times along the way. He turned up as a bit player at age 22 in films like Wilder’s Ace in the Hole and Wellman’s Across the Wide Missouri, both in 1951. He had a small role in Henry Hathaway’s White Witch Doctor (1953). Carey attempted to audition for Hathaway’s next film Prince Valiant (1954), by stealing a Medieval costume from the wardrobe department and accosting Hathaway while he ate lunch in the commissary, but was escorted off the lot.

A few TV and B movie roles later, Carey winds up as a rival gang member in The Wild One (1953) with Marlon Brando. His decision to spray beer in Brando’s face against the star’s wishes made an impression on the audience, and on the industry. People remembered this cocky guy. Two years later, he’s in East of Eden (1955) as a bouncer who throws James Dean out of a bordello. There’s a story that Kazan had some sort of altercation with him. If true, Kazan was a courageous man.

“Paths of Glory”. He wasn’t supposed to have a line in his death scene, but he ad libbed one anyway

In The Killing (1956), Stanley Kubrick cast Carey as one of the members of the gang in a heist and this is where he first begins to become known as an onscreen psychotic. In their next collaboration Paths of Glory (1957) Carey had a more sympathetic role, although this character was also a mental defective. During the picture, Carey was reportedly disruptive. When he staged a fake kidnapping of himself for the publicity, Kubrick and his producers quickly shot his remaining scenes and fired him. I believe Carey’s influence on Kubrick lingered, however. Take a look at this quote about Carey’s experience in the Marines:

“…They beat me from pillar to post, you know, they called me ‘big stupe,’ …They had a rifle range, you know, and I never could get in the right position. You had to kneel down and put your fanny on your heel. I just couldn’t do that too good. And the drill instructor said, ‘I want this big stupe to fall over a locker box tonight.’ Every recruit has a locker box. If you fall over it, everybody can beat you up. So they came and beat me up that night. I ended up in the hospital. I tried to protect my knees, and they hit my knees with a baseball bat. And that was the Marine Corps.” 

Does that sound anything like the first act of Full Metal Jacket to you? It does me.

Despite their earlier run-in, in 1961 Brando cast him in his one directorial effort One-Eyed Jacks.

At this stage, another feather in the cap of Carey’s legend: his self written/produced/directed starring vehicle The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962), in which he plays an insurance salesman who becomes a rock ‘n’ roll evangelist who starts his own cult. The music in this film was composed by a young Frank Zappa! This is the film, I believe, where Carey threw his co-star, a large snake, at his camera man. He’d begun the film in 1958, shortly after finishing Bayou a.k.a Poor White Trash (1957) another grindhouse classic. His connection to the younger generation continued through his stunt casting as South Dakota Slim in Bikini Beach (1964) and Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), and in the Monkees musical film Head (1968), in which Zappa also appeared. He was also in the Elvis movie Change of Habit (1969).

Coppola famously wanted Carey to play Luca Brasi in The Godfather, but Carey turned him down so that he could concentrate on his own project, a self written/produced/directed TV pilot called Tweet’s Ladies of Pasadena, in which he played a man named Tweet Twig, a roller skating member of an old ladies’ knitting circle, who can talk to animals, and brings animals back from the dead. Oddly, no one picked up this pilot! He was also asked to appear in The Godfather Part II, but turned it down. He also did some work in The Conversation (1974) but either walked off the project (or took sick days, I’ve come across both) and was replaced by Allen Garfield. He did however make it to the screen in Brian de Palma’s notorious 1972 comedy Get to Know Your Rabbit. 

In the ’70s, Carey became part of the Cassavetes/ Peter Falk mafia, acting in three episodes of Columbo, and the Cassavetes films Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). In interviews he frequently cites Cassavetes as his favorite director to work with. Is it any wonder? He did not like to be fenced in! He also did lots of TV during the ’70s and ’80s including episodes of Baretta, Starsky and Hutch, Charlie’s Angels, Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, and The Greatest American Hero. The ensemble film Echo Park (1985) was his last movie role, although Quentin Tarantino considered him for Reservoir Dogs (1992) and partially dedicated the film to him.

Other films Carey appeared in over the years included the Damon Runyon musical The Bloodhounds of Broadway (1952), Crime Wave (1954) with Sterling Hayden, I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955) with Susan Hayward, Convicts 4 (1962) with Ben GazzaraShock Treatment (1964), A Time for Killing (1967, partially directed by Roger Corman), psychobiddy classic What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971), and the Mr. T. vehicle D.C. Cab (1983), among many others.

Carey didn’t drink, smoke or do drugs, but a stroke took at him age 65 all the same. His son, Romeo Carey has been caretaker of a lot of his work, and at this writing is working on a film of a play his father wrote entitled The Insect Trainer, based loosely on the life of Le Petomane (a.k.a. The Fartomaniac). Romeo produced a live theatrical version of the play in 1996 with backing from Martin Scorsese.