Charles Napier: From Eden to Archer

Some words of appreciation today for character actor Charles Napier (1936-2011).

A native of Kentucky, army vet (sergeant in the paratroopers), and former basketball coach, Napier was working on a graduate degree at Western Kentucky University when he decided to try his luck as an actor. It was an inspired decision. With his strong physique and goofy, toothy grin, Napier read like a parody of All-American. There was something porn-star perverse about his screen presence that registered as an editiorial upon “wholesomeness”. He often played cops, army officers, coaches, and the like, but usually ones with a screw loose.

One of Napier’s first screen roles was as the space-hippie Adam in the 1969 Star Trek episode “The Way to Eden”. He was 33 years old at the time. It was Russ Meyer who first realized Napier’s potential, casting him in Cherry Harry and Raquel and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (both 1970), Seven Minutes (1971) and Supervixens (1975). Meanwhile he also appeared in the trucker/automotive action pictures Moonfire (1970) and Thunder and Lightning (1977), which got him cast in Jonathan Demme’s Citizen Band (1979). So he also became a part of Demme’s stock company, subsequently appearing in Last Embrace (1970), Melvin and Howard (1980), Swing Shift (1984), Something Wild (1986), Married to the Mob (1988), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Philadelphia (1993), and Demme’s 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate.

Napier was highly memorable as a country singer antagonist in The Blues Brothers (1980). Later comedies included Ernest Goes to Jail (1990), National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 (1993), The Cable Guy (1996), Mike Meyers’ Austin Powers comedies (1997-99), and Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000). Napier had key roles in major films like Rambo II: First Blood (1985) and Stephen Frears’ The Grifters (1990), but he also honored his roots by appearing in lots of B movie schlock, sometimes even starring. Thus Wacko (1982), Body Count (1987), Deep Space (1988), Maniac Cop 2 (1990), Skeeter (1993), Alien Species (1996), Dinocroc (2004), and One-Eyed Monster (2008).

Naturally, Napier also had scores of TV credits. He was a regular on two short-lived series starring Rod Taylor: The Oregon Trail (1977-78) and Outlaws (1986-87), had recurring roles on BJ and the Bear (1979-81) and Dallas (1982-83), and guest starred on dozens of series from the late 1960s until his death. Charles Napier’s last credit was a voice-over on Archer in 2011.