Wednesday, 17 May 2017


My obituary of Powers Boothe went up at the Guardian online yesterday, you can link to it here. He died in his sleep at only 68, a surprise because of the incredible energy he brought to his roles. Yet the seeming easy with which he pulled off intensity was amazing, and it was what made him one of my favourites.

I was thinking about how much fun he seemed to be having when he acted, that well studied sense of not having studied at all. And how much fun the set must have been on so many of his films, and what good ensembles he was part of. Extreme Prejudice is like a Hall of Fame of B movie villainy: Rip Torn, Michael Ironside, William Forsythe. Walter Hill had worked with Sam Peckinpah, and this was very much like a movie Peckinpah might have wanted to make. The same with Southern Comfort, another Hill effort, with Keith Carradine, Fred Ward, and Peter Coyote. Or think of Tombstone, with such great turns by lesser stars like Val Kilmer (the definitive Doc Holliday) or Kurt Russell as Wyatt, but tremendous work from Michael Biehn (Ringo Kid), Stephen Lang (Ike Clanton), Bill Paxton (Morgan Earp) or Joanna Pacula (Big Nose Kate).

But the two roles that might be his best performances are his breakthrough part as Jim Jones, which he played like a demented summer-camp director, which made it easy to see how he might get typecast as charismatic villains, and his take as Al Haig in Oliver Stone's Nixon: another film where he shines amidst a wonderful ensemble cast. He gets the lightly hidden drive for power behind Haig, and the way he succumbs to the opportunity to grab it, the way a vampire might succumb to the smell of blood.

There are similarities in many of his roles. Obviously he played a lot of corrupt people with power. But even in two of his starring roles as a hero, he winds up being converted to his heroic role (A Breed Apart and Emerald Forest). The latter in particular is very interesting because he starts off not to far from his character in Red Dawn, which possibly inspired Ironside when he played in Starship Troopers. As an aside, I saw a preview of Red Dawn at the DGA in Los Angeles with a friend of mine, and my ridicule of the movie forced my host to tell me to keep it down lest I offend anyone connected with the film who might be in attendance. It's kind of like the creation myth of the Tea Party militia.

Writing the obit was not easy: there were lots of half-way details about his life, especially his personal life. I found lots of gossip clippings about him and Rebecca de Mornay, which might help explain why his long marriage eventually failed, but was nothing important enough nor solid enough to warrant inclusion. Then, as it turned out, the Guardian was contacted to say his marriage had not ended in divorce, and the alleged second wife and two sons did not seem to exist. It was easy to say wikipedia was wrong, but I hadn't followed Wiki blindly; it was sourced (perhaps from wiki) in many places, and what had given the second wife idea credence was one source that actually was correcting wikipedia regarding dates. If this were a hoax, it's hard to conceive of why it would be done. In the end, finding no evidence to confirm either second wife or children, we corrected the piece, with apologies for distress it may have caused.

To add to the confusion, I also discovered an artist named Power Boothe, who made a short film called Overture, which some listings credit to Powers Boothe. I eventually found the correct name on a sale listing of old VHS art tapes. I assumed it was this Boothe who had also done the art work for Todd Solandz's first film, which also gets credited to Powers.

Most interesting, however, was one source, which appeared to get repeated, saying Boothe had appeared as an extra in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, as a Bolivian bandit. The timing was not impossible; he might have been between college and graduate school, though location shooting was done in Bolivia. I felt that had that story been true, I would have found Boothe talking about it at some point, especially considering his success in westerns. I did manage to find a still from the scenes in Bolivia, and in the back is someone who looks an awful lot like Boothe, although not necessarily the 21 year old Boothe. I never made contact with someone who could tell me definitively, but I feel like this is apocryphal, much as I would have liked it to be true.

Boothe also thrived in the quality small-screen dramas that have changed the face of film-making in the past 15 years.  This should not have been a surprise, because his best lead role as a non-villain was as Philip Marlowe, in the HBO series Marlowe, as I describe in the obituary. That series was produced along with London Weekend, the kind of deal that was the forerunner for the modern style of subscription channel offerings. Showtime's Fallen Angels was another similar series, though better written, directed and shot.

Boothe didn't fit my idea of Marlowe, but he got the character and interpreted it deftly. Latterly he stole scene after scene from Kevin Costner and Paxton in Hatfields and McCoys; he and McShane were a terrific double-act in Deadwood, and he was born to play Connie Britton's dad. There would have been more television greatness to come for sure; he was gone too soon. RIP.


Anonymous said...


Enjoyed reading your article of one of my favorite actors, Powers Boothe. However, I wanted to provide a bit of clarity about his personal life. Boothe never divorced or remarried. He was married to Pamela Cole until his passing. This is both confirmed in his obit via the LA Times and from public records obtained by TMZ.

Best regards.

Michael Carlson said...

Thanks for that--as you'll see we rewrote the Guardian obit online; I rewrote this piece, and the piece as appears in the paper today is corrected as well. I still wonder if that Butch Cassidy photo is photoshopped: someone seems to have pranked Powers Boothe, or perhaps worse.
That is a shame.