I love cult actors because they’re a little too weird to make it as leading men, and they’ll certainly never be matinee idols, but they happen to be brilliant character actors whose offbeat work will be remembered with a passion for all time. And that’s just fine. Here are the best of the bunch:
Bela Lugosi (1882-1956)
Born in what’s now Romania, Bela seared into the consciousness with his creepily singsong tones and lifting black cape as “Dracula.” He was the original Batman. The problem is, Bela became enslaved by his success, typed and demeaned by the movie industry until he ended up drug-addled and broke. His last credit was Ed Wood’s 1959 horror (and I do mean horror) film “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” which is considered the all-time high watermark of ineptitude. This is beautifully documented in the film “Ed Wood,” with Martin Landau both hilarious and poignant in his Oscar-winning turn as Mr. Lugosi. Ciao, Bela.
Udo Kier (1944-)
The German-born actor is great at playing suave vampires or any other kind of freaky but glam creatures of the dark. He gained notice in “Mark of the Devil,” then Paul Morrissey starred him in Warhol’s “Flesh For Frankenstein” (in 3-D) and “Blood For Dracula.” What followed were more cult films, like “Spermula,” “Suspiria” and even “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” plus some very culty commercials for Budweiser Ice Draft and Ford Mercury Cougar. Udo is the long reigning Euro cult cutie.
Sid Haig (1939-)
You’d definitely recognize this tall, bald and bearded guy, but without being quite sure from what. Well, the California-born actor appeared in novelties like “Spider Baby,” “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown,” generally as a really outrageous bad guy you’d definitely want to hail a plane away from. He’s also visible in TV reruns from “T.J. Hooker” to “The Flying Nun.” In fact, Haig is so prevalent yet obscure that he may well be the “ult”-imate in cult.
Vincent Price (1911-1993)
Cultured and rather effeminate, the St. Louis-born Yale graduate made Hollywood films, then clicked with horror goodies like “House of Wax,” “House of Usher,” “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Abominable Dr. Phibes.” He really “Hammered” home the horror, along with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. It was Price who could bring the biggest doses of Grand Guignol charisma and foofy fun to sheer evil. Offscreen, I bet, he was really nice.
John Goodman (1952-)
Born in Price’s home town of St. Louis, Goodman has proven to be one of the most reliable gems of any cinematic ensemble. From “Barton Fink” to various remakes and adaptations (“Stella,” “The Flintstones,” “Born Yesterday”) and way beyond, he’s the one to go to for verve and sly charm. The Coen brothers love him, and it’s no wonder; he stole “Inside Llewyn Davis” with one foul-mouthed scene in a car, in which he was absolutely brilliant. Between “The Artist,” “Argo” and “Flight,” Goodman’s been in more Oscar-type movies than anyone lately. And he happened to be the male lead on “Roseanne” for years, which is perfect; she, Laurie Metcalf, Sara Gilbert and Estelle Parsons are as good-culty as you can get.
William Marshall (1924-2003)
An Indiana-born man of African and Cherokee descent, Marshall was a Shakespearean actor who finally made it when blaxploitation films rolled around in all their funky aggression. With his booming tones, he gave Bela Lugosi a whole new twist in 1972’s “Blacula” and the next year’s “Scream Blacula Scream.” Other oddities du cinema followed, plus the part of King of Cartoons on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” And what could be cultier than that?
Baltimore outcast Harris Glen Milstead put on a dress, hooked up with filmmaker John Waters and became the underground star of all time, romping around with outrageous glamour and lots of balls in “Pink Flamingos,” “Female Trouble” and other midnight punk comedies. Sadly, Divvy was all set to appear on “Married… With Children” when he died. The “What if?” of it all has made him all the more of a cult sensation.
Christopher Walken (1943-)
With his dry humor and offbeat way of talking, the Queens-born Walken marches to a wacky drum that only he can hear. The result is infinitely delightful, if hard to pin down. Even imitators have given up trying because just when you think you’ve nailed Walken’s mannerisms, he changes them for something even wackier. The Oscar winner for “The Deer Hunter” also Walkens it up in “Dead Zone,” “King of New York,” “Catch Me If You Can” and the recent “Jersey Boys.” He’s so wonderfully weird!
Harry Dean Stanton (1926-)
IMDB.com says it best: “Prolific character actor with a drooping, weatherbeaten appearance and superb acting talent that have been his ticket to appearing in over 100 films and 50 TV episodes.” His hangdog look, no-frills approach and wry humor have made the Kentucky-born ex-Navy cook legendary, whether in cineplex attractions or underground oddities. Check him out in “Repo Man,” “Paris, Texas” and everything else he’s elevated. The man exudes unfettered honesty without even trying.
Malcolm McDowell (1943-)
A rough childhood made Malcolm a rebel, and that was reflected in his acting choices: bristlingly iconoclastic films like “If….,” “O Lucky Man!” and “A Clockwork Orange;” that last one making him the chilling villain of your worst nightmares. Later on, he cemented his cult by starring in one of the most scandalous movies ever made, “Caligula,” produced by porn peddler Bob Guccione. And the cult grew with “Time After Time,” “Britannia Hospital” and “Star Trek: Generations.” This Malcolm is never in the middle. He’s at the top of the heap of cult superstars.