Described by filmmaker and collaborator Russ Meyer as appearing to smile on one side of his mouth while scowling on the other, lantern-jawed character actor Charles Napier essayed a gallery of mad, bad and dangerous detectives, soldiers and cowboys in a wide variety of films, ranging from Meyer's "Supervixens" (1973) to "Rambo: First Blood Part II" (1985), "The Grifters" (1991), "Miami Blues" (1991) and "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991). The latter was one of numerous small roles he played for director Jonathan Demme, who frequently cast him against type in "Handle with Care" (1977) and "Something Wild" (1986), and the off-kilter humor he showed in those films led to a second career as a wild card comic player in "The Blues Brothers" (1980) "The Cable Guy" (1997) and "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" (1998). Though he won no significant awards for his work, and struggled to come to grips with his status as a cult favorite, Napier was well loved by generations of movie and TV fans who literally grew up watching him, from his earliest appearances on "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69) to his outrageous work with Meyer and dozens upon dozens of low-budget action and horror films, in which he was unquestionably the high point, for over four decades. His death in 2011 was widely memorialized in the media and on the Internet, where fans paid tribute to one of Hollywood's hardest working character players.
Born April 12, 1936 in Allen County, KY, Napier was the second of three children born to tobacco farmer Liones Napier and his wife, Sarah. Initially, he dreamed of a career in basketball after playing in two high school state championships, but after failing to generate a college athletic scholarship, he joined the U.S. Army and served with the 11th Airborne Division in Germany for three years. Upon his return to the States, Napier enrolled in Western Kentucky University on the GI Bill and earned a degree in art. He drifted for much of the early 1960s, teaching art in Florida while performing in stage productions or busking. He eventually made his way to California, where he worked in repertory theater and commiserated with fellow up-and-coming actors like Dennis Hopper and Harry Dean Stanton while waiting for his big break. After landing an agent, Napier began working in bit parts on episodic television, most notably as a "space hippie" in "The Way to Eden," a 1969 episode of "Star Trek," and a handful of low-budget softcore titles.
While escorting a girlfriend to a casting session in 1970, Napier met sexploitation auteur Russ Meyer, which led to his being cast in "Cherry, Harry and Raquel" (1970). The film featured what Napier would later call his most embarrassing screen moment, in which he ran towards the camera while wearing only a hat and a pair of boots. Meyer's ability to generate massive ticket sales on the drive-in and grindhouse circuits eventually led to a deal with 20th Century Fox, and Napier tagged along as co-star and unbilled associate producer on "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (1970), a phantasmagoric cautionary tale about the excesses of show business. Meyer's inability to work within the studio system sent him back to the independent marketplace, while Napier plugged along with episodic guest shots until reuniting with the director for "Supervixens" (1973), a semi-sequel to "Cherry, Harry and Raquel" (1973). Napier terrified audiences as psychotic lawman Harry Sledge, who, in one gruesome scene, stomped a former lover to death in her bathtub. Despite his concerns that the Meyer films would have a negative impact on his ability to find work in Hollywood, Napier would later discover that many of his most significant roles were won because the directors were fans of his performances in these pictures.
While waiting for "Supervixens" to reach movie screens, Napier worked as a writer for the trucking industry magazine Overdrive. After he and friend Hunter S. Thompson were beaten during a Teamsters strike, Napier returned to Hollywood with a dim outlook on a jobless future. But a call from Alfred Hitchcock led to a contract with Universal and steady employment throughout the mid-1970s on the studio's television series. He returned to features in 1977 with a supporting role in the action movie "Thunder and Lightning" opposite David Carradine before being cast in Jonathan Demme's studio debut "Handle with Care" (1977). Demme had seen Napier in one of Meyer's films and was interested in seeing if he could play against his ultra-manly type. The result showed Napier's remarkable knack for comedy as a philandering trucker who is cowed when his two wives form a united front against him. Demme would continue to cast Napier in roles that challenged his screen persona for over two decades.
By the late 1970s, Napier was one of the industry's busiest character actors. He was a natural go-to for tough guys of all stripes, from sheriffs and military men to all manner of blue-collar and rural types, most notably as the agitated leader of the Good Ole Boys, a country and western group that found themselves bumped from a club date by "The Blues Brothers" (1980). Napier also enjoyed recurring roles on "B.J. and the Bear" (NBC, 1979-1981) and "Dallas" (CBS, 1978-1991) as a rival trucker and a business-minded pimp, respectively, and shared duty with Ted Cassidy in providing the growls for Lou Ferrigno on "The Incredible Hulk" (CBS, 1978-1982). His work in pictures for Demme continued to yield the most interesting results - a leering factory worker in "Swing Shift" (1984), a hotwired cook with a meat cleaver in "Something Wild" (1986) and, most surprisingly, a fey hairdresser in "Married to the Mob" (1987). There was a brief flirtation with stardom in "Rambo: First Blood Part II" (1985) as the bureaucrat who dispatched Sylvester Stallone's taciturn mercenary on a rescue mission in Vietnam. But as the decade drew to a close, Napier had settled into a regular diet of starring roles in low-budget pictures, guest turns on episodic television, and minor but memorable appearances in Hollywood features.
The latter category soon came to include a blackly comic turn as Fred Ward's hard-bitten partner in George Armitage's cult favorite, "Miami Blues" (1991), a naïve Texas millionaire swindled in Stephen Frears' "The Grifters" (1991), the police guard who met a grisly fate at the hands of Hannibal Lecter in Demme's "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991), and the presiding judge in "Philadelphia" (1993). The midpoint of the decade saw Napier employ his sandpaper-and-whiskey voice to numerous animated projects, including a regular turn as a jovial TV magnate on "The Critic" (ABC/Fox, 1994-95) and frequent contributions to "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ) and "Men in Black" (The WB, 1997-2001). His past continued to mine small but significant roles, as fans of his Meyer and Demme projects like Ben Stiller and Jay Roach tapped him for bit parts in "The Cable Guy" (1996) and "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" (1997).
Napier continued to work at a furious pace as he entered the new millennium, though the projects had grown cheaper and more obscure. In interviews, he admitted that he had only turned down one or two pictures in his career for fear that to do would prevent him from finding more work. That level of insecurity about his career may have prompted a controversial appearance on "Dr. Phil" (syndicated, 2002- ) in which he bemoaned his lack of stardom. Despite any career misgivings, Napier remained a constant presence in television and film, including bit parts in Demme's remake of "The Manchurian Candidate" (2004), "Lords of Dogtown" (2005) as famed tailor Nudie Cohn, and a senile but ornery car salesman in "The Goods: Life Hard, Sell Hard" (2009). In 2011, he released an autobiography, Square Jaw and Big Heart, and completed his final screen role that same year with a vocal performance on an episode of "Archer" (FX, 2009- ). On October 4, he collapsed in his home and was placed in intensive care. Napier was subsequently taken off life support and died Oct. 5, 2011.