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Requiem For a Genre Star: Michael Massee and Familiar Faces In Small Roles…

With Jamie Foxx in contention to play Electro in the sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man, I got thinking about the teaser in the middle of the credit sequence. In the small scene, a mysterious visitor confronted Curt Connors about what Peter Parker did or did not know about his father. He got a single line, and was couched in shadow. My less cynical side suggests that this was an attempt to play up the mystery of the character so his inevitable appearance in the sequel would make sense. My more pragmatic side figures that it was to leave the role open for the production team to hire a big-name actor for the character’s appearance in the next film in the series. That is, after all, why all the shots of Norman Osborn in The Amazing Spider-Man were careful not to reveal any facial features. Perhaps they can be digitally reinserted into the first film when the role is cast next time around?

However, this short sequence is a bit disappointing, if only because I was able to recognise the actor appearing, only for a second, cloaked in darkness. He was Michael Massee. And I feel a little sad that this means he likely won’t be playing a significant role in the sequel.

We all have genre stars that we like – actors who have worked in niche areas and supporting roles, to make a particular impression with us, if not the wider public. Massee is by no means the only actor to make such an impression on me, but he comes to mind because he tends to pop up in small roles in good films, but larger roles in terrible films. Massee is one of those actors you probably recognise, even if you can’t quite place him.

He’s appeared in quite a movies and television shows that managed to sneak in under the radar. He’s also appeared in his fair share of turkeys, like most actors working in Hollywood. He appeared in the truly terrible Catwoman. He had a small role in The Resident. He’s done a fair amount of voice work – not surprising considering his wonderfully sinister and vaguely detached manner of speaking. He’s appeared as a guest star in franchises like CSI and Law & Order and has been consistently active since the mid-nineties.

It was around that time that he made his first impression with me. It is a sign of a great director that they can use an actor perfectly, even for a small part, and Massee first really came to notice for a tiny appearance as a sex club operator in se7en. You know the scene I’m talking about. I think se7en stands out – compared to the rake of copycats that followed – because Fincher had a wonderful knack for finding pieces that fit together rather well.

Massee only had a scene or two, and a line or two of dialogue, but he did – I think – very well with it. It’s a great movie, with lots of great exchanges, but there’s something rather perfect about Massee’s response when his character is question by the police. “Do you like what you do for a living?” Detective Mills asks. “These things you see?” Massee manages the perfectly disaffected and apathetice response, “No, I don’t. But that’s life.”

(While we’re talking about actors we notice in small roles, the same sequence also features Leland Orser, an actor who plays crazy freakouts pretty much perfectly. He’s the proxy for John Doe’s “lust” murder, and he contributes almost as much as Fincher’s direction to making that whole bit as squirm-inducing as possible. Like Massee, Orser plays well to a niche in decent films and bad ones – he was a solid Star Trek: Voyager guest star and did quite well in The Bone Collector and Alien Resurrection, even if the projects didn’t really distinguish themselves.)

Massee is also notable for being the first villain of 24, effectively anchoring the first season before the wonderful Zeljko Ivanek and scenery-chewing Dennis Hopper show up, providing one of the most surprisingly human antagonists of the series as a paid mercenary taking revenge on Jack Bauer and David Palmer for sins long past. Of course, the show hadn’t developed into a cult phenomenon by then, but I think the first season of the show stands as one of the best (along with the second and fifth), and a large part of that is due to Massee’s appeal.

Those are just the most notable examples of Massee-spotting. I’m always glad to see (or hear) him, even in a small role. However, it’s always a little heartening to see an actor like that sort of… teased for a bigger role. You wonder if there’s a chance that they might really “break out” of their niche and become a recognisable presence in their own right rather than a perpetual “hey, it’s that guy!” actor for fun movie fans.

Christoph Waltz has a career spanning back to the seventies, before Tarantino demonstrated what he could do. Richard Jenkins appeared in an early episode of Miami Vice. Bryan Cranston slowly pulled his way towards recognisability in a career spanning three decades. It has happened before. While none of these actors might headline movies, they are all recognised and respected for their contributions, listed proudly among ensembles and generally acknowledged as fine character actors.

It’s not too hard to believe that the same might eventually happen to some of the relatively smaller players like Massee. All it takes, in theory, is one juicy role. And so it’s almost cruel to see him teased as some anonymous big-bad. It wouldn’t be the first time a relative second-stringer had played a villain in a blockbuster, so it’s not impossible to imagine that Massee would make a proud addition to the cast of the sequel of The Amazing Spider-Man. Say what you will about re-using the Green Goblin, but Massee’s distinctive voice would certainly work well.

Of course, it’s frustrating because I know that “man in shadows” is just a place-holder until the studio can attract a bigger or more recognisable name. It has happened before, and seems especially common in comic book films. Just ask Billy Dee Williams, the first Harvey Dent, who somehow became Tommy Lee Jones between Batman and Batman Forever. Williams had been canny, and accepted the role knowing that Dent would be kinda important to the Bat mythos down the line.

Of course, Williams didn’t return to the part. The nineties Batman-franchise made a spectacular mess of Harvey Dent, who was apparently Max Shreck in an earlier draft of Batman Returns, but he apparently got a huge settlement in return for allowing Warners to recast the role. Which is a shame, because it’s hard to imagine that Williams could have been worse than Jones. Either way, somehow I doubt that Massee’s contractual terms were even that strong.

Still, perhaps I’ll get a pleasant surprise when the cast for the sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man is announced. I might be the only person who would be massively impressed by Massee’s inclusion, but we live in hope.

2 Responses

  1. A very under-rated actor. Surprised you never mentioned his turn in The Crow as Funboy. You may not have due to him being the unfortunate who fired the prop gun that shot Brandon Lee.

    • Thanks James.

      I did avoid the role for that reason, because I found it very hard to talk about with going off on tangents – and I thought that was probably a bit unfair. I can’t presume to imagine what it is to be involved in an incident like that in that way, you know? I’m reluctant to talk about celebrities off-screen, but it’s one thing to talk about something a celebrity intentionally did or said and something like this.

      And I think that Massee is sort of forever associated with that – which makes it seem like a cheat to avoid it, but I kinda figure that it’s not fair to Massee. He’s much more than “the guy who accidentally shot Brandon Lee”, and I found it very difficult to really delve into that without either breezing over it, or dwelling on it.

      So I avoided it, which – I’ll admit – was probably a cop out on my part.

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