News broke* last night that Powers Boothe died at the age of 68, and there was much sadness. Few played a steely eyed, gravelly voiced badass with the joie de vivre of Mr. Boothe.
His most iconic role, especially for those of us who came to adulthood during the so-called Golden Age of Television, was that of Cy Tolliver, the pimp with a heart of black who served as Al Swearengen's foil on Deadwood. Whereas Al's wickedness tended to serve both himself and the community he was hoping to build, Cy's brand of villainy was both a bit more selfish and a bit darker—and Boothe was the perfect man to embody the purveyor of high-class flesh.
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A stocky, well-built 6'2″, Boothe brought a looming menace to the role—doubly so because there was always a hint of sadism just behind his narrow eyes. Or perhaps just above them; a protruding brow made it seem as though he was forever frowning, even as he tossed off an evil grin. Nowhere was this complex brand of menacing faux-friendliness better seen than in the seventh and eighth episodes of Deadwood‘s first season, when Cy takes under his wing a pair of teenage grifters—or, at least, appears to. He is wise to their game from the get-go, and violently dispatches with the both of them in order to "persuade" his top girl to stick around.
The sequence is hard to watch, in large part because of the barely controlled cruelty that Boothe projects: leaning over the backrest of a chair turned round, he's loose, relaxed, and yet manic, a rage building inside. Boothe's silver voice slips into a hoarse yell as Cy's anger grows. Though difficult to stomach, the scene helps drive home a point. Swearengen, for all his brutality, all his killing, was a businessman. Cy, on the other hand, was a barely constrained fiend, one just waiting to get out.
As it happens, Boothe played a key role in two of my favorite westerns: Deadwood and Tombstone, in which he played Curly Bill. It was this performance that allowed Boothe to achieve immortality in the most modern way possible: memehood.
And deservedly so: who else could sneer "bye" like that? But it's another line of Curly Bill's that I remember with greater fondness:
Fewer lines of dialogue are more useful in real world situations.
And then, of course, you have Boothe's turn as the colonel in Red Dawn. One of the key takeaways from Boothe's bit part is that if you put the dialogue into the mouth of one of our great character actors, you can get away with just vomiting up information for the viewers.
It will likely be of interest to readers of the Beacon that Boothe was one of the few out-of-the-closet conservatives in Hollywood; he provided the voiceover narration for one of John McCain's campaign ads in 2008:
The family asks that his fans make donations to the Gary Sinise Foundation in his honor.
*And then kind of unbroke and then was confirmed; Twitter's history of spreading fraudulent celebrity RIPs makes it kind of a crapshoot to take anyone's word for it, even when the initial word comes from someone (like, say, Beau Bridges) who should have firsthand knowledge.