We at Breakfast In The Ruins were greatly saddened today to hear of the death of Tomas Milian, the Cuban-born actor whose unforgettable, off-the-leash performances enlivened dozens of Italian movies through the ’60, ‘70s and beyond.
Milian’s irascible energy and man-child capering often render him a borderline insufferable screen presence – indeed, I’ve avoided seeking out any of the more broadly comic films that were built around his star persona from the mid/late ‘70s onward for precisely that reason. But, when he had a good director, a good script or good co-stars to lock horns with, he was capable of turning it some of the most intense and committed performances found anywhere in genre cinema, whether essaying wide-eyed innocents, fevered psychopaths or – his particular speciality – a variety of unsettling combinations of the two.
A larger than life physical performer who seemed to end up dominating any movie he appeared in, it’s always a joy to see Milian almost literally bouncing off the more stoic, conventional action stars he was often paired with (Lee Van Cleef or Henry Silva for example), just as it’s great to see him constantly imbuing characters who must have been fairly bland as paper with a sense of raw, working class desperation that never feels anything less than wholly authentic.
A roll-call of the most notable movies he appeared in speaks for itself, and it’s safe to say that not one of them would be as well-remembered or well-regarded as it is today without his contribution;
‘The Big Gundown’ (1966), ‘Face to Face’ (1967), ‘Django Kill!’ (1967), ‘Bandits in Milan’ (1968), ‘Tepepa’ (1968), ‘Compañeros’ (1970), ‘Don't Torture a Duckling’ (1972), ‘Syndicate Sadists’ (1975), ‘Four of the Apocalypse’ (1975), ‘Rome Armed To The Teeth’ (1976), ‘The Cynic, The Rat and The Fist’ (1977). All of these though are just a half-step behind what must be the stand-out performance of a career full of stand-out performances, as the fatalistic sociopath Sacchi in Umberto Lenzi’s ‘Almost Human’ (1974) – an incredible film that would be reduced to a mere shadow of itself without Milian’s presence.
(As an aside, I’m faintly astonished to discover today how old Milian actually was; that he was still able to convincingly play these kind of out-of-control street punk roles in his early forties is remarkable.)
Interestingly, outside of his stardom in Italy, Milian also played a wide range of character roles in American films over the years, ranging from playing Raphael in ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’ (1965) to later parts in the likes of ‘JFK’ and ‘Traffic’. He also turned up rather unexpectedly in Dennis Hopper’s ‘The Last Movie’ in 1971. But regardless – it’s as a beady-eyed, sweat-soaked, gun-toting wild man wreaking death-defying havoc through the streets of urban Italy or the deserts of Almeria that most of us remember him – R.I.P.
Unfortunately, circumstances dictate that this Saturday night is not movie night in our home, but I’ll be getting a Milian marathon pencilled in for next weekend, and if anyone objects, I’ll pay tribute to the great man by shouting and screaming, tearing my shirt and going loco with a fruit knife (not really).
I couldn’t resist posting this shot of Milian looking almost impossibly cool alongside Gabriel García Márquez in 1974.