Is it really better to be bad than good on film? Does the role of a villain produce more of a lasting effect for an actor on an audience than simply being the noble one? Actors like Powers Boothe reinforced the notion that a great "baddie" on film could linger for a while. Boothe passed away on Sunday at the age of 68 to natural causes, but he left behind a legacy as a titular villain in the world of film.
The biggest impression for me from Boothe as an actor was his portrayal of Curly Bill Brocius in George P. Cosmatos' underrated 1993 western, Tombstone. While Val Kilmer and Kurt Russell rightfully got a lions share of the credit for the film's efficiency, Boothe's bad guy was vital to the film. Without him, there's no reason to care as much about the heroes. Along with Michael Biehn's Johnny Ringo, Boothe's Brocius kept the good guys on their toes-and with that, the entire film benefited, creating a showdown for the ages. Due to Boothe, Tombstone is one of the best Westerns of all time. Every great cowboy film needs a juicy dual sided villain. Think of Unforgiven with Gene Hackman or John Vernon in Outlaw Josey Wales.
Boothe played a part in 69 different movies or television shows, the last of which coming in a recurring role on Agents of Shield, but for my money, that didn't touch his work in HBO's Deadwood as Cy Tolliver, the main rival to Ian McShane's Al Swearagen. While he wasn't the main adversary of Timothy Olyphant's Seth Bullock, Tolliver was a thorn in a few characters side and his duel with Swearagen over the course of the show's run was a juicy element that didn't get fully realized, and left fans wanting more. Tolliver wasn't a part of Deadwood's true history, but Boothe brought him to life in a way that made you wonder if this guy did exist.
2014's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For may not have been a great sequel, but Boothe gave Senator Roark a deadly menace that few other actors could bring to the table. He only had a handful of scenes, but once again in his sweet spot playing the big bad wolf, Boothe's actions affected the cast in a number of ways, most notably Joseph Gordon-Levitt's poker player grifter. Try not to get a chill throughout your spine in their final scene together.
Remember Frailty, the first time Matthew McConaughey walked on the bad side of film? Powers Boothe was the federal agent who had to pry testimony out of McConaughey's mysterious loner, and Bill Paxton's directorial debut wisely led you on for the entire two hour running time as to who was the real bad guy at the center of the film-Boothe's agent or McConaughey's character. While he wasn't the star of the show, Boothe didn't drift far from your mind on the way out.
Let's think real cheese for a minute. How about Sudden Impact with Jean Claude Van Damme? The "Muscles from Brussel's" played a firefighter who locked horns with Boothe's terrorist during a Pittsburgh Penguins hockey game. Now, no one in their right mind would think the older actor could hold his own with the martial arts driven action star, but that wasn't the point. Boothe's adversary played a mental game with Van Damme's hero, and it included a number of elements. Without Boothe, the film is a joyless action vehicle.
He didn't always play a straight bad guy; Boothe brought Brandon Lee's action hero spark to life as his partner in Rapid Fire, was a heroic figure in the original Red Dawn, and chewed scenery as Vice President Noah Daniels on Fox's 24. He eschewed grace in Blue Sky and had some fun in MacGruber.
However, when I think of Boothe on film, Curly Bill will be my first frame of reference, because he was just nasty and pure-blooded danger. He made an impression on me with that role that didn't go away.
No matter what role he took on, Powers Boothe imbued the character with a special brand of menace, and that isn't an easy thing to do. When an actor plays a bad guy in a movie, audiences can associate that role with every other film he attempts to portray evil in. That didn't happen with Boothe. Sure, he brought that signature cackle and deep stare to every role, but there was something different about each of his roles.
He will be missed, but the great thing about the world of make-believe is that it all exists out there for you to revisit or enjoy for the first time. An old film can be digested today and a newer product can be enjoyed tomorrow. There's no reading or research required with enjoying an actor's greatest bodies of work; just sit down and get ready to be entertained.
Boothe leaves behind a legacy that every hard working actor should take to heart: you don't have to be the leading face in a movie to steal it away and leave a lasting imprint on a movie watcher's soul.