Timothy Carey: The world’s greatest character actor

By on January 14, 2016

Sleazy fuzztone bursts into your brain — you’ve heard for years Frank Zappa is responsible. Is that Ray Collins from the Mothers of Invention singing? It is. He’s telling you that the eponymous character may be rotten to the core, but as a sinner he’s a winner.” Fair enough… the titles tumble, the music takes hold: Timothy Carey is presenting his masterpiece and it’s time pay attention.

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Timothy Carey. The face. The jowls. The unshaven stubble. Those teeth. How he stood. How he walked… and fuckin’ hell, how the man talked! Oozing his way across screens, TV, and drive-in… big movies, tiny oddities, TV appearances.

Was Ernest Borgnine gunning him down in “Airwolf” once? I’m pretty sure that happened. He gave off the impression of smelling like an egg and pepper sandwich, or even a chain-smoking gravedigger in the words of one onlooker to his crazed career.

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“I don’t know anything about cinema or anything… I don’t like it. Bunch of lonely people going in, looking up. Forget about it.” – Morgan Morgan, Minnie & Moskowitz

His appearances in Kubrick films always fascinated me as this was clearly a character who played by his own highly idiosyncratic, possibly hypocritical rules — who operated from a revised script that existed only in his head, occupying a parallel film universe to characters he’d share the screen with.

Drawing attention to himself with little twitches and odd ticks — you couldn’t help but stare at him. He stole every scene he was in just by breathing heavily… Then came his work with Cassavetes, another genuine celluloid crazy who did things his way. Obviously they got on great for a while and sweated through several films together.

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“We slip, we bleed. Cassavetes taught me that. The truth is, I never really cared about conventional success. I was probably fired more than any other actor in Hollywood.” – Timothy Carey, Film Comment interview

I’d heard about The World’s Greatest Sinner for years without getting hold of a copy. In the interim, his other acting roles and interview in Psychotronic were fetishized to a terrifying degree… Then: a breakthrough. My chance finally came when his son Romeo presented a print at the Egyptian Theater. I was inexplicably sitting behind Poison Ivy and Lux Interior of The Cramps when the film began to go through the projector and without a doubt it changed my life. Or were they there a little later at a Maria Montez night?

These life-changing, namedropping experiences happen thick and fast in retrospect and begin to stick to each other like filthy magazine fragments in the gutter.

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“I’m not a preacher and I’m not drunk… I’m just a politician!”

Ray Dennis Steckler shot the film. Just let that sink into your head for a bit by calmly repeating it like you’re Mike Love on the tail of a really compelling mantra: Ray Dennis Steckler shot the film. I spent a really fun day with him in Las Vegas once at his video store in 2001, filming a ridiculous scene for my endless garage band epic “I Was a Teenage Beatnik.

But mostly we just talked for hours, bouncing around topics and laughing at what Nick Zedd so accurately described as the “baroque occupation” of being an underground filmmaker. He was testing me, probing my defenses, busting my chops, then finally dropped his guard and talked tender celluloid turkey with all the trimmings.

Though hilariously bitter about the business as the only customers that day who entered the store walked briskly past racks of westerns and his own films to head straight for the porn, he lit up at the mention of Timothy Carey and called him “an original.”

What had it been like shooting Carey and working at his pace with what must’ve been negligible if not non-existent money? He smiled and changed the subject to meeting Harpo Marx. I’d heard that story before, “I read Incredibly Strange Films, Ray.” He plowed on with his anecdote. I smiled along and asked about Carey again.

It turned out Ray didn’t shoot all of it and seemed a little sheepish about a small falling out. Back to Harpo Marx, then. I really need to find somebody that isn’t dead to tell me more one of these days.

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I’ve since been told by Marisa Young: “Tim had a couple other cinematographers, including – are you ready? – Edgar G. Ulmer, who is billed as Ove H. Sehested which must be an anagram for something.”

Edgar G. Ulmer! Of course. It makes perfect sense that the guy behind Detour, The Black Cat, and The Amazing Transparent Man would be involved. (Marisa’s website should be your next stop for advanced Carey studies… a big thank you to her and Romeo for being so helpful and providing pics.)

But enough about Steckler! Let’s start sinning, shall well?

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The mighty Carey swaggers onto the screen. He’s an insurance salesman at first: a grade A dupe named Clarence with a family, a house, and what seems to be a vaguely healthy horse. He takes time out from the narrative to ride it around a bit, making me wonder what the deal was behind the scenes. Clarence isn’t content with the gray American suburban soup of a life in Southern California.

Clarence has a vision. The vision comes in the form of an electric guitar and an audience. An anonymous combo preach the monophonic pop gospel and Clarence is converted overnight: he wants to preach his message and wrap it in a sausage skin of greasy rock n’ roll salvation. Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggert in the same sweaty, barrel-chested body, Carey goes forth to spread the infectious word… Maybe we should listen? We can all live forever as Super Human Beings, apparently. I’m not sure how it works but believe him anyway.

The film astonishes as it careens from scene to scene. Carey’s performance is genuinely hypnotic, I never not want to be looking at him and man, does he fill the frame with his majestically rancid beef roast of a face… absurd fake goatee added on the advice of his Mexican protege and confidante, the better to set off the embroidered GOD on his cuffs. Pretty nice, actually. A stage look sure to be revived by our favorite rising young pop floptops when the rest of the world catches up to Timothy Carey.

“Tim Carey was having an adventure — whatever happened, he thought it was great. As far as the script goes, it never made sense at the beginning when I read it. He didn’t care about that cause he just threw the pages away anyway.” – Ray Dennis Steckler, Uno Mas Magazine, 1996

This manic sweatbilly bargain basement movement gathers steam, recruiting a handful of vulnerable followers. Clarence “God” Hillard realizes his destiny while seducing old women for funds to fuel the crusade. Did I mention that the story is narrated by Paul Frees’ devil-snake? He seems really pleased about the way things are going, too. It is a pretty thoroughly sordid satanic caper with heart, so I could see why the Prince of Darkness would have such a sarcastic stake in it’s success.

How much of this is autobiographical, Mr. Carey?

Fuck, he’s dead.

OK, I better talk to his son, then.

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AP: “Why do you think your father’s movie sticks in everyone’s minds so much? What the hell is it about The World’s Greatest Sinner?”

ROMEO CAREY:Cassavetes, after viewing TWGS wrote: “Carey has the emotional brilliance of an Eisenstein!” The quote reveals that emotional brilliance could explain, partly, why TWGS lingers in the minds of many, long after watching TWGS.

During a very emotional event, the brain records not only the details of the experience (where we were, when, who was there, what happened, etc.) but the emotions we experienced at the time as well. The entire memory of an emotional event like TWGS is a form of an assault, akin to a car wreck, a wedding, loss of a loved one, a combat experience, etc. When we remember a traumatic events, the brain often remembers both the details and emotional memory at the same time.

If we remember the details of being assaulted, we will also experience the feelings we had at that time – the increased heart rate, fearfulness, panic, and desperation. I think my father, a devoted Catholic, after much prayer, believed he was on a mission from God and was granted extraordinary powers to influence without the use of logic, to cast spells, he thought he was a Super Human Being.”

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AP:What’s your favorite reaction you’ve seen from someone who’s watched Sinner?”

ROMEO CAREY:Some of my favorite reactions are when film-goers walk-out during the film, uttering insults. Another reaction I like was when a friend quit his corporate job to purse his own small business because he was so inspired. ‘Love or Hate it, Nothing In-Between’ was something my father liked to say. He was not interested in mediocrity.”

“This was a man with the courage to fail, but not before he did everything in his power not to. I remember showing the film in London at a film festival they did a double-bill of a new print of It’s a Wonderful Life and TWGS. At the end of Wonderful Life the crowed immediately broke into applause and a standing ovation”

“When TWGS followed, the same audience was mortified but engaged and at the end of the film instead of an applause the audience was deadpan for what seemed an eternity, then the first clap followed by an a huge uproarious applaud and ovation. Timothy Carey and Michelangelo share some of the same traits: they are without a doubt rare inspirational and talented artists who created artistic work by shaping raw material into their visions. When art is fused by Super Human Beings the energy in that divine art lives forever within the work.”

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AP: “Did you ever get a chance to watch it with him?”

ROMEO CAREY: “I watched TWGS with my father in many interesting theaters and locals and he never sat with the audience, he remained in the projection booth until the end credits rolled. Screening the films was always like an opening, an event; replete with searchlights, Mariachi’s or music, like Elvis Presley songs in German playing in the theater entrance.”

“My father would open the film with a personal appearance; delivering poetry and scenes and farting musical notes. As a self-publicist and showman, Timothy Carey cultivated a unique exhibitionism and eccentricity in the work he created; not only in his art forms, but also in the way which he presented himself to the general public.”

“In fact, in 1993, at the Nuart in Santa Monica, he came to the show dressed in his gold lamé suit, and performed scenes from his play, The Insect Trainer: “Live Longer, Live Healthier, Let Thy Arse Make Wind!”

“He system relies on the release of personal gas to maintain optimum health. He claimed that a Fart and a Sneeze should have equal time and social acceptance. Flatulence, he thought, was not only something that should be used in the art form, but it should also be a habit which people followed during the daily course of their lives, especially with interactions with the general public.”

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About Andre Perkowski

Andre Perkowski​ is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and collage artist known for his three hour adaptation of the 1964 William S. Burroughs cut-up novel "Nova Express." His underground features weave together found footage, digital, Super-8, and 16mm shards into shambling pop culture Frankensteins. His no-budget Dadaist kung fu epic "A Belly Full of Anger" features the voices of Bob Odenkirk, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, and Phil Proctor. His current project is a documentary entitled "Virtual Boys" on the rise, fall, and rise again of consumer virtual reality. You can find further evidence of his arcane research into The Firesign Theatre, Edward D. Wood, Jr., The Residents, Orson Welles, Batman, Brian Wilson, and other subjects at his Terminal Pictures Youtube page: youtube.com/terminalpictures
  • Brian Chidester

    Awesome piece.

  • Jean-Jacques Gariepy

    Thanks for your wonderful peek into the personality – or perhaps the mask – of a fascinating artist.