Charles Napier, Hollywood actor known for playing authority-types, dies at 75

October 6, 2011

Charles Napier, whose square jaw, sturdy frame and hard-edged voice made him one of the busiest and most adaptable character actors in Hollywood, died Oct. 5 at a hospital in Bakersfield, Calif.

The 75-year-old Mr. Napier appeared in hundreds of television and film roles, starting in movies by porn director Russ Meyer and becoming a fixture in the work of Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme. Both Meyer and Demme considered Mr. Napier one of their favorite actors.

The death was reported by the Bakersfield Californian, citing a friend of the actor. The cause of death was not disclosed.

From his earliest years in Hollywood, the Kentucky-born Mr. Napier was cast in roles as an authority figure with a sweaty-browed difference. He was a randy cop in Meyer’s “Cherry, Harry and Raquel!” (1970) and a sadistic officer in Meyer’s “Supervixens” (1975).

As his career progressed, he was a duplicitous intelligence officer in “Rambo: First Blood Part 2” (1985) and played ludicrously grim-faced military men in “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” (1997) and its sequel.

The film critic Roger Ebert once summarized the menacing charisma of Mr. Napier by describing him as “a character actor with a smile like Jaws.”

Mr. Napier was also skillful at playing oafish and deliriously self-obsessed comic roles: a musical space hippie in a 1969 “Star Trek” episode, a dim and short-tempered country singer in “The Blues Brothers” (1980) and the voice of TV-station owner Duke Phillips in the animated pop-culture sendup “The Critic” (1994).

While the handful of Meyer films were something Mr. Napier tried to put behind him, they were crucial to his career trajectory. Those early kinky films won a devoted following, with fans including director John Landis (“Blues Brothers”) and Demme, who saw in Mr. Napier an actor willing to be mauled, taunted and otherwise humiliated for dramatic or comic effect.

In Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), Mr. Napier was a guard whose face is removed and used as a mask by Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins). He was a fair-minded judge in Demme’s AIDS melodrama “Philadelphia” (1993).

Working with Demme, Mr. Napier played a womanizing trucker with the CB handle Chrome Angel in “Handle With Care” (1977) and then played very against type as an effeminate hairdresser in “Married to the Mob” (1988). He also had small roles in Demme’s “Melvin and Howard” (1980), “Swing Shift” (1984) and “Something Wild” (1986).

Mr. Napier was born in Mount Union, Ky., on April 12, 1936. After Army service, he attended Western Kentucky University and worked as a teacher in Kentucky and Florida while also appearing in community theater productions.

Settling in Southern California, he supplemented his acting work by taking photos for Overdrive Magazine, a trucking publication. He said he began working for Meyer by chance after showing up at a casting call to act as bodyguard to a stripper being considered for a role.

Mr. Napier recently wrote a memoir, “Square Jaw and Big Heart,” in which he recalled his first film with Meyer.

“Russ convinced me to do what is easily the most embarrassing moment of my film career,” he wrote. “He talked me into running naked, except for my boots and hat, straight at the camera. If you ever have the misfortune of seeing yourself doing what I did, you’d never do it again. And I didn’t.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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