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Michael J. Pollard, scene-stealing actor in ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ dies at 80

Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard and Faye Dunaway on the set of “Bonnie and Clyde.”
Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard and Faye Dunaway on the set of “Bonnie and Clyde.” (Everett Collection)
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Michael J. Pollard, a scene-stealing character actor who earned an Oscar nomination for the landmark 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde,” playing a getaway driver even though off-screen he never learned how to drive, died Nov. 20 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 80.

The cause was cardiac arrest, said a friend, Dawn Walker.

With a broad, cherubic face, dimpled chin, unruly hair and a charismatic presence described as “gnomelike,” Mr. Pollard excelled at playing imps, half-wits and outright weirdos. He was a Method-trained performer who revealed “the chaos inside” of his characters, a writer once observed, with a glance of inordinately expressive silence or the emission of rude bodily noises.

Mr. Pollard was the chronic-nosebleeding loser Hugo Peabody in the original Broadway production of the musical “Bye Bye Birdie” (1960), then had a brief apprenticeship with the Walt Disney Co. He appeared in the Disney musical “Summer Magic” (1963), opposite Hayley Mills, before parting ways. “I wasn’t really the Mickey Mouse image anyway,” he later told the New York Times.

A successful journeyman, he made TV appearances on series including “Star Trek,” “Gunsmoke” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” He also won admiring reviews as the 14-year-old messenger who delivers tragic War Department telegrams in a 1959 TV adaptation of William Saroyan’s World War II homefront story “The Human Comedy.”

His talent for improvisation earned him the admiration of Warren Beatty, who came to know Mr. Pollard when both worked on the sitcom “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” Years later, Beatty used his clout as movie star and producer to hire Mr. Pollard as C.W. Moss, the gas station attendant turned accomplice in “Bonnie and Clyde,” which critic Roger Ebert called “a milestone in the history of American movies.”

Marketed with an unforgettable tag line — “They’re young. They’re in love. And they kill people.” — the movie was a revisionist tale of the Depression-era outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, played by Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

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Its intermingling of bloodshed, almost farcical comedy and frank sexuality helped usher in a new era of violent imagery in mainstream cinema. Director Arthur Penn spoke of the film’s incongruous tone as a commentary on the folly of the Vietnam War.

In one memorable sequence, Mr. Pollard parks the getaway car during a bank heist and finds — at the worst possible moment — that he can’t maneuver out of the parking space. “There was this guy teaching me [to drive], but I couldn’t learn,” he told Ebert. “So here I was stuck in the parking place, and Penn said, ‘Okay, do it that way.’ ”

In the nervous moments that delay their escape, Clyde shoots the bank teller in the face.

“Bonnie and Clyde” was panned by the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who called it “as pointless as it is lacking in taste,” but the film found a champion in the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael. It was a resounding hit with younger audiences, who would also jolt the Hollywood establishment two years later by going en masse to another violent, taboo-busting film “Easy Rider.”

Mr. Pollard said he was unmoved by those who found “Bonnie and Clyde” too brutal. “That’s dopey, man,” he told Ebert. “Everybody’s violent. They’re criticizing themselves. Everybody will realize that in a year or so and start on something else. I don’t know. Hey, maybe they’ll start on humor in movies. Too much humor in movies. Children laughing too much.”

“Bonnie and Clyde” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best supporting actor (for Mr. Pollard). It won two: Burnett Guffey’s cinematography and Estelle Parsons’s supporting performance as Clyde’s sister-in-law.

The film remained the pinnacle of Mr. Pollard’s screen career, even as he continued working in dozens of films over the next five decades, playing all manner of eccentrics and creeps. He rarely was the subject of profiles, perhaps owing to his stream-of-consciousness answers to basic questions.

He was co-starring with Oliver Reed as Allied POWs in the World War II actioner “Hannibal Brooks” (1968) when he was asked to comment on the title of the film. The Times recorded his answer, of which this is only part:

“Hannibal Brooks, Hannibal Brooks, Brooks Hannibal, Hamburger Brooks, Brooks Hamburger, Cheeseburger Brooks, Brooks Hannibal, Hannibal Brooks, Brooks Atkinson Brooks. … The film in set in World War II. As you know there were two World Wars — number one and number two. If you liked World War II, you will love this movie. I can only compare it to the long brown overcoat which reaches down to here. Or to standing in the doorway in St. Louis in the rain. When you see this picture is playing, folks, you must run, not walk, to your local post office.”

The son of a bar manager, Michael John Pollack Jr. was born in Passaic, N.J., on May 30, 1939, and grew up in Garfield and Clifton, N.J.

At 20, he was attending the Actors Studio workshop in New York when the sexpot movie star Marilyn Monroe, seeking to bolster her credibility as an actress, also joined his class. According to Charles Casillo’s biography of Monroe, Mr. Pollard was the only man in the room with the guts to ask her to do a scene with him. (They recited passages from the novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”)

Mr. Pollard’s résumé was vast, including the Roger Corman-produced biker film “The Wild Angels” (1966), in which Mr. Pollard said he “nearly killed” co-star Peter Fonda because he could never master driving a chopper. He played a runny-nosed airplane mechanic in “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” (1966) and had a rare starring role as Billy the Kid in the low-budget “Dirty Little Billy” (1972).

He was a recovering alcoholic, Walker said, becoming sober in the 1980s. He went on to appear in “Melvin and Howard” (1980), “Roxanne” (1987), “Scrooged” (1988), the Beatty-directed “Dick Tracy” (1990) as Bug Bailey, “Tumbleweeds” (1999) and Rob Zombie’s “House of 1,000 Corpses’’ (2003).

His marriages to actress Beth Howland, best known as the nervous waitress Vera on the sitcom “Alice,” and Annie Tolstoy ended in divorce. Survivors include a daughter from his first marriage and a son from his second marriage.

Mr. Pollard, who enjoyed the company of poets and rock musicians, was credited with inspiring the title of the group Traffic’s 1971 hit “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” a song by bandmates Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi.

Capaldi told Goldmine magazine that he was traveling through Morocco with Mr. Pollard when the actor came up with the line. “It seemed to sum up all the people of that generation who were just rebels,” Capaldi said. “The ‘low spark,’ for me, was the spirit, high-spirited. You know, standing on a street corner. The low rider. The ‘low spark,’ meaning that strong undercurrent at the street level.”

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