Beck on Deck
Any actor who could do double duty for directors Sam Peckinpah and Woody Allen in the same movie year must be given his due as a capable utility player. Chicago-born John Beck, who turns 74 this weekend, did just that in 1973. As Deputy J.W. Poe, he is an integral part of the manhunt by Lincoln County, New Mexico, sheriff Pat Garrett (James Coburn) in pursuit of the wayward killer outlaw Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) in Peckinpah’s troubled yet compelling tale on the legend of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Later that year, he was the studly revolutionary leader Erno Wendt, who vies with the uprooted-in-time Miles Monroe (Allen) for the affections of free-spirited poetess Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton) in the futuristic Sleeper. There’s range for you. So it’s no surprise that Beck’s skills caught the eye of two other great directors soon afterward for provocative projects in the Twilight Time library. In order to explore themes of violence and social conditioning, Norman Jewison was taking a leap into a turbulent futureworld himself, and he saw in Beck the ideal candidate to play Moonpie, the best friend and fellow team player of sports star Jonathan (James Caan), in the bruising and eerily prescient Rollerball (1975), written by William Harrison. Unlike Jonathan, the violent corporate-driven “sport’s” poster boy who questions the game’s purposeful bloodlust, Moonpie is sweetly naïve, uncurious and generally committed to the dangers and the perks it offers. When tragedy in the arena befalls Moonpie (and TT essayist asserts that the actor’s “louche, sneakily adorable” characterization is “his best-ever performance”), his plight spurs Jonathan’s resolve to disrupt the system and uncover the secret’s of this dark world’s menacing corporatocracy. Two years later, director Robert Wise cast Beck as a skeptical father who has to come to grips with the unthinkable in the film adaptation of Frank De Felitta’s novel Audrey Rose (1977). The painful truth that Beck’s New York advertising executive and his wife (Marsha Mason) face in terrifying increments is that their 11-year-old daughter Ivy (screen newcomer Susan Swift) may be housing the reincarnated soul of a girl who died in a fiery auto accident two minutes before instant of Ivy’s birth – and that the father of the ill-fated Audrey Rose, played by Anthony Hopkins, plans to prove that Audrey’s soul “transmigrated” into the body of Ivy and needs to find closure. The director of The Haunting and The Andromeda Strain strives for a tone that balances the clinically plausible and disturbingly spooky, and through the accumulation of suspicious incidents involving the unsettled Ivy and the harrowing conviction of the performances by Hopkins, Mason and Beck, Wise delivers a horror show more thoughtful that one might expect. After his brief run of roles in 1970s theatrical features, Beck largely concentrated on TV work in the 40 years that followed. But in tribute to the birthday honoree, TT lays proud claim to two rare and distinctly fine examples of his superior movie work with Rollerball and Audrey Rose on hi-def Blu-ray.