Here’s to the befuddled average guys who cope with life’s tough breaks when the awkward events swirling around them invade their comfort zones and upend their core beliefs. Two class actors who memorably embodied such characters share today as a birthday. American treasure Paul Dooley, turning 89, is already in the driver’s seat voicing his recurring part of the jaunty military jeep Sarge in Disney/Pixar’s Cars 3 for release this summer, but his best-loved screen role (outside of his multiple collaborations with director Robert Altman) has to be the flummoxed father of a dreamy, would-be competitive bicyclist in the small-town Indiana world of the award-winning family favorite Breaking Away (1979, directed by Peter Yates). Dooley’s Ray Stoller, a former stonecutter who barely gets by in his used-car dealership, is perplexed and often overwhelmed by the exuberant obsession of his son Dave (Dennis Christopher) with two-wheeled vehicles as well as the music and culture of Italy, home to world-class cyclists. His journey from skeptic to convert, along with the unblinking faith on-screen spouse Evelyn (Barbara Barrie), is central to the film’s emotional framework, and the teamwork of Dooley and Barrie produces one of the most charming and evenhanded portraits of parenting ever. For his work, Dooley won the National Board of Review Best Supporting Actor Award, and one word spoken by his car salesman character became an enduring legacy, as he told HollywoodChicago.com interviewer Patrick McDonald last summer: “It was all written. When I performed this script, I didn’t suggest anything, because it was the best-written script I had seen up to that point [Steve Tesich won an Oscar® for the screenplay]. ‘REFUND’ was in there, and it’s become my hallmark. Truck drivers to this day will lean out of their windows and say the line back to me. I think I said it maybe seven times in the film, and each line reading was slightly different. To this day, I will write it on pictures when people ask me for an autograph.”
British screen and theatrical icon John Mills (1908-2005), as The Guardian’s Tim Pulleine wrote in the publication’s April 25, 2005 obituary of the actor, had “a quality of everyday realism [that] seemed to cling to his best performances, without detracting from his stylistic range.” Though he would play many an everyman, military officer and aristocrat across more than seven decades, he always had a particular fondness for one among a handful of David Lean projects, Hobson’s Choice (1954), as a hardscrabble 1880s Lancashire bootmaker. “‘It was the performance I have enjoyed most,’ he said later. ‘Willie Mossop was a wonderful part, an unglamorous chap, but he was a hero.’” A later salt-of-the-earth character, to whom the actor contributed his voice and his 50 years of experience playing Britons of simple decency, everyday resolve and faith in governing institutions, appeared in an innovative, politically pointed and vibrantly unique blend of hand-drawn and stop-motion animation and contemporary and archival news footage. When Mills and Peggy Ashcroft voiced James and Hilda Bloggs in the satirically scathing and yet sadly poignant When the Wind Blows (1986), adapted from Raymond Briggs’ 1982 graphic novel about an average, elderly pensioner couple stoically and trustingly soldiering on through the aftermath of a nuclear attack, “neither…had done voiceovers before. In fact when they walked in for the recording session it was the first time they had met,” David Jefferson and Geoffrey Mackrill chronicled in Animator Magazine. “‘You are talking about two very professional “professionals.” They are fantastic. They did the last nine minutes of the film in one take. It is possibly the heaviest part of the story and at the end of the take John Mills said, “For Christ sake, I can’t do that again.” There was no need. It was perfect. The whole three days went well with very few retakes,’ recalls [the project’s technical manager Peter] Turner.” Mills deliberated with actorly aplomb before taking his first voiceover assignment.
Per the Animator piece, “There was a lovely experience when John Mills walked in carrying his brolly and asked to see Mr. [producer John] Coates. As animation people, we are not used to stars and probably expected more flamboyant behavior. [Director] Jimmy Murakami took him over to the storyboard and started explaining it, but he said, ‘No, I will read it.’ And we all stood there like twits for 30 minutes while he went through the complete storyboard on his own. At the end of the 30 minutes he said, ‘It’s fantastic. I’ll do it.’” In a 2001 interview profile in The Guardian, writer Emma Brockes reflected: “Doing the decent thing, of course, is how we have come to characterize Sir John Mills, whose roles in all those dashing war films – In Which We Serve, We Dive at Dawn, Ice Cold in Alex – established him as an actor of almost mythical English qualities, before such things were agonized over for jingoism.” With his naïve yet endearing James Bloggs in When the Wind Blows, Mills delicately and precisely revisited that past, yet movingly shuffled down the darker path of dubious jingoism to powerful effect. As the generously extras-outfitted Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays of Breaking Away (available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/28466/BREAKING-AWAY-1979/) and When the Wind Blows exhilarate and devastate, we tip our birthday caps to Dooley and Mills, whose ordinary joes make their films extraordinary.