Tom Waits has inhabited unusual characters since the start of his career. In the ‘70s, when the prototypical West Coast singer-songwriters were post-hippie Laurel Canyon cocaine cowboys, he presented a carefully crafted bebop-era beatnik barfly persona, helping to keep porkpie hat makers in business. Over the years, he’s added complementary layers of homegrown eccentricity to his image, becoming one of America’s most intriguing oddballs in the process — but his larger-than-life public persona has always seemed like at least a close cousin to his true personality.
Just as Waits has played a kaleidoscopic collection of characters in his own songs, he’s spent decades parlaying his natural theatrical flair and endearing idiosyncrasies into a consistently memorable film career. With Waits unleashing another array of odd ducks this week via his new album, Bad As Me, here are his most compelling characters from the silver screen — required viewing for any fan of the Waits growl.
1. Zack (Down By Law, 1986)
It pretty much goes without saying that Waits’s film roles haven’t exactly tended toward highfalutin’ types — when “seedy” is part of the character description, he’s your go-to guy. His portrayal of the ne’er-do-well DJ-turned-jailbird Zack opposite John Lurie and Roberto Benigni in Jim Jarmusch’s black comedy set the template for a host of his subsequent parts. And when he lays into a little of his late-night DJ spiel, you can hear the huckster/balladeer of Waits’ Nighthawks At The Diner album peeking through.
2. Monte (Queens Logic, 1991)
This midlife-crisis dram-com by Steve Rash (the guy who made The Buddy Holly Story) didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but it had a lot to recommend it, especially Waits’ uproarious appearance as Monte, a stolen-jewelry dealer with a gloriously gaudy wardrobe and a sentimental streak. “He buys a new Monte Carlo every year just because his name is Monte,” observes costar Chloe Webb, and the role seems like he could have walked straight out of one of Waits’ seedy-underbelly-of-America narratives, like “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis.”
3. Renfield (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992)
Waits was on the vampire tip years before the rest of us. And he certainly bites down with relish on his role as Stoker’s “zoophagous maniac,” an asylum-dwelling psychopath that chows down gleefully on everything from insects to birds, and eventually falls fatally under the influence of the bloodthirsty Count Dracula. It’s easy to imagine Renfield fitting in comfortably with the creepy landscape of Waits’ Bone Machine album, perhaps popping up in a supporting role on “Murder in the Red Barn.”
4. Earl Piggott (Short Cuts, 1993)
In Robert Altman’s intertwining adaptation of several Raymond Carver stories, Waits plays an unsavory, alcoholic limo driver constantly falling in and out of favor with his live-in love (Lily Tomlin), a coffee-shop waitress. But Waits fans were already well acquainted with this guy – he’s the charming-but-unreliable rascal who’s been trying to sweet-talk his better half back in the door since at least as early as 1974’s “Please Call Me, Baby.”
5. Dr. A. Heller (Mystery Men, 1999)
One of the most engagingly offbeat items in Waits’s filmography, this cult comedy depicts the exploits of a team of underachieving superheroes, with Ben Stiller, Pee Wee Herman, and Janeane Garofalo among the aspiring adventurers. You can’t help imagining a connection between Waits’ off-the-wall inventor, who supplies the do-gooders with such weapons as the Canned Tornado and the Blame Thrower, and the ominous tinkerer at the center of “What’s He Building in There?” from Mule Variations, which was released just a couple of months prior to the movie.