Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Christopher Lloyd: Eccentric genius

Christopher Lloyd as Jim Ignatowski in "Taxi".
"You changed your name TO Ignatowski?"
~Alex Rieger to Jim Ignatowski in "Taxi"

Yesterday was Christopher Lloyd's birthday, and if there was ever an actor who could portray an eccentric character, it was him.

Reverend Jim
Christopher Lloyd rose to prominence in the TV series "Taxi", playing the burnt-out driver Reverend Jim Ignatowski from 1979 to 1983, after appearing as a guest star in 1978. It was revealed he had been a student at Harvard who was doomed once he took a bite from a hash brownie.

The episode I remember best was when he had to go home for a family commitment. We discover he comes from a wealthy family. However, he cannot face things alone so he asks Alex Rieger (Judd Hirsch), the moral centre of the show, to come with him.

At first, Alex does not seem to believe Jim when they arrive at this mansion. Yet, Jim persists and they go up to the front door. The butler obviously recognizes Jim. He invites them in and asks to take their bags. Alex hands the butler his suit case. Jim hands him a pair of old sneakers.

It is also revealed that Jim's real name is Jim Caldwell.

"You changed your name to Ignatowski?" Alex asks incredulously.

"It was the 60s – everyone was doing it," Jim replies.

There are very few characters as eccentric and offbeat as Jim Ignatowski. For his memorable work in that role, Christopher Lloyd won two Emmys for the role of Reverend Jim, in 1982 and 1983.

Christopher Lloyd as Captain James T. Kirk's nemesis
in "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock".
From New York to the Klingon Home World
Once "Taxi" ended, Lloyd found his way into the movies where more eclectic roles followed.

I recall him in heavy make-up as Commander Kruge, the Klingon antagonist to Captain James T. Kirk and company in "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock". He was awesome in that role.

It was a tough act to follow, because Ricardo Montalban had been legendary as the villain in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan". Yet, Lloyd had some good lines.

When he captures the crew of the Enterprise, Kirk asks for a minute.

"I give two," he said. The way he said it made me laugh.

At another moment, when he realized what he discovered, regarding the Genesis device, he said, "This is the turn of luck I have been waiting for."

I have used that quote many times since myself.

And of course, no one quite took a kick in the face (or half a dozen) like Kruge did when he was hanging onto Kirk's leg for dear life with the Genesis Planet coming apart around them.

"I – have – had – enough - of – you," Kirk said, kicking Kruge in the face with each word he said.

It was an awesome performance, but just the prelude to something even better.

Christopher Lloyd in his iconic role Doc Brown
in the "Back to the Future" trilogy.
Back to the Future
It was the summer of 1985 and, being the the huge Michael J. Fox fan from "Family Ties" that I already was, I was excited to see "Back to the Future". My longtime friend and neighbour Mat had earned his driver's licence, so he drove us to the College Cinema to see the movie.

I had heard a lot about the movie. Initially, Eric Stoltz was supposed to play Marty McFly, but he was committed to "Mask" so he bowed out. Gary David Goldberg, the creator of "Family Ties" recommended Fox, so he assumed the role of McFly. Also, Huey Lewis and the News was set to do the theme song, and I had fallen in love with their album "Sports" the previous summer while visiting my cousin Fred in Brooks.

However, the one thing I did not know was that Reverend Jim himself would be playing Dr. Emmet Brown, creator of the Flux Capacitor, the modified Delorean, and time traveller extraordinaire.

The performance he turned in as the bewildered yet brilliant Doc Brown was brilliant. He had chemistry with Fox, and was the perfect blend of goofy, clumsy, and clever.

He would go on to repeat that role in two more sequels before the end of the decade.

Like so many sequels, "Back to the Future II and III" were not as good as the original, but they were still all right.

Christopher Lloyd in "The Dream Team".
The Dream Team
Christopher Lloyd closed out the 1980s with another eccentric role, this time as a group of escaped delusional patients in 1989's "The Dream Team". He played alongside Michael Keaton, Peter Boyle, and Stephen Furst, and turned in another good performance. His character deluded himself into believing he is one of the doctors at the sanitarium, and was constantly clutching a clipboard and making notes. In a very poignant scene, a child (a relative I believe) asks him to use the clipboard and, after resisting so many others throughout the movie who wanted to take it, he gave it to the child. It was a pretty layered performance.

Parting thoughts
There were other movies, such as "Clue", "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", and "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension", but I never saw those.

What I did see was another versatile actor who had the ability to make what could be one-dimensional roles into multi-layered characters. Whether he was a burnt-out cab driver, a ruthless Klingon commander, a time-travelling scientist, or a patient suffering delusions, he was always memorable. He really was brilliant at playing the eccentric.

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