Robert Bush noon, July 5
The hairy sledgehammer of fate has come down on Charles Napier. The lantern-jawed, hard-ass character actor who first came to the public's attention playing sadistic redneck lawmen in Russ Meyer softcore porn epics, has died.
The Kentucky-born Napier served in the 11th Airborne Division before becoming a teacher. (What must it have been like to be seated in a classroom with Prof. Harry Sledge behind the lectern? I would have loved to have heard his chalk talk on Polish munitions.) Napier moved to Hollywood and landed bit roles in TV series (Mannix, Hogan's Heroes, Star Trek) before hooking up with Meyer for the first of four films together.
Cherry, Harry, and Raquel is a minor miracle. Napier plays a racist border cop determined to keep American soil free of reefer and illegal aliens. (Provided they were born with cannonballs where breasts should have been, promiscuous bimbos of all races, creeds, and colors were more than welcome to stay.)
Legend has it that the lab destroyed much of the original footage leaving the film with a barely graspable narrative. Russ inserted voice-over narration and ample long shots of equally plenteous starlets cavorting in the all-together. Unwitting critics applauded Russ' audacious surrealism.
Napier went on to appear in smaller roles on Russ' two mainstream studio releases, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and The Seven Minutes. It wasn't until SuperVixens, Russ' magnum opus and the first of his features where sex and violence became inseparable, that Napier answered his calling. He plays Harry Sledge, another corrupt cop with a fixation on busty babes. When ridiculed for his impotence by the pneumatic SuperAngel (Shari Eubank), he breaks into the bathroom, throws an electric radio in her tub, and proceeds to stomp her to death. The scene endures as the funniest parody of Hitchcock's often-imitated shower sequence in Psycho.
SuperAngel is reborn as SuperVixen and before the curtain falls, Harry is tied Lemuel Gulliver-style with a stick of dynamite planted firmly between his legs, while Vix runs off to masturbate with, not on, a mountain. You couldn't ask for better entertainment!
By the time Meyer and Napier collaborated on SuperVixens, home video was a scant few years away from making pornography a black cassette to be viewed in the privacy of your living room as opposed to a theatre packed with businessmen on an extended lunch break. Many have tried to make the crossover from porn (be it softcore or hard) to "legitimate" films, but Joan Crawford, Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand, and Sylvester Stallone notwithstanding, none achieved the success of Charles Napier.
Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme cast Napier as a square-jawed good luck charm in eleven of his films. He was the cop who "masked" Hannibal Lechter in Silence of the Lambs, a judge in Philadelphia, and a ticked-off carny in Beloved. My favorite bit in a Demme bit finds Napier as Howard Hughes' well-appointed Camel-buying (but not smoking) errand boy, who delivers the will to Melvin Dumar in Melvin and Howard.
With over one hundred mainstream films and television shows to his credit, Napier had long outlived his kinky past. He was 75 and the cause of death has yet to be released. My eyes lit up every time his name appeared in an opening credit crawl. He served us well and will be sorely missed.
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