You know Henry Gibson. He’s one of those character actors who beefed up everything he was in, and indelibly so. Fully worthy of Jett’s appellation ‘an OTG actor’ (no matter how bad the movie, when he’s on screen, your reflex is to say ‘Oh Thank God’). You can’t imagine ‘Magnolia’ without his Luciferian bar-loiterer Thurston Howell, stirring William H Macy to humiliate himself with his unrequited love Brad (evoking the sinister sliminess of Richard Burton in ‘The Medusa Touch‘, Gibson here seemed to invest his voice with supernatural powers); ‘The Blues Brothers’ would be poorer (and the climactic, ridiculous chase sequence much less funny) without his absurd white supremacist; and, despite ‘Nashville‘s status as a fully ensembled ensemble, it is his character, Haven Hamilton, who sings the overture and facilitates the coda.
He helped anchor work as various and memorable as ‘The Long Goodbye’ (which Elliott Gould told us recently may have a sequel on the way), and Joe Dante’s wonderful homage to 50s kitsch sci-fi ‘Innerspace’. And who else played two different guest roles on both ‘The Fall Guy’ and ‘MacGuyver’ (with character names like Meriwell Cooper, Milton Bach, and my personal favourite, Pinky Burnette; not to mention Reilly O’Reilly (you heard that right) in something called ‘The Luck of the Irish. To be sure.) He also made it into ‘The Littlest Hobo’, which happens to have been my favourite show when I was eight years old. In one of those eyebrow raising coincidences that actors of his generation seem to carry in their pockets, he got his stage name from Jon Voigt, an old roommate, who, along with others who have spoken to the press since his death on Monday, seems to have shared the view that he was one of the kindest men they knew; and, yes, it was a deliberate attempt to evoke the name of the author of ‘A Doll’s House’.
But I’ll remember him most for ‘Magnolia’, in the dark velvet smoking jacket, sneering at all-comers, laying down the gauntlet to the universe, saying No to grace. He clearly hasn’t seen the weather forecast. ‘Magnolia’, of course, is soaked with references to the numbers ‘2’ and ‘8’, indicating the 8th chapter, 2nd verse of the book of Exodus (in case you haven’t been doing scripture memorisation lately, that’s a sentence about the potential for certain amphibious creatures to interrupt your day, make you look, and maybe even wise, up). If memory serves, the introduction to the published shooting script for ‘Magnolia’ has Paul Thomas Anderson saying that he got the biblical reference from Henry Gibson, meaning that he had much more of a hand in that movie than simply sitting devilish and asking for another drink.
‘It is a dangerous thing to confuse children with angels’, says Thurston Howell, egging Macy’s Quiz Kid Donnie Smith to shred a little bit more of his ego; ‘It’s not’, says Donnie later, throwing up his embarrassment, not knowing that tonight will be a turning point toward his own redemption, and perhaps the end of his loneliness. It is, however, a dangerous thing to confuse Henry Gibson with nothing more than a thesp-for-hire. You can’t imagine anyone else playing his roles. Rest in Peace.