Michael J Pollard obituary

<span>Photograph: Snap/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Snap/Rex/Shutterstock

The baby-faced, twinkly-eyed Michael J Pollard, who has died aged 80 from a heart attack, was described by the New York Times in 1969 as “the first important post-Method actor … If Method actors mumble their lines to convey the chaos inside, Pollard seems ready to give up talking altogether.”

He was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his breakthrough performance as CW Moss, the naive gas-station attendant who becomes a rather hapless getaway driver, in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the iconoclastic hit that spearheaded the American new wave. The sheepish grin and air of vague but serene befuddlement that he exhibited in the film served him well throughout the rest of his career.

The picture’s star, Warren Beatty, had been impressed by Pollard when they worked together in 1959 in A Loss of Roses on stage and in the first season of the sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. While Beatty and his Bonnie and Clyde co-star Faye Dunaway were the epitome of cool, it was Pollard, with his pancake-like flat-cap and his doughy dumpling features, who remained a magnet for the audience’s goodwill.

Michael J Pollard, left, with Robert Redford in Little Fauss and Big Halsy, 1970.
Michael J Pollard, left, with Robert Redford in Little Fauss and Big Halsy, 1970. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

In his opening scene, he reacts with squinting disbelief and an array of sniffs, snuffles and shakes of the head to the news that his latest customers are among the country’s most notorious criminals.

“That was the first scene we shot in the whole film,” he told the critic Roger Ebert in 1968. “And we did it in one take. Then Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty spent the rest of their time making me play against that scene. I guess they didn’t want me to be too funny.” That initial goofiness made the character’s loss of innocence all the more upsetting. It also gave directors a tangible idea of Pollard’s shtick. “They say, ‘Just do your thing, Michael, whatever it is,’” he said in 1969. “Same thing I’ve been doing for 10 years, man.”

He was frequently cast as the sidekick, as he was in the case of Michael Winner’s wartime adventure Hannibal Brooks (1969), where he helped Oliver Reed transport an elephant named Lucy across the Alps into Switzerland, or as lovably eccentric support: he played one of a group of sweet-natured, dim-witted firemen in Roxanne (1987), Steve Martin’s modern-day spin on Cyrano de Bergerac, and a homeless man in Scrooged (1988), another comic update of a reliable classic.

His capacity for menace was seen in his performance as a sinister teenager on a planet inhabited entirely by children in the 1966 “Miri” episode of Star Trek but this quality was not widely exploited elsewhere. In Dirty Little Billy (1972), however, Pollard got a rare chance to shine in a leading role that was not primarily comic, bringing his dazed innocence to the character of Billy the Kid in a realistically grimy retelling of the outlaw’s early years.

He was born and raised in Passaic, New Jersey, the son of Sonia (nee Dubanowich) and her husband, Michael Pollack, a bartender. (Pollard changed his surname when he became an actor.) He was educated at Montclair academy, New Jersey, and enrolled at the Actors Studio, in New York, where his classmates included Marilyn Monroe, with whom he performed scenes from Breakfast at Tiffany’s in class.

He notched up numerous roles on American TV in the 1950s and 60s, including The Andy Griffith Show, Lost in Space and two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and his slight build and puckish demeanour enabled him to play teenagers well into his 20s. He originated the role of Hugo Peabody in the 1960 Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie and appeared with Hayley Mills in the Walt Disney musical Summer Magic (1963); it was reported that the studio was lining him up to be some sort of human successor to Mickey Mouse, but those plans dwindled to nought. “I wasn’t really the Mickey Mouse image anyway,” he said.

He was more at home in a brief comic turn in The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! and with Peter Fonda in Roger Corman’s biker picture The Wild Angels (both 1966). He later returned to two wheels to star opposite Robert Redford in the biker buddy movie Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970).

Other notable screen work included Jonathan Demme’s delightful Melvin and Howard (1980), based on the true story of the milkman who was made a beneficiary of Howard Hughes’s disputed will; Pollard played a friend of the main character. When his old colleague Beatty directed and starred in the comic-strip adaptation Dick Tracy (1990), Pollard’s unforgettable mug fitted in perfectly among the oddball rogues’ gallery.

He acted infrequently in later years and had been little seen since appearing in Rob Zombie’s gory horror House of 1000 Corpses (2003) alongside Sid Haig, another ex-Corman actor, and Karen Black, fellow veteran of the US new wave.

For much of his life Pollard was beloved if largely unsung, though there was a brief instance of refracted glory when Michael Fox, an up-and-coming young actor in the early 80s, sought to differentiate himself from another performer with an identical name: the “J” which he inserted as a distinguishing middle initial, some time before his success in the Back to the Future trilogy, was adopted in homage to Pollard (“One of my favourite character actors,” he later said).

Pollard was twice divorced. He is survived by a daughter, Holly, from his first marriage, to the actor Beth Howland, and by a son, Axel, from his second marriage, to Annie Tolstoy.

• Michael John Pollard (Pollack), actor, born 30 May 1939; died 20 November 2019