Step Right Up Mr. Tom Waits, The Most Unlikely of Stars

Tom Waits plays a soothsaying hobo in The Dead Don’t Die, his fourth collaboration with writer-director Jim Jarmusch. It’s another offbeat role in a film career that is as unique as the singer-songwriter’s life in music. Here we’ve listed the ten key feature roles Waits has played over the last 40 years.

The Dead Don’t Die

The Dead Don’t Die


Paradise Alley (1978)

It’s not a major role, but it is the first screen appearance by Waits. It was the directorial debut of writer and star Sylvester Stallone. He’d written it before Rocky, but got to make it on the back of that film’s Oscar and commercial success. Waits plays Mumbles and pretty much steals the few scenes he appears in.

Paradise Alley

Paradise Alley

The Old Man and the Gun (2018)

In most roles, Waits excels at portraying charismatic oddballs or characters living on the periphery of society. In David Lowery’s loose adaptation of David Grann’s New Yorker article, Waits’ adopts a darker edge. Waller is one of ageing robber Forrest Tucker’s (Robert Redford) gang. He is a buffoon, as evidenced by a hilarious conversation between the robbers in a motel. But there’s also a sense that as a younger man Waller had a more brutal side. He conveys this best in the scene where he is a lookout while Tucker robs a bank. Conveying just the right amount of malevolence, Waits refuses to have his character win us over with easy charm.

The Old Man and the Gun

The Old Man and the Gun

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

In a film populated by eccentric characters, Waits still manages to make his mark as Zachariah Rigby, a killer who agrees to have Colin Farrell’s character include his story in a screenplay provided it features a message to his partner in crime. With so many star cameos on show here, what ultimately emerges is regret that there was never a film that allowed Waits, Christopher Walken and the late, great Harry Dean Stanton to appear together.

Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths

Ironweed (1987)

It’s a film about two drunk down and outs, set during the depression and directed by acclaimed Argentine-born Brazilian director Hector Babenco (Kiss of the Spiderwoman, 1985), which stars Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. It’s got ‘heavyweight’ and ‘Oscar’ written all over it. Streep, in particular, is very good. But once again, whereas the whole cast are acting it, Waits seems to be living it. Not his best, but certainly a fine performance.

Ironweed

Ironweed

The Fisher King (1991)

A classic Waits cameo. Playing a wheelchair-bound army veteran, who gets one major speech, it’s a superb performance by Waits – utterly convincing and moving. The story he tells could easily have been one of the monologues his musical characters performs on his albums. It’s far better than his appearance in director Terry Gilliam’s subsequent The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), even if Waits is still the best thing about that film.

The Fisher King

The Fisher King

Rumblefish (1983)

Waits has collaborated with Francis Ford Coppola on six films (the most recent being his voiceover narration for the little-seen 2011 thriller Twixt). This film was one of a batch Waits worked on with the director in the early 1980s. His most important film work during this period was providing the soundtrack, with country singer Crystal Gayle, for Coppola’s soundstage modern-day musical fantasy One from the Heart (1981). But he also played roles in two back-to-back S.E. Hinton adaptations. The Outsiders (1983) was the more commercial of the two films and is best remembered for kick-starting the career of a new generation of actors (C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane and Tom Cruise). Rumblefish (1983) was the lower-key arthouse companion. But it now stands out as the better film and certainly one of Coppola’s finest post-Apocalypse Now (1979). Mickey Rourke might be showier, but Waits adds authenticity as Benny, the owner of a diner.

Rumblefish

Rumblefish

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

There’s so much that’s wrong with Coppola’s take on Bram Stoker’s gothic novel. Keanu Reeves, Anthony Hopkins and Winona Ryder are woefully miscast. And the production and visual design of the film descends from glorious excess to overbearing kitsch. But Gary Oldman rages brilliantly as the eponymous beast and Waits is superb as a demented Renfield. It looks like he’s having a blast as he lurches from quiet desperation to raging insanity.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Waits’ teaming up with the Coens is such a perfect match it’s odd that it’s taken so long to happen. He is alone in his chapter of this portmanteau film, save for one scene, and it’s a perfect role for him: a man obsessed in his quest for riches embedded within a seam of gold underneath a field in some wild area of the US. It’s a masterclass in acting by Waits and the perfect showcase for his charismatic eccentricity.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Down by Law (1986)

Save for his appearance in an Altman masterpiece, this should top the list of Waits’ screen performances. He stars alongside Italian actor (and future writer-director-star of Life is Beautiful, 1997) Roberto Begnini and The Lounge Lizards’ bandleader John Lurie, who had previously appeared in Jarmusch’s breakthrough feature Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and feature debut Permanent Vacation (1980). Down by Law cemented Jarmusch’s position as 1980s American cinema’s key indie filmmaker. Shot by the great Robby Müller, who would produce rapturous images for Paris, Texas (1984), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), Jarmusch’s later Dead Man (1995) and Breaking the Waves (1996), it offered up a monochrome New Orleans and surrounding swamplands, where three prison escapees make their break for freedom. The three leads are all excellent, but this was the first film that gave Waits the opportunity to show off his skills. And he delivered with all the wit and colour that marks his best performances.

Down By Law

Down By Law

Short Cuts (1993)

Following on from the success of his Hollywood satire The Player (1992), Robert Altman produced his most expansive and brilliant drama since Nashville (1975). Adapted from the short stories of Raymond Carver and all located in and around LA, Short Cuts fuses each of the narratives through a series of encounters that culminates in one event that affects all. Wait’s role, Earl, starring opposite Lily Tomlin, is an adaptation of one of Carver’s best tales, ‘They’re Not Your Husband’, taken from the collection ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please’. The tale has a killer final line of dialogue, which is delivered by Tomlin’s character Doreen. But the best scene between Earl and Doreen unfolds as they get drunk together. If most Waits performances stand out for the way he steals a scene, often through a monologue, his performance here is richer for the way he and Tomlin play off each other. There are echoes of other roles he has played, but in tandem with another actor of equally unique gifts (Tomlin was no less impressive in Nashville), Waits is electric – all charisma and untrammelled energy.

Short Cuts

Short Cuts


The Dead Don’t Die

Jim Jarmusch resurrects the gang for his take on the zombie comedy. Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny and Adam Driver are small town cops working their beat when nature turns on itself, the sun refuses to set and the dead rise from the grave. Putting aside chicken theft, they set out to get to the bottom of these strange ghouls, with the help of Tilda Swinton’s mortician (who’s handy with a samurai sword if needs be).

Working with the greatest zombie cast ever disassembled (including Tom Waits, Carol Kane, Rosie Perez, Iggy Pop, RZA, Selena Gomez and Steve Buscemi), Jarmusch has created a deadpan treat that adapts the myth of the zombie for a modern era, where the undead are just as likely to moan in need for ‘wifi’ as ‘brains’.

Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die plays in our cinemas from Friday 12 July