Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sympathetic Villains: More than Meets the Eye

Lucky Ladybug already did a musing on Simon’s villain characters who deserve no sympathy; I decided to a musing on those villain/antagonist characters who, despite the things they’ve done, either make you feel sorry for them or end up redeeming themselves in some way.

There’s Nick, the shady casino owner from Follow that Dream, for starters.  He’s definitely not a nice person, trying multiple plots to get rid of Toby Kwimper, whom he considers to be a thorn in his side.  True, Nick doesn’t really have any sympathetic traits; nor does he redeem himself in any way.  But the sheer level of backfiring that his plans undergo make him an incredibly ineffective villain—and one you can’t help but laugh at.

But once we deal with sympathetic villains, it’s a whole new game; Simon never fails to tug on the heartstrings, even when playing a villain.  William Poole, from “The Thunder Man” episode of Bonanza confides that his girlfriend was killed in an accident involving one of his demolition charges.  Whether or not he was being truthful is debatable (granted, he isn’t the most trustworthy of people), but if he is, then it certainly explains his descent into madness—a madness that is revealed in its entirety at the episode’s end, when he declares himself to be above the powers of Heaven and Earth.  At any rate, Poole is a madman, and one has to wonder if, underneath the madness, he was once a nice, decent person.

Joe Palakopolous (known by his nickname of Mr. Pal), from “The Canada Run” episode of The Untouchables, is another interesting case.  While he is a nasty sort, manipulating the head of a local church, Father Gregory, into being an unwitting pawn in his scheme to smuggle whiskey from Canada, there is no denying that Mr. Pal does donate a great portion of his wealth to Father Gregory to help him set up a soup kitchen that the hungry in town desperately need, plus other additions to the church.  Father Gregory is touched by his generosity, and becomes horrified and sad when he discovers Mr. Pal’s true motives.  And yet, there is still a part of Father Gregory that pities Mr. Pal—one that the audience might also end up sharing.

Also take the case of Mel Grayson, from the “Puzzlelock” episode of Ironside.  Grayson is a nasty fellow, having killed his wife and covered his tracks expertly.  However, as cold and calculated as his plan was, Grayson does have one shred of decency—he does not want anyone else to be arrested in his place, either.  This eventually proves to be his undoing, as his desperation to clear names ends up with him falling right into Ironside’s hands.

However, my favorite kind of villain/antagonist characters that Simon plays are the ones that eventually redeem themselves—or, at least, are well on the road to doing so.  An interesting example here is Stawski, from The Sand Pebbles.  When sober, Stawski is, in fact, a reasonably amiable and decent man—welcoming Steve McQueen’s character, Holman, aboard and later coming to the aid of a Chinese worker who ends up badly injured in an engine room accident.  Unfortunately, those good traits seem to vanish once alcohol hits his bloodstream, leaving behind an obnoxious and almost primal man.  He shamelessly chases after the local girls, and while some of them return his affections, he still insists on chasing after the one girl who wants nothing to do with him.  When Stawski ends up antagonizing another one of the workers, Po-Han, who happens to be a friend of Holman’s, it ends with a boxing match between Stawski and Po-Han.  Stawski acts horribly towards Po-Han as the fight begins, taunting and intimidating him—and then unleashing the no-holds-barred beatdown once Po-Han tries fighting back.  Po-Han does, eventually, emerge victorious, and Stawski retreats to the background.  It’s here that Stawski appears to be on the road to redemption.  He’s noticeably less boisterous; when a fight breaks out feet away from where he’s standing, rather than joining it, he merely looks away, as though he’s disgusted with the whole thing.  And though he initially is among the group of sailors who insist that Holman should turn himself in to a mob that’s after him, he eventually relents with the rest of them.  And when Holman attempts to single-handedly run the engine room to try to get them out of the river, Stawski is the first one to go and help him, taking orders from Holman without complaint and apparently letting go of their feud.

Simon plays both sides of Stawski amazing well.  Decent-Stawski made me almost cheer.  Obnoxious-Stawski made me visibly cringe.  They almost seem like two different characters; it’s absolutely amazing.

Another antagonistic character with redeemable qualities that Simon played is Adam Howard, from “The Secret” episode of The Big Valley.  Adam is very vengeful and spiteful, determined to drive a group of ranchers to ruin because he believes one of them to have had an affair with his wife—and that the son he has been raising isn’t really his.  The actions Adam takes detestable—having the man in question beaten up, and then cutting off the ranchers’ water supply.  The latter action absolutely infuriated me, as it resulted in the death of a calf.  And yet, Adam’s interaction with the son-that-may-not-be-his is too poignant for words—that, in spite of his suspicions, he unconditionally cares for this child.  And Adam’s heartbreaking confession that he had wanted a son so badly—and that he’s devastated that this dream he thought had come true may in fact be all a lie—moved me to tears.  As the episode’s events draw to a close, Adam heads down the road of redemption, as well—traversing it at a fairly quick pace, I’m pleased to say.

It’s simply amazing how one man can bring to life so many antagonistic characters that draw a variety of emotions.  Nick made me laugh.  Adam made me cry.  Stawski made me cringe and fume.  And William Poole made me stare in shock.  All of these varied antagonists are once again proof of Simon’s incredible acting talent.

~Crystal Rose

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