Movie history works in mysterious ways. Box-office blockbusters can be effectively forgotten within a few years of their release. Big stars can become all but anonymous well before they die. Yet someone whose name you never really knew, whose face you only vaguely recognize, can earn an indelible place in movie history for playing a minor character in a single movie -- or, in the case of G.D. Spradlin, who died yesterday, at 90, two movies.
His Sen. Pat Geary, in "The Godfather: Part II," is a marvel of leathery hypocrisy. Long before "Cowboys and Aliens," here was "Cowboys and Mafiosi." One look at that snaggly upper lip, one listen to that indeterminate Sunbelt accent, and you know Geary is going to be chopped linguine at the hands of the Corleones. Erect in bearing, trim in build, avidly insincere, Spradlin lets you see both the senator's appeal to the voters of Nevada and his unblinking odiousness. What makes it so grimly funny when we hear him pay tribute to "Eye-talians" at Anthony Corleone's confirmation (and later, at the Senate hearing investigating Michael Corleone, declaring that "some of my very best friends are Italian-Americans") is the realization that, even if he really meant his words, you can be sure Geary wouldn't think to say it any other way.
Spradlin had a knack for simultaneously conveying rectitude and corruption -- a man of dubious authority, tall in the saddle yet faintly phony. He was tailor-made for revisionist Hollywood. So he played a lot of military officers and several presidents. Two of the latter were real: Andrew Jackson and Lyndon Johnson. Geary is very clearly modeled on an actual senator, Pat McCarran. As it happens, Spradlin had political experience. He ran for mayor of Oklahoma City, in 1965, having been John F. Kennedy's campaign director in Oklahoma five years earlier. He'd made a pile in the oil bidness during the '50s, so he figured he'd try politics. That not working out, Spradlin took up acting. It's an amazing career trajectory -- though maybe not as amazing as his full name, Gervase Duan Spradlin. Going with just his initials was a way, you might say, of terminating that given name with extreme (and understandable) prejudice.
About Movie Nation
ContributorsTy Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.
Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.
Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.
Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.
Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.
Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.
Glenn Yoder is an Arts & Entertainment producer at Boston.com.
Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.
Swati Sharma is an Arts & Entertainment and Things to Do producer at Boston.com.
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