He seemed to always play the curmudgeon, though he was anything but. Peter Boyle, who died last night here in New York City at age 71, was not only a marvelous character actor - he was also my uncle. The acting genes run deep in my family - my mother, Peter's sister, is a tremendously talented stage actress who's still juggling roles at 78. Philadelphians of a certain age might recall my grandfather, who hosted a local children's TV show as "Chuckwagon Pete" in the very early days of television and worked with Ernie Kovacs. His eldest daughter, Lucy, is already an accomplished actress and playwright.
But it was Uncle Pete who had the highest profile career, one he came by somewhat by chance after briefly considering a monastic life with the Christian Brothers. The first movie I remember him in was Joe, a 1970 film in which he played a bigoted, Archie Bunker type without the charm. I don't really remember the movie, since I was five and it was deemed unsuitable for impressionable eyes.
In the film, Pete's character is filled with virulent hatred for hippies and antiwar protesters and I remember him telling us how unnerved he was by people coming up to him, imagining he was like the character he played, cheering him on. In fact, Uncle Pete loathed violence and intolerance. He turned down the Gene Hackman role in The French Connection because he felt it glamorized violence and would typecast him as some kind of thug. Given what the part did for Hackman, he might have made a different choice if he had it to do over, but he was nothing if not a man of principle.
He seemed to specialize in playing against his type - urbane, kind, cultured - the green-painted, zipper-necked monster in Young Frankenstein, Billy Bob Thornton's repellent father in Monster's Ball, and Ray Romano's cranky father in Everybody Loves Raymond. It amused our family no end to see how much people associated him with the character he played - Uncle Pete was the last person I could imagine in a BarcaLounger with the top button on his pants undone, declaiming "Holy crap!" to all and sundry. He was that good an actor. But he was an even better uncle.
I remember visits to movie sets as a child, being invited into his world as an honored guest. But I also remember smaller gestures that in retrospect seem much bigger - like being 7 or 8 years old, and having a meltdown about something at a family gathering. Uncle Pete left the party and sat with me for an hour, consoling me about whatever it was that was bothering me, making me think I was the only one that mattered. Which, to your average kid, is huge. You just want to matter. And you want people to notice. Uncle Pete noticed. And more than anything, that's why I'll miss him.