Charles Napier: Actor noted for his distinctive tough-guy looks

Thursday 13 October 2011 00:00

The rock-like chin and teeth made Charles Napier a distinctive character actor in Hollywood. His breakthrough came in the director Russ Meyer's sexploitation films, beginning with the 1969 picture Cherry, Harry & Raquel! – and a full-frontal scene he described as "easily the most embarrassing moment of my career". Napier was the corrupt small-town sheriff and marijuana smuggler of the title seen entangled with a prostitute and a nurse.

"Russ talked me into running naked, except for my boots and hat, straight at the camera," Napier recalled. "If you ever had the misfortune of seeing yourself doing what I did, you'd never do it again – and I didn't."

Nevertheless, Napier appeared in three more films made by Meyer, who was infamous for putting sleaze, large-breasted women and camp humour on screen. The actor kept his clothes on for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and The Seven Minutes (1971), before stripping off but covering his own embarrassment with a 12-inch rubber phallus in Supervixens (1975). When Jimmy McDonough wrote the Meyer biography Big Bosoms and Square Jaws, no one had any doubt that the second part of the title referred to Napier.

Later, he was cast as tough guys in mainstream films. He played the scheming military intelligence officer Murdock, double-crossing Sylvester Stallone, in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). In the 1980 musical comedy The Blues Brothers, he played Tucker McElroy, lead singer with the country group The Good Ol' Boys, who delivers the classic line: "You're gonna look pretty funny trying to eat corn on the cob with no f****** teeth." But Napier wasn't tough enough in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), where his character, assigned to guard Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), ends up being beaten to death and disembowelled.

Born in 1936 near Scottsville, Kentucky, where he attended Allen County High School, Napier was the son of a tobacco farmer and served for three years as a company clerk with the US Army's 11th Airborne Division. In 1961 he graduated in art and physical education from Western Kentucky University. After teaching and working as an assistant basketball coach at his former high school, Napier took jobs with a bridge company and an advertising agency before teaching art at a high school in Clearwater, Florida. While studying at a Kentucky graduate school he started acting at the Alley Playhouse, in Bowling Green, where his roles included Iago in Othello (1967).

Then came work at community theatres in Clearwater, Tampa and St Petersburg, and the Shakespeare Festival at the Old Globe Theatre, San Diego, before Napier made his television début with a small part in the detective series Mannix (1968). In between occasional character roles in programmes such as Mission: Impossible (1968, 1971, 1972), Hogan's Heroes (1969) and Star Trek (1969, when he was memorable as a singing, guitar-strumming space hippie), he worked as a photographer for the trucking title Overdrive Magazine. That job ended during a truck drivers' strike in 1973, leaving Napier homeless and living in his pick-up in a parking lot on Hollywood Boulevard – but he was rescued by one of cinema's top directors.

"A black limo pulls up," Napier recalled. "A guy says, 'Are you Chuck Napier? Mr H wants to see you.'" Mr H turned out to be Alfred Hitchcock, who offered him a contract at Universal Studios, and the actor appeared in action television series such as Starsky and Hutch, Kojak and The Rockford Files, as well as providing some of the growls made by the green monster in The Incredible Hulk.

Among his dozens of roles, Napier also played – against type – the thoughtful judge in the film Philadelphia (1993), alongside the Oscar-winning Tom Hanks. In recent times, he worked as a voice artist for programmes such as The Simpsons and moved to Bakersfield, California. The twice-divorced actor's autobiography, Square Jaw and Big Heart, was published earlier this year.

Anthony Hayward

Charles Napier, actor: born Mount Union, Kentucky 12 April 1936; twice married (two sons, one daughter); died Bakersfield, California 5 October 2011.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in