Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Godspeed, Philip 'Tough' Nutman (an appreciation of an overlooked and could-have-been movie star)

Horror novelist and screenwriter Philip Nutman left this vale of tears yesterday. Despite my relative disinterest in horror, I ended up working with him several times, and he's the reason I left Los Angeles for Atlanta.

See, according to Phil, his first cinematic love was the Western, and many of his favorite films (GET CARTER, DIRTY HARRY) are also my favorites.

But I didn't meet him through a shared film appreciation, nor was I introduced to him through his writing work -- the bread-and-butter career for which he's known.

In fact, I may be the only person who came to know Phil first as an actor, a thing he had done only once by the time that I, in 2002, stumbled upon a VHS of DEATH COLLECTOR. Yes, it was his role as the villainous "Tough Nutman" in Tom Garrett's 1989 sci-fi film that made me take notice.

Philip Nutman and Frank Stewart on the set of DEATH COLLECTOR

I dug this cinematic noble failure in general (turns out, the filmmakers -- although making a futuristic yarn -- were influenced by all the same gritty tough-guy films I was). But I was especially impressed with Nutman's performance in particular. Completely oblivious to his actual career in the written word, I assumed he was the most pro, working actor of the entire cast.

Phil rehearsing DEATH COLLECTOR fight choreography

Here's what I wrote about Phil's performance in a 2003 issue of CULT MOVIES MAGAZINE:

"...But the film-best performance belongs to Philip Nutman, who plays 'Tough,' Hawk's gum-chewing henchman. Nutman is vaguely Malkovichian in appearance, and he seems capable of summoning the same amount of thespic sharpness, intensity, and menace as that Oscar-nominated actor. And yet this standout performer isn't even an actor by trade; Nutman is a Bram Stoker Award-nominated
novelist, a former British correspondent for FANGORIA magazine, a screenwriter, and a comic book author.

How did this writer come to land a major role (fifth billing and 52 minutes of screen time) in DEATH COLLECTOR, and how did he manage to be so damn good?

In 1987, Nutman was quitting his job in London at the BBC in order to 'take plunge into full-time writing.' He came to America for a few weeks -- partly as a holiday, partly to drum up some writing work -- and stayed in New York City with make-up effects artist Tom Lauten (THE TOXIC AVENGER). Lauten had been hired as DEATH COLLECTOR'S weapons expert, and Nutman met Garrett through him.

'With my hair slicked back, my Don Johnson stubble, my sunglasses, I walked in in the middle of a production meeting between Tom G and Tom Lauten," Nutman recalls. "Tom G took one look at me and went, 'Oh man, I gotta have you in my fucking movie!' And I'm like, 'Get the fuck out of here. I'm a writer, not an actor.'"

Nutman agreed to appear in the film, but he first made a side trip to Los Angeles with FANGORIA editor Anthony Timpone (their trip, by the way, is detailed in Timpone's editorial in FANGORIA #70). On the eve of Nutman's East Coast return, he attended an all-night party. And when he arrived back east, Nutman was picked up at the airport and driven straight to the shooting location where he was expected, sleep-deprived, to jump into the first film performance of his life.

Nutman's part was originally meant as 'one day, one scene, one cameo.' But the writer turned fledgling actor was so impressive that, as he puts it: 'They kept sticking me in more and more scenes.' Garrett affirms, 'He became the star of the trailer.' Nutman was flown from England the next year for the second shoot (and this novice even pulled some second-unit directorial duties before the shoot wrapped). But the DEATH COLLECTOR work was, as Nutman describes it, 'a career aberration.' He went on to a successful writing career, penning the 1993 novel WET WORK and winning the praise of such colleagues as Clive Barker. Still, it's something of a cinematic crime that Philip Nutman has not had subsequent film roles."

Phil at a DEATH COLLECTOR location

The above direct quotes of Phil came from my telephone interview with him, which we conducted late one '03 night -- me in my shoebox apartment in the Valley, he on his porch in Greater Atlanta. Through the phone, I heard locusts and crickets and other insect life I had forgotten about since moving to L.A. It made me homesick for the Southeast. And when I was ready to leave Southern California in 2004, Phil convinced me to move to Atlanta.

Once I relocated, Phil was very gracious, introducing me to his literary friends and other arts types. When I started seeing a young lady, I still didn't have an Atlanta social circle of my own, but I was always welcomed to bring her to one of the backyard, vaguely Polynesian-themed soirees that he had with then-wife Anya Martin.

In 2005, my brother bought a Sony DVCam, and he and I decided to make a high-concept cop parody as a short film. Being a fan of his acting ability (and living a mere 20 minutes away), I just *had* to have Phil in the short.


I had promised Phil he would get fed on set, but his scenes were the last of the day, and the craft services (such as they were) were embarrassingly picked over by the time he arrived. So I also offered to buy him dinner at his beloved Trader Vic's. Every time we made plans for that dinner, he asked -- several times per conversation -- whether I had the meal covered. I assured him I did. His behavior seemed a little weird and pathetic, but I realize now that I was getting a glimpse into his desperate freelancer lifestyle -- a desperation I would later feel as my regulars got slow to pay, expected free work or otherwise jerked me around. I can easily imagine how this desperation contributed to Phil's main demon-vice, the one that ultimately killed him yesterday.

But later in 2005, Phil returned the casting favor five-fold, hiring me to be "Fast Eddie" (a part he based on me) in a horror feature entitled SHIVER, which was directed by another DEATH COLLECTOR alum, Michael Lang, who had become an even closer chum. I heard the budget estimated at $500k.

Phil admitted a boozing problem very publicly in the film's first all-hands-on production meeting, and it seemed like he was going to get help. But he was soon fired off the film. He had already written the script, but he would no longer be serving as the movie's producer nor would he -- to my personal dismay -- be playing the part of the violent 1920s pimp. The body of cinema was robbed of another Nutman performance (er, at least, it would have been, if SHIVER had ever been released).

I tried phoning Phil a couple times during that production but got no reply. A couple years later, we talked again, and it was obvious that he resented me for staying on the film. It wasn't pretty how he communicated that to me.

By 2011, Phil and I were on okay terms but weren't talking much. So I can't remember exactly why I thought to show him an early screener copy of THE SCARLET WORM, a microbudget Western I helped produce. Perhaps it's because I remembered his early love of Westerns. Whatever the case, he flipped over the movie in a way that wasn't merely polite out of friendship:

"...one of the best movies you’ll see soon ...
reinvents the Western ...
transcends its meager budget to show fledgling
filmmakers what can be achieved ...
a ballet of blood and pain and hurt and soil"

...was what he wrote for FANGORIA's website. He also praised SCARLET on a podcast segment of THE NIGHT CREW.

So why do I mention his journalistic coverage of our Western in a memorial piece that strives to focus on Phil's acting talents?

When it seemed like the SCARLET WORM team was going to receive Mexican financing for a sequel, THE REVELATOR, I thought of Phil for the Englishman part. Frankly, Phil wasn't even the right sort of Englishman for the role as written. But again, I really, really dug him as an actor, and I certainly appreciated his wholehearted support for our first horse opera. It seemed like the right thing to do, and I would have loved to put him in a Western, which likely was an unspoken dream of his. Alas, the funding fell through.

Thankfully, Phil got a couple more moments on screen in his last couple of years -- in DEAR GOD NO and ABED.

But still...

I sincerely wish life would have turned out differently for you, Phil. Wish it would have allowed us to be better chums. And I wish you could have had the chance to stomp more ass on screen. I hope you knew that I thought you were a tough-guy movie star. --Mike Malloy

Below are more shots from Phil's collection of DEATH COLLECTOR photos: