The first time I saw Powers Boothe onscreen I didn’t even know I was watching him. His first screen credit was in The Goodbye Girl (1977) in a scene with Richard Dreyfuss rehearsing Shakespeare’s Richard III. That appearance may not have been so memorable, but the next time I saw him I simply could not look away.
That happened on April 15, 1980 when I sat spellbound watching Boothe’s portrayal of Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones in the TV miniseries Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones. Based on the events that took place in Jonestown, Guyaya in 1978, the film chronicles how the cult leader led his congregation to what he believed to be a paradise on earth, yet instead resulted in mass suicide and the murder of a U.S. Congressman. Boothe’s performance as Jim Jones went far beyond persuasive; you were afraid if you looked into his eyes that you might also be compelled to join his cult and obey his every command. There was something about Boothe’s delivery that was smooth, like a warm glass of bourbon wrapped in silk. That voice was low and mesmerizing with a cadence that suggested both authority and finality. It was a voice not to be questioned.
Not only was Boothe’s voice powerful, but his entire presence commanded attention. When you could see his eyes (which in this movie were usually hidden behind sunglasses), they gripped you like two steel vices. Looking away wasn’t even an option. With a combination of the look and the voice, Boothe was unstoppable. You began to understand how all those people could’ve agreed to “drink the Kool-Aid.”
I next saw Boothe in the Walter Hill thriller Southern Comfort (1981), a film about a National Guard squad on weekend maneuvers encountering a group of hostile Cajuns in a backwoods Louisiana bayou. Here Boothe plays a transfer from a Texas National Guard unit who becomes disgruntled with everyone in the squad except a kindred spirit named Spencer (Keith Carradine). Southern Comfort allows Boothe the chance to play a character who’s not in charge, but probably should be. Boothe takes this subordinate role and manages to use all the skills he displayed in Guyana Tragedy, yet with a more sympathetic character. He wasn’t named Powers for nothing.
I was very excited when Boothe landed the role for the relatively short-lived HBO series Philip Marlowe, Private Eye (1983, 1986). I regret only having seen a handful of those episodes. (I only hope they are reissued on DVD or Blu-ray soon.) Boothe seemed to tap into the character in a different way than Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell and other actors, but (as I remember) with an authority all his own.
To be honest, I never really kept up with Boothe’s career as I should have. Yet I always perked up when I saw him in movies such as Tombstone (1993), Frailty (2001) or Sin City (2005) and was delighted to see him in another HBO series Deadwood (2004-2006). I join his family, friends and fans in mourning the loss of a great actor.
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