Peter Boyle, who died Tuesday at 71 after battling multiple myeloma and heart disease, was best-known for playing the grumpiest father in modern television in Everybody Loves Raymond, and for his classic scene in 1974’s Young Frankenstein, in which his melancholy monster broke into a tap-dance routine to the tune of “Puttin’ On The Ritz.”
Boyle was a complicated, fascinating man. Raymond may have made him rich and a household face, but he’d made his breakthrough decades earlier in the title role of Joe, the 1970 film in which he starred as a bigoted hard-hat construction worker who wreaked a murderous vengeance upon that era’s hippies. As was true of his committed performance as Frank Barone, Joe briefly stereotyped the prematurely-balding Boyle as a conservative icon, "It was a very strange experience,” Boyle once told The New York Times. “People coming up and saying, ‘That’s what they ought to do with all these hippies.’ I was in an identity crisis." That’s because Joe’s opinions couldn’t have been further from Boyle’s own life and many of his acting choices, which tended to be leftist and countercultural. Let me just throw this fact out for a start: John Lennon was the best man at Boyle’s 1977 wedding to Laraine Alterman, one of the first prominent female rock-music writers. (They had two children.)
Boyle was frequently at the center of tumultuous pop-culturemoments. Born outside of Philadelphia in 1935, Boyle did brief stints inthe Navy and then in a monastery in training as a monk. He driftedinto acting, working with the Second City improvisational troupe, andwas among those tear-gassed during Chicago’s 1968 Democratic Convention. (Itwas an experience he would relive, in a way, in two films: HaskellWexler’s groundbreaking 1969 cinema vérité timebomb Medium Cool, and the 1987 HBO film Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago Eight.) With his friend Jane Fonda, with whom he costarred in the 1973 anti-Establishment comedy Steelyard Blues,he attended many anti-Vietnam War rallies. (I remember one night in thelate ‘70s being in a restaurant interviewing Bonnie Raitt when shestopped talking, jumped up and hugged Boyle, who was passing our table.“Hey, you’re gonna be at the No Nukes rally, right?” she asked. “Youknow it, sweetie!” he said with a huge grin.)
As Boyle went into middle-age, he alternated jobs probably taken for money, such as piddly movies like Beyond The Poseidon Adventure (1979) and The In Crowd (1988), with riskier projects like the Hunter Thompson biopic Where The Buffalo Roam (1980) and the excellent, short-lived TV series Joe Bash (1986), in which he played a lonely, sensitive beat cop. And of course, anyone who’s seen Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) probably remembers Boyle’s turn as the hardbitten cabbie The Wizard.
Boyle’s occasional work on the stage was distinguished. In the early ’80s, he co-starred with Tommy Lee Jones in the original New York Public Theater production of Sam Shepard’s knock-down, drag-out True West. In ’96, he won an Emmy for one of every sensible X Files-nut’s favorite episodes, taking the title role in “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” as a man who could see future deaths.
Even after he became a prime-time star in Raymond, it was great that Boyle still had the desire and skills to take a role such as the unforgivable racist in Monster’s Ball (2001). The next time you watch Frank Barone mutter and whine in an Everybody Loves Raymond rerun, remember that Peter Boyle was a very cool guy.