Novelist

Grab Bag: G.D. Spradlin, R.I.P.

You might not recognize the name, but surely you remember the face and the voice:

“You can take it and shove it up your ass with a poker, a red-hot poker!”

“I intend to squeeze you, Mr. Corleone.”

Turns out, Gervase Duan Spradlin, who died Sunday at age 90, was far more than an imminently employable character actor. He didn’t even break into Hollywood until his mid-40s, having been an oil company lawyer and a millionaire as an independent oil producer before that. But his sharp, hawklike features and rich Oklahoma accent made him a natural for the stage and screen once he stumbled into acting.

From the Los Angeles Times obituary:

“Being rich changes surprisingly little,” Spradlin told The Times in 1967. “You’ll still have to have an absorbing interest in life, something to do to make you feel alive.”

For Spradlin, that was acting.

In late 1963 his daughter Wendy, a member of the children’s classes at the Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City, wanted to audition for a role in a production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

To give her moral support, Spradlin accompanied her to the theater and wound up auditioning for — and landing — a role in the play, the first of three local productions he appeared in.

He also appeared in three episodes of the late-sixties revival of Dragnet, mostly playing morally suspect characters, the kind he excelled at.

My favorite of these is the rule of Arthur Leo Tyson in the episode “Baseball,” from the 1970 season. This is where Spradlin’s artistic life intersects with mine.

Here’s a passage from my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, where Dragnet-loving main character Edward Stanton gives his assessment of that particular episode:

Tonight’s episode of Dragnet, the 25th and penultimate (I love the word “penultimate”) of the fourth and final season, is called “Burglary: Baseball,” and it is one of my favorites.

G.D. Spradlin, an actor who appeared in three episodes of “Dragnet,” plays a man named Arthur Leo Tyson, and he cracks safes for sport. He’s an ex-convict who is on parole, and it turns out that he misses being in prison. This is a condition called “institutionalization,” and it sounds awful to me. And yet Arthur Leo Tyson has much to look forward to when he gets back in “the pen.” The inmate baseball team at San Quentin expects to have a good season, and he wants to be a part of it. This amuses Sergeant Joe Friday and Officer Bill Gannon, who take a liking to Arthur Leo Tyson even though he is an unrepentant criminal. It’s nice to think that police officers can be a little human.

G.D. Spradlin is one of the more recognizable actors on Dragnet, and he went on to be a character actor in many shows and movies over the years. He has a very distinctive face: It’s kind of round, and he has crinkled eyes and a perpetually pursed mouth — the kind of mouth that “looks like a chicken’s asshole,” as my Grandpa Sid used to say. He has a raspy Southern accent, the kind that Grandpa Sid had, too. If you ever saw the movie One on One, starring Robby Benson as a basketball star, then you know who G.D. Spradlin is. He played the coach, and his mouth looked like a chicken’s asshole for most of that film.

I would have liked to have written to G.D. Spradlin about his experiences on Dragnet, but he was well-known enough that I never found out his address. I looked him up on the Internet a couple of years ago, and he seemed to still be alive, although he hasn’t worked in a long time. He would be old now — 88, according to the Internet.

That’s how old Grandpa Sid would be, too, if he were still alive.

Time flummoxes me.

R.I.P., Mr. Spradlin, and thank you for the memories.

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