Tom Waits at the movies – unpicking the ‘Licorice Pizza’ star’s film career

Unpicking the apparent chaos of singer-songwriter Tom Waits' sporadic, eccentric and always-welcome cinematic appearances

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NME readers might think of Tom Waits as a singer-songwriter first and an actor second, but you can bet the average movie-goer could point to a Tom Waits cameo more easily than they could hum one of his tunes.

Waits is choosy about the films he does, but he’s pretty prolific, too – often working with the same directors and actors, choosing self-contained small parts and displaying range that runs from playing himself to playing Satan.

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Here we look at the apparent chaos of Waits’ cinematic enterprises to find the patterns.

(Getty)

The reluctant horror guy

Something of a dark soul outwardly, Waits is a good fit for horror – but it’s a genre he’s clearly wary of. Following an early cameo as ‘Drunken Bar Owner’ in Wolfen, a 1981 movie about murderous wolf spirits, he quickly swerved from the horror genre into stuff that might be deemed a bit more serious.

But Waits couldn’t wait to get his teeth into a role in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 take on Dracula, alongside a jaw-dropper cast of Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves and Anthony Hopkins. Since then, his policy seems to be that if one of his pet directors is doing a horror, Waits will consider it. See his role in Jim Jarmusch’s 2019 zombie oddity The Dead Don’t Die.

Coppola’s go-to guy (1983-1984)

Francis Ford Coppola first engaged his friend Tom Waits for his musical talent, commissioning a soundtrack for his 1982 movie One From The Heart. The result, a duet with country star Crystal Gayle, was nominated for an Oscar.

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Following a cameo in the accompanying movie, Coppola went on to cast Waits in pretty much everything he was working on at the time: The Outsiders (1983), about clashing gangs of ‘greasers’ and ‘socials’, Rumble Fish (1983) and jazz-based crime drama The Cotton Club (1984).

These movies – typically hard-edged and representing Coppola in an imperious phase – coincided with Waits’ musical shift towards the experimental, eccentric and heavy evolution of his jazz and blues-influenced sound epitomised by ‘Rain Dogs’ (1985), ‘Big Time’ (soundtrack) and ‘The Black Rider’.

(Photo by Gems/Redferns)

The undisputed king of the anthology movie

At some point in time, it was clearly decided that the ideal amount of Tom Waits in a movie is about 10 minutes. Is it Tom’s busy schedule, balancing movies with recording, TV, touring and, you know, being Tom Waits? Possibly. But you’d have to look to Jim Jarmusch to see how Waits became the master of anthology movies – those which tell often interwoven, equally-weighted plots about multiple characters. This is a place of meetings in coffee houses, monologues and introspection.

Waits and Jarmusch’s association began with 1989’s crime comedy Mystery Train, in which the former appeared as a radio host in voice only. But it came of age in 2003’s Coffee & Cigarettes in the segment titled Somewhere In California, where Waits was seen having a painfully stilted conversation with Iggy Pop, smoking and noting how their music is absent from the jukebox.

In the meantime, Tom Waits had worked with yet another revered director, Robert Altman, as one of the 22 principal leads in the acclaimed anthology movie Short Cuts. Waits won a Golden Globe for his performance as Earl Piggot, an alcoholic limo driver. That’s Tom Waits, then – the ultimate team player.

The master of the surprise cameo

Few remember Mystery Men, the comedy superhero movie starring Ben Stiller as an angry man leading a motley crew of have-a-go heroes – which may be to the liking of Tom Waits, who, for some reason, pops up in a bright yellow suit at a superhero party where he propositions an elderly woman.

The voice-over guy

With those gruff tones and a singer’s vocal control, Waits is a gift for animators – but he still doesn’t get the cute roles. He played Virgil, a “terrifying giant pitch-black swallow” in 2011’s The Monster Of Nix. “Tom Waits was always the main inspiration for the dark and theatrical appearance of Virgil,” said director Rosto.

More recently, Waits narrated 2021’s very silly stop-motion animation series Ultra City Smiths, which stars Paul Thomas Anderson regular John C Reilly. Fans of Tom Waits and cartoons looking for a real curio should check out the animated 1979 short Tom Waits for No One, which, aside from being a great pun, is a great example of the rotoscoping technique of animating over real footage.

Terry Gilliam’s devil

Imagine the conversation where Terry Gilliam, Monty Python man-turned-celebrated director, calls Tom Waits and tells him he has a part for him in a movie called The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus – and it’s the devil.

Waits’ music suggests he’s something of a minimalist, a traditionalist and a realist rather than an Imaginariumist. Yet he was willing to take Gilliam’s hand into crazy cuckoo world, building on an association that began in 1991 with the grittier territory of The Fisher King’s semi-fantastical New York, in which Waits played a downtrodden Vietnam vet. Waits makes a fine devil, or Mr Nick as the film has him, in a story co-written with Gilliam’s …Baron Munchausen collaborator Charles McKeown.

One psychopath

So it turns out that having a face like a Styrofoam sculpture of Keith Richards typecasts an actor in a certain type of role – but that’s not a bad thing when it’s Martin McDonagh who comes calling. Waits took a lead performance in 2012’s Seven Psychopaths, a movie about the bungled kidnapping of a miniature dog, and one whose cult is ever-growing.

Catch Tom Waits in Licorice Pizza in cinemas from January 1

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