Recently, I revisited the brilliant film Paths Of Glory (1957), an early movie by one of the greatest filmmakers ever to have set foot on a film set, Mr. Stanley Kubrick. It was his third feature film (unless you count 1953's Fear And Desire, of which Kubrick was so ashamed, he pulled it from release and tried to bury it away forever). The headlining actor in Paths Of Glory is Kirk Douglas, who is certainly transfixing in the movie. However, Joseph Turkel, a relative "no name" in the cast, does an outstanding job of holding his own next to mega-star Douglas.
Joe Turkel has the honor of being one of only two actors to receive credited roles in three Stanley Kubrick films: The Killing (1956), Paths Of Glory, and The Shining(1980). This constitutes something substantial to brag about, especially considering Turkel was essentially just a low-profile working actor, paying his bills by taking small uncredited roles and fleeting television parts for the overwhelming majority of his four-decade acting career. Exceptions to this norm for Turkel include his three films with Kubrick - and a little science fiction film you may have heard of… but we'll get to that flick in just a bit.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Turkel started his film acting career in his early twenties. His first film appearance (an uncredited role) was in City Across The River (1949). After nearly two decades of small, fairly forgettable film and TV roles (and two Kubrick films), he was cast in The Sand Pebbles (1966), directed by Robert Wise (The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Haunting). The Sand Pebbles, which also stars Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Candice Bergen, and Richard Crenna, was nominated for eight Oscars, and represents the peak of Turkel's career up to that point. Mostly television and less-than-memorable low budget film roles followed for the next decade and a half.
At the dawn of the 1980s, the actor finally made his mark in cinema history with an impressive one-two punch. First, Kubrick hired him again, and Joe Turkel found himself cast as Lloyd The Bartender in The Shining (1980). This horror movie was controversial at the time; it was based on a Stephen King novel, and the author publicly trashed Kubrick's adaptation of the book. Horror fans were also somewhat divided. However, as the years passed, The Shining came to be recognized as one of the vastly superior Stephen King book-to-film adaptations. For this reason, and because it is part of such a respected filmmaker's body of work, The Shining is today considered a classic. Not too shabby a gig for Mr. Turkel.
Turkel's second big score in the early 80s came in the form of a science fiction film that is today considered one of the greatest ever made. Director Ridley Scott had already proven himself to horror and sci-fi fans with Alien (1979), and he would go on to become one of film fans' most embraced filmmakers with movies like Legend(1985), Thelma & Louise (1991), Gladiator (2000), and of course Blade Runner (1982).
Starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah, William Sanderson, and as Dr. Eldon Tyrell, Joe Turkel, Blade Runner would deliver the role that Turkel - now in his 50s and in the twilight of his career – is most remembered for. It remains his second-to-last feature film.
In 1990, Turkel appeared in The Dark Side Of The Moon, a direct-to-video science fiction / horror movie that the actor describes as "The worst!" After Blade Runner, Turkel also showed up on TV a few more times (Tales From The Darkside, Miami Vice). Turkel was last seen in a 1998 episode of Boy Meets World… uncredited.
Since Blade Runner, Turkel - a fervent aficionado of tap dancing - has primarily stayed busy writing unproduced screenplays. He was rumored to have died in 1995, but is in fact, to the best of my knowledge, still alive and kicking on the west coast.
Joe Turkel's career is fascinating. He is by no definition a failure as an actor (he appeared in over 130 films and television episodes), yet he never really caught fire – even though two of cinema's greatest and most celebrated filmmakers cast him in three treasured classics, Paths Of Glory, The Shining, and Blade Runner. Two of these roles (the two most adored by genre film fans) landed at the tail end of his career. Joe Turkel is a man who had as much patience as he had talent.
Thanks for reading.
- Eric Stanze