Image Credit: Everett CollectionThe world of horror and science fiction movies lost one of its totemic actors on Saturday when, according to the Los Angeles Times, Kevin McCarthy died at the age of 96. McCarthy was never really a household name, but he starred in a raft of genre classics including 1978’s Piranha, 1981’s The Howling, and most famously, the seminal 1956 sci-fi movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which aliens attempt to turn the human race into emotionless “pod people.” He was a hugely talented character actor who made whatever he appeared in watchable and could help elevate good material into the realm of the truly great.

The Minneapolis-raised McCarthy was orphaned at an early age. “My parents died of the flu,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1991. “First my father, then one day later my mother. That happened when I was not yet 5 years old.” McCarthy was sent to a succession of foster homes and turned into “a lazy, good-for-nothing kid.” He found his calling at the University of Minnesota when a friend suggested that he try out for a role in Henry IV, Part 1. McCarthy would later recall how, when he first appeared onstage, he “literally felt a millstone lift from my shoulders.”

In 1951, McCarthy appeared in the movie version of Death of a Salesman and won an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Biff Loman. It was his starring role, however, in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers for which he will be, rightly, remembered. “I think the reason it’s still so effective today is that we played it for real,” McCarthy told the Akron Beacon Journal in 1996. “It wasn’t sappy or campy. We actually wondered how real people would really react if forced to deal with something like this.” Apparently, McCarthy was once approached in a supermarket by legendary film director Eric von Stroheim, who told the actor that Body Snatchers was “one of the 10 greatest pictures ever made!” (Alas, history does not relate what the Austrian auteur had in his shopping basket.) Frankly, I could spend all day writing about the qualities of the noir-ish, nightmare-ish Body Snatchers, and of McCarthy’s superb, desperate performance. Instead, I will simply recommend you check out director Joe Dante’s informed and heartfelt tribute to the movie on his Trailers from Hell website.

As Dante points out, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is so terrific that Hollywood feels obliged to remake it every couple of decades. One of the directors to revamp Siegel’s movie was Philip Kaufman, who recruited McCarthy for a cameo appearance in his 1978 version. The same year, the actor appeared as a semi-deranged geneticist in Joe Dante’s solo directorial debut Piranha. McCarthy replaced Eric Braeden, who decided at the last moment that the shoot’s primitive, watery conditions weren’t for him. “It was a blow, in that we liked Eric,” Dante told me earlier this year. “But on the other hand it led to me meeting to Kevin McCarthy, who is has been in numerous pictures of mine, and is a friend. So I can’t say that I was weeping about it.”

McCarthy became a member of Dante’s stock band of actors, although there was little “stock” about his memorable appearances in The Howling, Innerspace, or the Dante-directed section of Twilight Zone: The Movie. While McCarthy’s other big-screen horror credits included Dark Tower and Ghoulies III, he was a versatile actor who appeared in films and TV shows of various stripes and, for many years, toured a one-man theatrical production about Harry Truman called Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!. There are certainly people who best know him from his villainous turn in the comedy UHF.

Those who want to pay tribute to McCarthy, however, should definitely watch, or rewatch, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Over the years, there has been much debate about whether it is a movie about the dangers of Communism or those of McCarthyism (I speak here, of course, of the red-baiting Joe McCarthy, not of the actor, although some obituaries are claiming the Body Snatchers star was a distant cousin of another politician, onetime presidential hopeful Eugene McCarthy). But there really is no doubt that the film is a bona fide classic. I’ve embedded the trailer — “They’re here, already! You’re next!!!” — below to whet your appetite.

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