Exploitation cinema’s greatest heavy, Sid Haig, has died aged 80.
It was a role that he would grow to resent, but Sid Haig, who died this weekend, was one of the great heavies of American cinema, playing the brooding bad guy in assorted cult movies and making guest star appeaeances on countless TV shows. It was the latter that eventually made Haig retire from acting in 1992, frustrated with both the typecasting and the demands of formulaic television, but he would have a career revival at the end of the 1990s, finding a new fan base as a horror movie villain.
Haig started his career in Jack Hill’s student film The Host in 1960, and the pair would work together regularly in subsequent years. Haig and Hill’s best film is the deliciously weird Spider Baby, with Haig as Ralph, the most mentally deteriorated member of the Merrye family – he’s barely recognisable in the film, but creates an extraordinary character who is both childlike and monstrous, and he’s an unforgettably creepy presence. More typical roles for Hill included appearances as thugs, villains and sleazeballs in The Big Doll House, Coffy, Foxy Brown and Black Mama, White Mama. These films are Haig at his best – charismatic but dangerous, guaranteed to steal any scene he appeared in. Haig seemed born to be a heavy – his bald head and beard, his height and booming voice and his intensity as a performer made him one of cinema’s most memorable tough guys and most outrageous of villains.
As well as Hill, Haig made great exploitation films for directors like Eddie Romero and others, and more mainstream projects like THX 1138 and Diamonds Are Forever in the early 1970s in a career that kept him busy, often making several films a year. From the middle of the decade onwards, he was also doing a lot of TV, and this continued into the 1980s. Eventually, the TV would take over his career almost entirely, and it’s easy to understand how frustration would set in, as the meaty roles of his movies were watered down into a series of interchangeable henchmen and second-string thugs. For Haig, who was nothing like the characters he portrayed in real life, it all became too much – not just the typecasting but the relentless treadmill of weekly TV shows that meant he couldn’t even bring any sense of nuance to these characters in the way he could in the movies. In 1992, he walked away from his acting career.
He was tempted back by Tarantino in Jackie Brown in 1997, but his comeback was really down to Rob Zombie, who persuaded him to appear in House of 1000 Corpses as Captain Spauling, creating a new iconic horror character and setting Haig on a new career path as a horror icon. Not all the films he subsequently made were good (Night of the Living Dead 3D, anyone?) and a pedant might say that being a horror villain is not that much different to being an action movie villain, but Haig was off the relentless TV treadmill, could be a lot more picky about his projects and seemed genuinely thrilled by the new fan base he discovered for his work. In truth, the fans had always been out there – but the cult status of horror and the convention circuit helped bring it home. It would be fair to say that haig revelled in his new popularity, and his work in the last twenty years has been almost exclusively in the genre.
Haig had an unspecified acident earlier this month and was rushed to intensive care. While it seemed that he was on the road to recovery, he passed on September 21st. He’ll be missed as an unforgettable screen presence and a person.