Scott ‘Hershel’ Wilson (1942-2018): Anonymous character actor stayed course & found second-time-around cult status

By nature soft-spoken and introverted, some called him temperamental, Scott Wilson had, ironically, one of Hollywood’s splashier sendoffs. He made his big screen debut as the Mississippi drifter falsely accused of murder in 1967’s powerful “In the Heat of the Night,” starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. Wilson’s character is introduced running across a long bridge. Director Norman Jewison wanted to try something new. He filmed bridge and fugitive in extreme long shot, as Sheriff Gillespie (Steiger) in squad car methodically closes in on the panicked suspect. The scene is imaginatively backed by Quincy Jones’ scat music, which slows to raspy crawl as Wilson’s fugitive tires and surrenders.

Wilson didn’t know it at the time but that extreme long shot would become a metaphor of sorts for a career that began in closeup — with a decade of leads in such cult favorites as “In Cold Blood,” “The Grissom Gang” and, opposite Burt Lancaster and Gene Hackman, “The Gypsy Moths” — but was for the most part taken for granted, viewed from the wrong end of a telescope by producers and casting agents.

I met Wilson, who died last week at age 76, when I was on sabbatical at USC and freelancing for the LA Times. I had just seen Tim Robbins’ powerful anti-capital punishment docudrama “Dead Man Walking” with Sean Penn as a killer on death row, Susan Sarandon as activist Sister Helen Prejean … and, in a role so brief if you blinked you missed it, a rheumy Scott Wilson as the cynical prison chaplain. I remember thinking, ‘I know that guy — he’s good, he’s always been good. Why isn’t he getting better roles.’ I decided to find out why.

After the story (below) ran, Wilson called to say thanks. “It got me an agent,” he said, appreciatively. We stayed in touch by phone. I used him as a grounded Hollywood source on more than one occasion. He often talked about his work as a SAG activist. He read for but lost the beekeeper lead to Peter Fonda in Victor Nunez’s “Ulee’s Gold.” That one hurt; Fonda’s Oscar nomination should have been his. And he continued to operate just under the radar, picking up the occasional studio gig but mostly roles in small independent releases like “Monster” and “Junebug.” He played the apoplectic father in a remake of “The Heartbreak Kid,” a window-dressing general in Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor,” and, of course, the bearded Hershel, Rick & Co’s patriarch-conscience, in three seasons of “The Walking Dead.”

By Glenn Lovell

Special to The Times

Scott Wilson made the cover of Life Magazine in 1967. To prove it, as much to himself as visitors, he has a framed copy of the May 12 issue hanging in his study. It depicts Wilson, then 24, Robert Blake and Truman Capote–stars and author of “In Cold Blood”–posing on a lonely stretch of Kansas highway.

UnWilsonCoverder the words “Nightmare Revisited” is a caption that would portend much to come in Wilson’s 30 frustrating years as one of Hollywood’s most respected but least utilized character actors: “Truman Capote stands between actors playing killers in movie of his book.”

Who are these anonymous actors? You have to look inside. No cover ID. Director-screenwriter Richard Brooks wanted it that way. He wanted to further his film’s documentary-like realism by making the public think Wilson and Blake were Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the young drifters executed in 1965 for murdering a Kansas farm family.

He succeeded only too well in Wilson’s case.

“Every actor in the English-speaking world wanted those two roles, including Newman and McQueen,” recalls Wilson, who plays the prison chaplain in the current “Dead Man Walking,” another Oscar-nominated film about capital punishment. “Brooks hired two ‘unknowns’ and he wanted to keep it that way. We were treated like two killers he had somehow run across.”

Verisimilitude was pushed to absurd lengths in promoting the crime thriller. It wasn’t enough to have the young stars’ eyes glowering down from a Sunset Boulevard billboard: “Brooks had the poster with our eyes taken down and replaced with one of the real killers’ eyes.

Wilson, cautiously mounting a comeback at 53, says he never saw himself as “star material.” He was always introverted, temperamental, distrustful of authority.

“It was the late ’60s,” he explains, drawing on a cigarette. “I was anti-establishment, anti-Vietnam.”

Never trust anyone over 30, right?

“Yeah, I took the sound bite and went with it.”

Wilson applied his generation’s motto to the Hollywood bureaucracy, which insisted upon typecasting him as Dick Hickock’s evil twin.

“I didn’t handle things well,” he acknowledges during an interview at the West Hollwood apartment he shares with his artist wife, Heavenly. “There were some dark holes in my–I don’t know if you want to call it ‘a career’–in my time out here.”

After “In Cold Blood” and two offbeat but unsuccessful follow-ups (Sydney Pollack’s “Castle Keep,” John Frankenheimer’s “The Gypsy Moths”), Wilson couldn’t find work–at least not on his terms. It was a calamitous turn of events for someone now recalled by a director friend as “the Sean Penn of his day.” Penn and co-star Susan Sarandon are nominated for Oscars for “Dead Man Walking”; he plays a silver-tongued death-row inmate, a role that might have been modeled on Wilson’s Hickock.

Wilson is flattered and made uneasy by the comparison. “I do see some of myself in Sean. He doesn’t play the game,” observes the Georgia-born actor, who will next be seen in “The Grass Harp” (another Capote adaptation) and “Shiloh” (from the award-winning children’s book).

When the conversation turns to his best qualities, Wilson looks away, kneads the back of his neck.

“I think you always get a credibility out of me,” he finally offers. “I think you always get a believability out of me.”

Wilson’s directors–including Walter Hill, Steve Kloves and Richard Fleischer (who cast Wilson as the disillusioned rookie in 1972’s “The New Centurions”)–agree with this self-assessment. They also think Wilson is scandalously under-employed.

Says Kloves, who used Wilson as a penny-ante thief in “Flesh and Bone”: “Scott is one of those guys who’s powerful, perversely, because he doesn’t call attention to himself. . . . I’d love to find something just for him, to write a movie where he’s the guy.”

Action director Hill relied on Wilson for key moments in “Johnny Handsome” and “Geronimo.” “Scott brings a quality of both anxiety and pain to his parts,” Hill observes. “I don’t know where he gets it from, but there’s a kind of melancholy he brings to things.”

In the upcoming “Shiloh,” directed by Dale Rosenbloom and featuring Michael Moriarty and Rod Steiger, Wilson handles villain chores. He plays Judd, the West Virginia hunter who mistreats the hound dog of the title.

Rosenbloom didn’t want a stereotypical bad guy. Wilson delivered a villain with a past. “It’s the eyes,” he says. “There are stories in those eyes.”

Charlie Matthau cast Wilson as a grieving father in “The Grass Harp.” “You instantly see the grief in Scott’s face,” he says. “He conveyed everything in a look.”

The “look” to which many allude could come from years of rejection and disappointment. Or it may just be, as Robert Blake would have it, “your basic dark side, man.”

This article first appeared in the LA Times on March 17, 1996.

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