The Voice of the Beast

Photo by Sophie BassoulsEdward Bunker, actor and author of five books and three films, died in Burbank on July 19 at the age of 71, a free man. Most knew Bunker simply as the character Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 fame-making debut, Reservoir Dogs, and though he appeared in more than 20 films, including this summer’s remake of The Longest Yard, he was first and foremost a writer. As is the case with many gifted American authors, the vast majority of his countrymen have yet to read Bunker’s literary works. That’s too bad, not merely because Bunker’s personally inspired stories of the criminal underclass are so intensely descriptive and gripping, but because, as much as perhaps any other contemporary author, he has so much to say regarding the circumstances of life and how we evolve into who we are. Bunker grew up in Hollywood, the son of a stagehand and a Busby Berkeley chorus girl. A troubled child with a reportedly genius IQ of 152, he was soon propelled by the early divorce of his parents into a series of increasingly abusive foster homes, military schools and juvenile facilities. Bunker would eventually spend more than 18 years incarcerated in the California prison system for robbery, forgery and other crimes. At the tender age of 17, he achieved the dubious honor of being then the youngest inmate sentenced to San Quentin.As Bunker related in his 2000 book, Education of a Felon, his love of reading came during a reform-school boot camp when he was 15 and had the profound realization that “novels could be more than stories that entertained and excited. They could also carry wisdom and look into the darkest recesses of human behavior.” It was a prescient realization for a man who would later use his brutal past to so acutely address issues of human nature at its best and worst.As a teenager, Bunker was befriended by Louise Wallis, a onetime silent-screen actress and the wife of successful movie mogul Hal Wallis. The woman who was posthumously dubbed the “Angel of Hollywood” showed Bunker the kindness he’d never known until then, introducing him to famous friends as her “weekday son.” When he eventually returned to prison, it was Wallis who sent him a typewriter. It took Bunker 17 years, six novels and more than a hundred short stories before he published his first book. When asked in an interview by the Richmond Review how he persevered, Bunker replied with typical convict stoicism: “It’s my nature to persevere. There was nothing else I could do.” Bunker’s first novel, No Beast So Fierce, would eventually be made into the film Straight Time, starring Dustin Hoffman, but it was another film that would change his life. Bunker was brought in to rewrite the script for an action film called Runaway Train that would star Jon Voight and Eric Roberts. Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa had originally developed the project, and while the end result would be a collaborative effort between writers, it is Bunker’s distinct voice in the initial prison sequence that gives the two escaping convicts an undeniable authenticity and humanity. In the film’s dramatic end sequence, which transcends the action genre to become a powerful piece of symbolism, Voight’s character, Manny, stands above a train as it hurtles through an icy landscape toward certain annihilation. As death approaches, the film suddenly cuts to a close-up of Bunker himself, smiling sadly in a prison cell. Bunker received an Oscar nomination for the film’s screenplay. He was the real deal, and though he will be missed, his voice will continue to be heard for years to come.

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