Tim Jackson remembers Rick Dial: Whoa!

February 27, 2012

I only knew Rick Dial well enough to say “hi,” but he always seemed like the most genuine and nicest man. My friend Tim Jackson knew him well, and he posted this piece on Facebook before last night’s Academy Awards. I asked him if I could re-post here, and he kindly assented.

By Tim Jackson

It’s a pretty safe bet Rick Dial’s picture will be missing during the annual “In Memoriam” montage at tonight’s Academy Awards. A safe bet, but a sad one nonetheless.

It happens every year. Someone gets left out. Sometimes it happens because of an oversight. Sometimes it’s a judgment call. I’d like to think last year’s omission of Lisa Blount was an oversight. Who in their right mind would call it sound judgment for the Academy not to acknowledge the passing of an Oscar winner, Academy member and veteran film actor of over 30 years?

Rick probably won’t be in this evening’s solemn roll call. But he should be.

He was a member of the Screen Actors Guild with credits going back to 1996. He had recently completed work in two films and was preparing to start another when he died this past May. His first foray into acting wasn’t a prank. It was a specific choice made by the writer and the director – who happened to be the same person. The screenplay for that film earned an Oscar.

Billy Bob Thornton introduced the world to Rick Dial by casting him as Bill Cox in Sling Blade. Thornton wasn’t just being kind to his lifelong friend. He was acting on a hunch that Rick had something true and compelling to bring to that role. In fact, Thornton wrote the part with Rick’s voice in his mind. His hunch proved right. It also started Rick on a journey that enriched his life experience but did not change his character or personality one iota.

Here’s an interesting wrinkle to Rick’s career that desperate and superstitious filmmakers like myself could not help but notice: The ratio of films Rick acted in compared to how many of those films garnered multiple Oscar nominations was impressive. He was the Meryl Streep of Malvern, AR. He was also considered a good luck charm for Awards Season – if you could get him.

There was an experience common enough to some Indie filmmakers that it had a name: The Malvern Pilgrimage. I made this journey myself and counseled others how to do it. You had to travel to a little berg forty minutes, give-or-take, south of Little Rock and just east of I-30. Deep in the bowels of a furniture store just off Malvern’s main highway you’d find Rick huddled in a small office.

To get to your seat you’d wade through stacks of Gaither Homecoming CDs on one side and personal mementos from Billy Bob Thornton on the other. You’d sit in the chair across from his desk, gripping a smudged script in your sweaty hand. As you settled in you noticed pictures on the walls. Rick with Thornton. Rick with Duvall. Rick with John Travolta. Rick with Jeff Bridges. Rick with Maggie Gyllenhall. Rick with Jack Black. All of these pictures were taken on movie sets where Rick wasn’t visiting – he was working. And that’s when you realized: “These are the kind of people I’m competing with to cast Rick in my film.”

I’m grateful Rick said, “yes” on two occasions I came calling. He was a fine actor and he was a good man. That’s a potent and welcome combination on any set.

It was in a bar in Beverly Hills that I began to get a greater sense of the effect Rick had on people — and he wasn’t even there. My business partner and I had arranged to meet a director to discuss a script our company was developing. He said we should meet Friday night at eight in the bar at the Four Seasons.

The place was packed but the director was holding a table for us. Actually it was half of a table in a banquette we shared with… wait for it… Robert Duvall, his lovely wife and a couple with whom they were having dessert. I took the only open space — next to Mr. Duvall. We acknowledged one another as polite people do on airplanes never intending to say another word to the other. But how could I concentrate on the conversation at hand with this unprecedented development?

About an hour later Duvall and his party stood up to leave. It was now or never. “Mr. Duvall!” I blurted out. He turned toward me with that startled but confident look A-listers have when they’re about to be accosted. I froze. Nothing. Then it hit me.

“Rick Dial!” I shouted as if that were a complete sentence. He warmed a bit but was still wary.

“Rick Dial would never forgive me if I sat this close to you and didn’t send his greetings.”

“Ricky Dial!” Duvall lit up. He regaled our party with several of his favorite Dial stories both personal and professional. He shook my hand and told me to “give Ricky my best when you see him.” Then he was gone. I’ve never seen him since and Rick Dial is the only subject we’ve ever discussed.

Several days later when I told Rick that story, he just laughed, shook his head and said something about how wonderful Duvall is. One of the genuinely charming things about Rick was his eagerness to turn the spotlight back to someone he loved.

Rick lived long enough to experience pain and heartache. Let’s be honest, you don’t have to live all that long to experience pain and heartache. Yet, Rick managed to keep a genuine sense of wonder and delight about life right up to the end of his.

I was with Rick and Phyllis – his lovely and beloved wife – the night Rick collapsed. We’d met up for a purely social engagement and were having a pleasant conversation when Rick froze and uttered a single word: “Whoa!” Then he fell to the ground and never regained consciousness.

It wasn’t like “Whoa! Stop that!” It was more like, “Whoa! Wasn’t that great?”

It seemed horrific and absurd at the time but now it just feels right. It was vintage Rick. I don’t know what he saw or felt at that moment. I don’t know if he was trying to tell us something or, more likely, convey something to Phyllis. I do think if Rick had been given a choice of the last word he’d speak on earth, “Whoa!” was as likely to be his pick as any other.

So whether or not Rick is “missing” tonight at the Academy Awards is of little consequence, I guess. More importantly, a lot of us are still missing Rick. We cherish our memories and celebrate the legacy he left us – on film and in person. When we think about how full his life was and the deposit he made in so many lives all we can say is, “Whoa!”

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