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Dabbs Greer in The Green Mile
by Colete Morlock

I'm usually not attracted to Stephen King novels or movies. But for some inexplicable reason, The Green Mile is an exception. Here is a story without all of the horror and gore that is so prevalent in King's other novels. Even the people seem to be "normal". To paraphrase King himself, the characters are unremarkable people until something happens to them. I was rather surprised to learn that this was originally intended as a six-part serial. Director Frank Darabont relates that he had read the first couple installments and finally told King he had to have the rest.

The focus of this article is not on Tom Hanks or Michael Clarke Duncan, but on Dabbs Greer. With bookend performances, it is Mr. Greer who sets the tone for the movie. In Frank Darabont's commentary, we see some incredible lighting on Dabbs, looking rather intently. He is introduced as best known for his Little House on the Prairie work. Yet, Darabont never saw Dabbs as the Reverend Alden. It is from the sci-fi thriller It, The Terror From Outer Space that Darabont recalls Mr. Greer's performance. In fact, he is such a fan that he brought his poster from that movie and asked Dabbs to autograph it for him!

The movie begins with Dabbs Greer opening his eyes, awaking from sleep, and rising to go over to the dresser to splash water on his face. After drying the face and while now combing his hair, I noticed a large blackened bruise on the upper portion of his left hand. I couldn't help but wonder if this had been a souvenir of a possible intravenous site - the temporary reminder of Mr. Greer's recent illness.

Now fully dressed and out in the main corridor, Dabbs, as the elder Paul Edgecomb joins the normal traffic of the hallways. He greets a woman in a wheelchair, giving her a trademark smile. He encourages a gent walking with a portable IV pole with a "That's better" and proceeds on his mission down the hall. Now in the resident dining room, his eyes search the room until they find his friend, Elaine. He winks at her and gives one of those famous Dabbs Greer smiles. Then he turns his attention to the staff that is serving breakfast. Asking only for some dried toast he is gently warned, "Don't let Nurse Godzilla catch you" on those long, lonely walks. This is the first inkling that we have that Edgecomb either doesn't follow the rules or stretches them. He joins Elaine and she shows deep concern for him, telling him he looks tired. He reassures her that he just had a few bad dreams.

The scene where the movie Top Hat is being shown is significant, as the viewer will discover later on in the picture. It is the shocked expression on Dabbs' face that draws one attention to him.

Our curiosity is aroused as to why the Edgecomb character would have this reaction. We hear Fred Astaire singing "Cheek to Cheek". When Paul proceeds to break down in tears, and hastily leaves the room, we are right there with Elaine trying to comfort him. His extremely somber look tells us that Edgecomb is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Dabbs conveys this so convincingly and then he adds: "I guess sometimes the past catches up with you whether you want it to or not." As if by now this dialogue hasn't aroused one's curiosity, Dabbs' expression draws you even closer. You want, no, you need to find out what he means and what secrets he is hiding. What we discover is that "Top Hat" reminds the elder Paul Edgecomb of 1935 and John Coffey's last request to see a "flicker show". Coffey, seeing Astaire and Rogers dancing, refers to them as angels with their great style and grace. The words to the song are also the last words we are hearing from Coffey just before he is executed.

One of the most moving sequences for me occurrs at the cabin, where Paul takes Elaine to meet Mr. Jingles. I couldn't help but think back to the lines that Dabbs had recited to her, with a gaze of great resignation: "You'll die, too, and my curse is knowing I'll be there to see it." Mr. Greer's voice begins to quiver a bit and you'd swear that his eyes are starting to well with tears. When he tells Elaine "I'll die eventually, I imagine. I have no illusions of immortality. But I will have wished for death long before death finds me. In truth, I wish for it already", you feel the sincerity of these lines. With a kindly smile on his face, Dabbs also reveals the sadness and bittersweet reality of many who outlive their families and friends. Reciting these lines, you have to wonder if he isn't truly feeling the same thing of himself - one isn't sure where the actor ends and the real person begins.

Later, we see a very stoic Paul as he places a single white rose on Elaine's chest during her public viewing. Again, at the gravesite service, that particularly stoic look is on Dabbs' face. As Paul, Dabbs leaves the gravesite, and I studied his eyes. I saw a very pensive look on his face, perhaps indicating that he might be also believe those words:

"I think about all of us walking our own Green Mile, each in our own time. We each owe a death, there are no exceptions, but sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile is so long."

I could not help but wonder if Dabbs' thoughts had drifted back to what he has endured in his own lifetime. When interviewed about whether he patterned his performance after Tom Hanks, I was intrigued by his response:

"The only thing I tried to copy off Tom was I needed to copy his honesty. Because I thought he was so honest in his portrayal. And I thought this would have stayed with the character in his old age. So you only saw the character I played after all this rich experience that Tom faceted in the character earlier."

The final scenes we see of Dabbs are walking the long hallway back at the nursing home following Elaine's funeral. He does appear to be very tired. It is no wonder then that the final moments we see Dabbs, once again in bed at night this time, with his final narration.

"I've lived to see some amazing things, Ellie." Truer words could never be spoken. Since he first came into this world, Dabbs had lived to see the best and worst of mankind's potential. From medical advances to skyscrapers, elevators, air conditioning, Dabbs grew up with these. From the Great Depression to the Monopoly game, from baseball icons to literary giants such as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Thornton Wilder and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dabbs saw their books become best sellers. In music, Dabbs might have danced to the big bands of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller. Cole Porter wrote musicals along with George and Ira Gershwin. In fact, the significant song from The Green Mile, "Cheek to Cheek" was written by Irving Berlin. I wonder what Dabbs thought of radio and the advent of Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Amos and Andy, Fibber McGee and Molly, along with Lone Ranger, Green Hornet, The Shadow, and Superman. Hollywood considered this their "Golden Age" with many icons, a movie called Gone With the Wind, a youngster named Shirley Temple, and Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first full-length animated feature. Dabbs Greer lived through wars, but also saw the dawn of atomic energy, jet airplanes, LP records, computers, microwave ovens, mobile phones and transistors. With the widespread availability of the "little screen", Dabbs benefited from appearances on the many shows which have since become classics - the Adventures of Superman, The Andy Griffith Show and Little House on the Prairie with numerous or recurring roles. He witnessed the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, mankind taking the giant leap on the moon, and Camelot in politics. I'm not sure what he thought of rock and roll, or the likes of Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Elvis, or even the Beatles. Nevertheless, Dabbs had seen them all and even more.

This movie was to be Dabbs' last appearance on the big screen. He will always be remembered as one of the most recognizable character actors on screen. Dabbs once said, "Every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead." This certainly was the case with all of his performances and The Green Mile is no exception. Dabbs is the anchor, the foundation for the rest of the movie. He is the intrinsic part of a great ensemble cast and he strengthens Tom Hanks' performance as his younger self. Upon Dabbs' death, Frank Darabont had this to say about Mr. Greer's legacy:

"He was a stalwart character actor who never stopped working, a ubiquitous face and presence who always delighted the audience even if they didn't know his name. I was truly privileged to work with him on The Green Mile, in which he played the older Tom Hanks character to perfection. He was a gracious gentleman and a total pro. The things I remember most: his elegance, his gentleness, and the absolute joy that acting still gave him even after all the years he'd been at it. I shall miss him very much"

Those of us who have discovered Dabbs Greer over the years probably all feel the same way as Mr. Darabont. If the eyes truly are the windows of the soul, then we were privileged to catch a glance of this incredible man. For it is in watching those incredible blue eyes, and hearing his unique combination of voice and phrasing that you are drawn into the character he portrays. We may have lost another bright light in the world of character actors, but Dabbs certainly has left us with so many memories.

Mr. Dabbs Greer
1917 - 2007

Lou (July 20, 2007)

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