Incisive, gravelly-voiced screen tough guy Powers Boothe was born on June 1, 1948 in Snyder, Texas, a sharecropper’s son. Used to hard physical work “chopping cotton” as a youngster, he went on to become the first member of his family to attend university. He then proceeded to study acting via a fellowship with Southern Methodist University and graduated with a degree in Fine Arts. His performing career began in repertory with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
In 1974, Boothe arrived in New York after theatrical stints in Connecticut and Philadelphia. It took another five years before he made his breakthrough on Broadway as a swaggering Texas cowboy in James McLure’s comedy play “Lone Star”. His Emmy-winning performance as Reverend Jim Jones in the miniseries Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980) led to a permanent move to Los Angeles. Lucrative screen offers followed and Boothe became firmly established as a leading actor after being well cast as Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled Philip Marlowe, Private Eye (1983), HBO’s first drama series, set in 1930s Los Angeles.
Though his portfolio of characters would eventually comprise assorted sheriffs, military brass and FBI agents, Boothe appreciated the indisputable fact that bad guys were often the “last in people’s minds” and playing them could be “more fun”. Arguably, his most convincing (and oddly likeable) villain was snarling gunslinger Curly Bill Brocius, confronting the Earps in Tombstone (1993). He went on to tackle such complex characters as White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), hawkish Vice President Noah Daniels on 24 (2001) and industrialist power broker Lamar Wyatt in Nashville (2012).
One of his best remembered roles remains that of Cy Tolliver, the (fictional) owner of the (historical) Bella Union saloon and brothel, chief nemesis of Al Swearingen on HBO’s Deadwood (2004). Boothe particularly enjoyed his lengthy soliloquies which reminded him of his time on the Shakespearean stage. The tall Texan with the penetrating eyes was rather gleefully (and enjoyably) over-the-top fiendish as Senator Roark in the post film noir Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) and managed (at least near the end) to inject some humanity into the role of Gideon Malick, the sinister head of HYDRA, in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013).
As is so often the case with actors of the ‘hard-boiled school’, Boothe has often been described as the very antithesis of the characters he essayed on screen. Sin City director Robert Rodriguez fittingly eulogised him as “a towering Texas gentleman and world class artist”. Powers Boothe died in his sleep, in Los Angeles, at age 68 on the morning of May 14, 2017 of a heart attack after battling pancreatic cancer for six months.
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