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Rick Dalton ought to give himself a break. For someone who beats himself up about being “flat on my ass” while coming “face to face with the failure that is your career,” the man sure was a prolific working actor. His five years of ascent, 10 years of treading water, and the subsequent race to the bottom—complete with several goddamn Eye-talian movies—yielded an awful lot of credits.
By my count, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dalton mentions or appears in at least 19 roles over the course of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. (The quarantine is keeping our house super busy, why do you ask?) Some are big parts that have consequence in the story of Quentin Tarantino’s film, like Jake Cahill and Caleb DeCoteau. Some are flashes, like the limited-but-mesmerizing footage we see of him in the Italian action comedy Operazione Dyn-o-mite! And some, like Dalton’s role in Land of the Giants, are only mentioned.
The best acting Dalton does in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood generally happens off set, when he’s just being himself—when he’s wowed by other actors and directors, or when he’s criticizing his own performance and trying to convince himself that he’ll end it all if he doesn’t straighten up, or when he plays the tough guy and screams at a bunch of hippies to move their mechanical asshole off his street before guzzling a blender of frozen margaritas.
But much of the movie is Leo doing a bigger/better version of Robert Downey Jr.’s “I’m a dude, playing the dude, disguised as another dude” bit. Rick Dalton plays so many dudes over the course of the film. And despite what he’d have his new agent Marvin Schwarz believe, no one loves a Rick Dalton film fest more than Dalton himself. After all, he’s got a giant painting of himself propped up at the end of his driveway. Taking that into consideration, it feels like he’d appreciate someone reviewing his work. So, what follows is a definitive ranking of his performances (Rick’s, not Leo’s) as those other dudes—naturally compiled while sucking down a bottomless stein of whiskey sours.
18. Land of the Giants
Sadly, we don’t see Rick alongside Ron Ely, who played Tarzan in the real-life NBC series from 1966 to 1968. Similarly, he only mentions appearing in Land of the Giants. And we see just a glimpse of Tanner, the first film in the Schwarz family’s Rick Dalton double feature. Marvin and his wife Mary Alice Schwarz watch a 35-millimeter technicolor print on their home projector. We see a classic Quentin Tarantino old West landscape shot of the opening credits, and we learn that Henry Wilcoxon and Clint Ritchie star in the flick, but we never get a glimpse of Rick. Tanner gets two thumbs up from Mary Alice, though. Marvin says they “thoroughly enjoyed” it.
16. Jigsaw Jane
15. Hellfire, Texas
14. Comanche Uprising
13. Kill Me Quick Ringo, Said the Gringo
12. Red Blood, Red Skin
We don’t see Rick act in any of these, either—Rick has a Jigsaw Jane poster above the TV in his house, and we get a quick glimpse of a Hellfire, Texas poster during the Manson family murders—which might be for the best given some of the not-so-vaguely racist titles. (Kurt Russell’s narrator tells us that Red Blood, Red Skin is based on a book called The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian by Floyd Ray Wilson. Yikes. Floyd Ray Wilson, incidentally, is the name of the boxer Butch kills in Pulp Fiction.) Points here, however, for the poster artwork—sweaty, coked-out-looking Rick holding a gun and smoking a cigarette is a good look—and especially for roping in Telly Savalas.
11. Bingo Martin
We don’t get to watch that kid Scott Brown beat up Rick. But maybe that’s a good thing. One week it’s Scott Brown, the next week it’s Bob Conrad in his tight pants kicking poor Rick’s ass. That could have had a psychological effect on the audience. Before you know it, Batman and Robin would be kicking the shit out of him and then—Ping! Pow! Choom! Zoom!—down goes Rick, down goes his career as a leading man. No one wants that.
10. The Green Hornet
There isn’t any footage from Rick’s episode of The Green Hornet, but he looks great getting dressed in his tux and he does some fine cajoling in his trailer when he convinces Randy, the stunt coordinator, to put Cliff—or as Randy’s wife, Janet, calls him, a “loser, asshole, wife-beating buddy boy”—in wardrobe. The highlight from this bit of Once Upon is eventually a daydreaming, shirtless Brad Pitt, but while on the Green Hornet set, Rick does fine work when imploring Randy to throw Cliff off a building, light him on fire, or “hit him with a fucking Lincoln.” That’s a good friend right there.
This is top-quality fun from Rick. Great fit, music, and dancing. (The extended clip is equally whimsical.) The whole thing has a playful Catch Me If You Can vibe to it. Especially enjoy the wink and the knock at the end. If only they’d let him in to find out what’s behind the green door.
8. Nebraska Jim
Rick may think that nobody likes spaghetti Westerns and that they’re “a fucking farce,” but he makes a compelling Nebraksa Jim on this poster. This is the film that might very well launch Rick’s renaissance, with Dalton fitting into Sergio Corbucci’s rogues’ gallery of antiheroes quite well. Sure, the whole thing was shot with a post-synced, every-actor-speaks-their-own-language Tower of Babel shooting style of European movies that Rick finds ridiculous, but Corbucci isn’t the second-best director of spaghetti Westerns in the world by accident. Plus, the process goes well enough that Rick sticks around and makes more Italian movies and packs on almost 15 pounds because he loves the food so much. Sounds like an excellent trip.
7. Operazione Dyn-o-mite!
The fourth film in Rick’s six-month swing through Italy makes his sojourn profitable (despite the cost of his swank Roman apartment). Russell’s narrator describes Operazione Dyn-o-mite! as “a spaghetti secret agent James Bond rip-off-type flick” that’s directed by Antonio Margheriti. (Maybe Eli Roth makes it out of the theater after all.) Between the movie poster, the chase scene, and the classic oh no, the drawbridge is opening car jump, what’s not to like? Plus, Rick rocks a jaunty cap and stars alongside Francesca Capucci, his new Italian bride and Brandy the Dog’s future new best friend. Please, somebody, make this movie and take all my money.
6. The Great Escape
No, Rick didn’t almost get the Steve McQueen role in The Great Escape and he’d really appreciate if you stopped asking … but since you asked: As the story goes, McQueen almost dropped out at one point, and Rick was almost considered for the part—along with the three Georges, Peppard, Maharis, and Chakiris. (I obviously stan for Rick Dalton, but I do love the idea of Colonel Hannibal Smith as the Cooler King.) Alas, Rick never had an audition. Never had a meeting. Never even met John Sturges. This one bums me out. It’s, understandably, an obvious sore point for Rick. Just think what might have become of his career if only he had caught a break. Not to mention that he does a fantastic job playing Hilts, even if it’s only in his imagination. It could have been you, Rick Dalton. It could have been you.
5. Red Apple cigarettes
After the credits roll in Once Upon a Time, we’re treated to Rick Dalton/Jake Cahill in a delightful ad for Red Apple cigarettes. It also comes complete with a history lesson. The Red Apple tobacco company has been around since 1862. Now, back in Jake’s days, the tobacco came in a pouch and Cahill had to roll his own. But Rick, a modern man, gets to enjoy the factory-rolled version. Either way, we can rest assured that Red Apples have the best drag, with the best tobacco flavor, with less burn on your throat. Mmm-mmm. Makes me want to take up smoking again. Even though someone picked a bad photo of him with a double chin for the cardboard cutout, Rick still makes one hell of a pitch man for cancer sticks.
Rick plays Michael Murtaugh in an episode called “All the Streets Are Silent”—except, as Cliff points out, when Rick Dalton has a shotgun. Rick blasts a couple of soldiers just as the show starts, makes a smooth leap out of the back of a pickup truck, and does a mighty fine job chomping on his chewing gum. The whole thing was shot up in Malibu Canyon somewhere. This is some of Dalton’s best work. He’s simultaneously a bad-ass killer and totally at ease as Murtaugh. It makes for a classic ’60s Hollywood TV star performance. By the way, Rick’s episode of F.B.I. airs this Sunday. I figured we’d watch it. I’ve got a six-pack in the back. Thought we’d order a pizza.
3. Bounty Law
As Jake Cahill, Rick lives by bounty law every Thursday at 8:30, only on NBC. As Marvin puts it, Dalton makes for a very handsome cowboy man. But don’t let the good looks fool you. Jake is a stone-cold killer. He never brings men in alive. Amateurs try to bring men in alive. Amateurs usually don’t make it. Jake Cahill is smarter than that. Usually. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like it was probably a bad idea to drag the corpse of Jody Janice—the baby boy of Major Nathan Maxwell Janice—to the town named after their family. Seems risky. This is the role Dalton is most famous for, but I can’t put it any higher since Rick will always be remembered as the fucking horse’s ass who got Bounty Law canceled because he wanted some rinky-dink movie career.
2. The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey
Lotta killing. Lotta killing. While the Nazis plan … whatever evil thing the Nazis are planning around a giant table, Rick—as Sergeant Mike Lewis—is hiding behind a curtain with a flamethrower and an eye patch. After Rick surveys the scene with his good eye, Lewis gets off an all-time one-liner—anyone order fried sauerkraut?!—and proceeds to torch eight Germans before screaming “burn, you Nazi bastards, burn!” We also get a delicious evil laugh from Rick while he shakes the flamethrower, which you can bet your sweet ass Dalton practiced with three hours a day for two weeks because that dragon is one shit fuck crazy weapon (as the Manson acolytes later learn). Rick turns the heat up on full and cooks up a top-quality performance here. Give that man all the awards. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pour myself a cognac and watch [extremely Marvin Schwarz Hollywood agent voice] The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey.
Evil, sexy Hamlet scares me—and I like it. Rick’s performance as Caleb DeCoteau is the best acting I’ve ever seen in my whole life.
An earlier version of this piece misspelled Michael Murtaugh’s last name. It is Murtaugh, not Murtah.