Rockets Redglare, a retrospective
A junkie from birth, Rockets Redglare fixed his bits on some indie classics
I saw Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law back in the late 80s the same week I saw Tom Waits play the Eugene O’Neill Theater. I’d been a Waits fan since I was about 13. I knew his guitarist, Mark Ribot, from around town and got to see him play classical guitar at his brother’s wedding, so I hung out down the block from the theater after the show to say a quick hey and try to cop a freebie for the next night’s show or something. Tom came out first. He had a Band-Aid on his forehead. This was the guy who’d rather have a “bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy,” so I observed at him: “you gotta shave up there too?” Tom growled back with “Ah you should see the other guy.” I told Tom that Down by Law was playing on Twelfth Street and asked if he wanted to come see the midnight showing, but by then the fans noticed he was still hanging and started to crowd down and he jumped in a cab and fled. I decided to celebrate by seeing the movie again. Midnight showings are always the best. When I got to the theater, the manager was pushing a chubby guy out to the street. He kept insisting that he was in the movie. The manager called him a junkie and yelled about him fixing in his place.
Rockets Redglare was renowned around town as the junkie who sold the dope that killed Sid Vicious after he stabbed Nancy Spungen with his favorite knife at the Chelsea Hotel. Redglare had been a popular dope and speed dealer in the seventies because he was usually too high to count his change. Redglare was a junkie before he was born. His mom was a fifteen-year-old addict named Agnes Tarulli Morra and her son got hooked while still in utero. Michael Morra was born in New York City in 1949. They had to put methadone in his baby formula. His old man was a gangster and his uncles were connected to the mob in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. When his father got deported back to Italy, his mom took up with a junkie boxer who assaulted Morra and ultimately killed his mother. After his mother died, Morra changed his name to Rockets Redglare. A true American original.
Rockets Redglare was a character who became a character actor in more than thirty movies. He dropped dime on John Lurie in Down by Law. He killed Eric Bogosian’s wise ass DJ character in Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio. He rented the room to Tom Hanks’ man child in Big. Redglare grew up in drug rehab centers all around New York State and worked at rehab centers in Maine before coming back to the city do standup, bounce at the Red Bar in the East Village, load musical gear for Billie Joel and hang in the punk and porno film scenes. And to sell drugs. According to Phil Strongman in the book “Pretty Vacant: A History of Punk,” Redglare killed Nancy Spungen. Redglare supplied the Dilaudid Sid and Nancy were doing the night she was stabbed. Redglare was also Jean Michel Basquiat’s connection. Redglare did his standup in the East Village, at Club 57 and Pyramid before he made the transformation to performance art in his show "Taxi Cabaret."
Redglare’s first movie came in 1984 when he was cast as himself in Eric Mitchell’s improvisational film The Way It Is, which is known by the alternative title Euridice on the Avenues, along with Steve Buscemi, in his film acting debut, and Vincent Gallo, who wrote the music. His next bit came when he played poker in Jim Jarmusch’s first post-film school movie, Stranger than Paradise. The movie won the Caméra d'Or award for debut films at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. It also picked up the Golden Leopard and the Special Mention Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 1984 Locarno International Film Festival. The Belgian Critics Association gave it the Grand Prix and the Sundance Film Festival gave it a Special Jury Prize in 1985. The National Society of Film Critics gave it the best picture award in 1985. In 2002 it won the award for National Film Registry at the National Film Preservation Board. Made for around $100,000, Stranger than Paradise pulled in $2,436,000 at the box office.
He was also cast as a cabbie in the movie that introduced Madonna to mainstream film, Desperately Seeking Susan, which was directed by Susan Seidelman and starred Rosanna Arquette. Rounding out the year, Redglare worked with Martin Scorsese in After Hours, chasing Griffin Dunne around lower Manhattan as part of the vigilante mob bent on revenge after a series of break-ins plagued the neighborhood.
Redglare got a juicier role in Jim Jarmusch’s next film, the independent prison-comedy Down by Law, which was shot in and around the bayou swamps of New Orleans and starred Tom Waits and John Lurie. Down by Law also introduced Roberto Benigni to American audiences. The movie also featured Nicoletta Braschi, who would later star or be featured in all Roberto Benigni’s films, and in his life, as he cast her as his wife. The two characters fell in love in the movie, as did the two actors when the cameras weren’t running. Redglare’s Gig sets up John Lurie’s pimp, Jack, to get caught with an underage wannabe-whore in a hotel after telling him he just wants to make things right so they can be friends again. Down by Law has a scene where a prison riot is incited by the chant “I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice cream.” A modern classic comedy bit. Redglare is a rat backed into a corner and he looks like he’s itching for a fix. He gets to take care of two problems with one take-down. His hustle is so natural he probably practiced it outside a neighborhood shooting gallery growing up.
In 1987 Redglare played Ollie in Salvation!: Have You Said Your Prayers Today?, Peter Gint in Stars and Bars and in a film called Hotshot before driving the van without his teeth in the hipster road film Candy Mountain. The film was about an average guitarist who wants to be a famous rock star after backing up David Johansson. It was directed by Robert Frank and starred Kevin O’Connor, Harris Yulin, Leon Redbone, Dr. John and the inevitable, inimitable Tom Waits. Candy Mountain is a cool ride in unfamiliar territory. Territory Redglare traverses gleefully in his VW van, in search of a guitar that will make all the difference.
Redglare did a bit part as Ira in the 1988 crime film Shakedown, also known as Blue Jean Cop, which was directed by James Glickenhouse and starred Peter Weller as a burnt out public defender defending a crack dealer who kills a cop who preys on crack dealers. He also appeared behind bullet-proof glass as the one-eyed flophouse desk clerk who gives the age-changing Tom Hanks the keys to his first place in the fantasy comedy Big. What happens in those rooms stays upstairs. That’s between them. It’s really not his problem and clean sheets’ll cost you. Big was directed by Penny Marshall, starred Elizabeth Perkins, John Heard, and Robert Loggia and was named one of the top 100 funniest movies by Bravo and the American Film Institute. It was nominated for best writing, original screenplay and best actor awards for Tom Hanks at the Academy Awards.
Talk Radio was the story of Barry Champlain, a controversial Jewish talk radio shock jock in Texas. It was loosely based on real-life talk show host Alan Berg, who was kind of a left wing Rush Limbaugh in Denver. Berg was shot twelve times in 1984 by a hate group that called itself The Order. They killed Berg because he was Jewish. The killers were convicted for violating Berg’s civil rights. Not for killing him. The movie was based on the play of the same name by performance artist-turned actor Eric Bogosian. I’d seen a few Bogosian performance pieces and often sat close enough to get spit on by the actor’s juicy delivery. Talk Radio was brought to the big screen by Oliver Stone, right after he’d finished his classic economic crash Wall Street and also featured Alec Baldwin. Stone turns the small, enclosed, sound-proof DJ booth into its own world as he ramps up the tension of a chance at the big time that spins into an unexpected deathly payoff. Redglare harasses the on-air host as a redneck call-in antagonist until he heckles the guy to death. Redglare sets his vitriol on simmer as he parries with Bogosian. But it’s a full pot and it occasionally boils over. He’s all voice here and Stone plays him like a sinister violin with taut strings.
After dancing on Rooftops as Carlos for Robert Wise in 1989, Rockets went back to peddling booze for Jim Jarmusch in Mystery Train. Mystery Train was Jarmusch’s first movie shot in color. The bright color of Memphis, home of Graceland and Sun Studios. It was told in three segments. Redglare makes his cameo in the “Lost in Space” episode and it brought him back to the indie acting world of Steve Buscemi. Redglare always worked at that liquor store. He always will and he doesn’t give a shit. But he cares. He cares about every bottle in the place. He’s watching and you better pay. He’s the guy who’s gonna make you use that gun. But he looks genuinely surprised when someone takes him up on the offer. Jarmusch doesn’t pour a lot of Redglare, but he’s good to the last drop. The “Lost in Space” segment also starred Joe Strummer, who did it to get him out of the depression of leaving The Clash. In the movie, Strummer loses his girlfriend to an Elvis impersonator. Everyone loses to Elvis somehow in Mystery Train. Jarmusch is funny that way. Jarmusch is funny in a lot of ways, none of them direct. He approaches his humor from a corner and lets it blindside you.
In Craps, a short film by Rick Rodine from 1991, Redglare steers Mike, a young horny drunk, from a peep theater in the bad, old Times Square, that features sex shows and freaks, to his own sex ghetto. He's got something to show that'll "freak you the fuck out." He's got a box where he keeps a miniature, sexy lady in a bikini bound to the cardboard. Free only to writhe and wiggle. Ah, maybe it’s not for everyone. Redglare is comfortable on the street. He's been peddling this all his life. He played a wiseguy who worked for Mafiosi Carmine (Michael Gazzo) in the 1989 comedy Cookie, with Peter Falk, a bartender In the Spirit, a guy In the Soup and a rapist landlord in What About Me?
Rockets played himself again in Basquiat, 1996 movie about Brooklyn graffiti artist turned expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The movie was directed by the painter Julian Schnabel. The film starred Jeffrey Wright as Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Bowie as Andy Warhol, Benicio del Toro as Benny Dalmau, Gary Oldman as Albert Milo, Michael Wincott as René Ricard, Claire Forlani as Gina Cardinale, Dennis Hopper as Bruno Bischofberger, Tatum O'Neal as Cynthia Kruger, Courtney Love as Big Pink, Christopher Walken as The Interviewer and Willem Dafoe as the Electrician. Redglare reprised his real-life role in Basquiat's life as bodyguard and dealer. Rockets chattily cut heads in one episode of Oz in 1999.
In 1996, when Steve Buscemi was looking for a guy who needed better glasses for his directorial debut in Trees Lounge, he found Redglare, perfectly natural and ready for the latest joke. David Chase said Trees Lounge was inspirational in his making of The Sopranos and cites it as the reason he tapped Buscemi to direct the "Pine Barrons" episode. Buscemi would cast Redglare again in 2000 as Big Rand in Animal Factory, his prison drama that also showed Mickey Rourke in denim drag as Jan the Actress. Animal Factory was the last movie Rockets would make.
Redglare packed on the pounds after he decided to substitute beer for drugs and this was his last shine. He performed his shtick at bars back in the East Village. "Anything I ever liked. I always did to excess," he admitted. Rockets Redglare/Michael Morra died in the hospital 2001 after his life of excess led to kidney failure, liver failure, cirrhosis, hepatitis and morbid obesity. There was some speculation that he committed suicide, but if he did, it was a long attempt that started in infancy.
Director Luis Fernandez de la Reguera painted a tortured but witty portrait of the hustler turned actor turned alternative celebrity in the 2003 documentary Rockets Redglare! (De la Reguera was killed in a motorcycle crash in August 2006. Buscemi, who co-produced the film, had to sue the distributor for the rights, which went to Morra’s family.) He traces Morra’s self-destructive sleaze appeal back to his violent childhood where he was sexually abused by a neighbor; saw the brains of a guy his uncle killed splattered on a wall and the stabbing death of his mother. Through archival footage, home movies and interviews Buscemi, Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon, Jim Jarmusch, Julian Schnabel and rock critic Lester Banks we see a funny guy with a death wish who never really had a chance. A junkie who’s not too much of a burnout to know he needs a heavier dose if he wants to get any kicks at all. Didn’t matter if it was drugs, booze, jokes or sex, Redglare needed a heavier touch just to taste. But, through it all, he kept his sense of humor, after all “if you make somebody laugh, you can get away with murder.”
Another documentary that featured Redglare came out in 2009. Director Alan Parker went through all the evidence of the punk royalty murder and interviewed 182 people to find Who Killed Nancy? Morra figures heavily in the case. The couple’s Chelsea Hotel room was crowded on the night of the stabbing and Spungen was flashing a wad of cash that was never found during the original investigation. Several people hypothesize, like they did in the oral punk history, that Morra stabbed Spungen and silenced Vicious by giving him an ultra-pure hit of smack. There’s speculation that it was videotaped as some kind of snuff film.
Strung together, Rockets Redglare’s screen time might not hit fifteen minutes, but he left more than a memorable monicker on screen. Redglare was himself, was cast because he was himself and who better to play those parts than someone who didn’t have to look too far to find them. Movies are made in little bits and the bit players make it all fit.