Michael Thomas Parks was born on April 24, 1940, in Corona, CA. He spent a peripatetic youth moving around the West as one of five children of an itinerant laborer. Not surprisingly, by his teens, he seemed likely to fall into the same lifestyle. He drifted from job to job as a migrant worker around California and briefly married at 15, but displayed an interest in the arts with his love of poetry and occasional roles in regional theater productions during his travels. Parks and his rugged looks - a more weathered version of James Dean - were discovered in 1960, at which time Parks was signed to a Universal contract, despite spending much of his time on the sidelines due to a reputation for being hard to work with. He made guest appearances on over a dozen TV shows before starring roles in features like "Wild Seed" (1965) and "Bus Riley's Back in Town"(1965) began to earn him comparisons with Dean and Brando - due in large part to his nonchalant acting style and non-conformist persona. Continuing to pay his dues like any good contract player of the day, he played Adam in John Huston's "The Bible" (1966) and went on to star in a number of forgettable films throughout the sixties until he found what seemed to be the perfect vehicle: the TV series "Then Came Bronson."
The actor's natural wanderlust and real-life residency outside the norms of mainstream America were the ideal fit for his role as a Bay Area professional who, upon the wish of a dying friend (Martin Sheen), quits his square gig and devotes himself to an unpredictable life traveling the country on a Harley. The show had an instant following of anti-establishment sympathizers and bikers drawn to Parks' low-key, often improvised, often mumbled dialogue. He even sang the wistful country theme, "Long Lonesome Highway," which became a top 40 hit. Sadly, "Bronson" lasted only 26 episodes, but it helped launch a minor recording career for Parks and the show lived on with cult fans for decades to come.
Parks followed up his first real moment in the sun by taking a job as a casket upholsterer and trying to qualify for the one-minute run in the 1974 Olympics. He reportedly turned down an offer to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates around the same time because the casket job was more lucrative. Parks took to living in houseboats off the coast of California and Oregon and hanging out with artists like French filmmaker Jean Renoir and writer Terry Southern.
The unorthodox Parks continued to make film and TV appearances throughout the 1970s. He showed up on all the big cop shows of the day and churned out some second string movies like "The Werewolf in Woodstock" (1975). His acting chops did get deserved attention in 1977 when he portrayed Bobby Kennedy in "The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover." He enjoyed meatier roles in independent films of the early 1980s including the rural drama Hard Country (1981) and the sweet family picture Savannah Smiles (). Parks returned to television in another well-cast role as Phillip Colby on the "Dallas" spinoff "The Colbys."
Still not one to play the Hollywood game, Parks moved to New Orleans and several years later brought his newly adopted regional accent to David Lynch's offbeat series "Twin Peaks" (ABC, 1990-91) - though the story goes that his character Jean Renault did not call for the accent but David Lynch was such a fan of Parks, he gave him carte blanche to do whatever he liked. Parks shot the indie film Storyville (1992) and Charles Bronson's over-the-hill action drama Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994) before Quentin Tarantino entered the picture. As he was known to do on many occasions, the quirky director gave the long-underappreciated actor a career boost. Parks had first heard from Tarantino years earlier, when the unknown director contacted him to tell him how much he admired his acting and promised to write a role for him someday. When that day came, Parks was living in houseboat in Seattle but gladly answered the call to create Texas Ranger Earl McGraw for the B-movie sendup, From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). Tarantino handed Parks the lead role of Ambrose Bierce in the straight-to-video prequel "From Dusk 'Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter" which did not fare as well with critics. Such was the impression he had made on Tarantino, Parks revived Earl McGraw in "Kill Bill Vol.1" (2003) and in "Kill Bill Vol.2" (2004), making an about face playing an 80-year-old ex-pimp.
That was far from the end of the Tarantino association. In 2007, Parks appeared as McGraw in the "Planet Terror"/"Death Proof" segments of Tarantino's and Robert Rodriguez' well-received but disappointing moneymaker, Grindhouse (2007) - a true B-movie double-billed feature. In addition to his work with the pair of stylized directors, Parks also appeared in an adaptation of Larry Brown's work entitled Big Bad Love (2002), the surprisingly engaging Italian thriller "The Listener" (2006), and Fighting Words (2007), a drama set in the world of poetry slams.
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