As the old adage in Hollywood goes, “You’re only as good as your last movie.” It’s a sad, harsh reality that plenty of actors are forced to contend with. Some are deserving of what comes their way, others not so much. Because of this, I frequently catch myself thinking about films that helped shape who I am- my film likes and dislikes. What quickly follows is that feeling of nostalgia, of seeing a favorite actor or actress do what they do best: impress the hell out of you.

What ever happened to… is a weekly column that focuses on an actor or actress who has (or had) the talent to succeed in the industry, and by all accounts should, but for one reason or another, simply disappeared from the public and cinematic eye.

This week, I am wondering: what ever happened to… Larry Drake?

For the past couple of installments, What ever happened to… shone the spotlight on actors that were once in the mainstream but have since fallen into a sort of obscurity. This week I decided to do something a little different. By bringing attention to Larry Drake, I want the casual reader to become acquainted with an actor who has had a long and fruitful career in the industry but has seemed to enjoy standing outside of the mainstream. But that hasn’t stopped him from being cast in memorable roles, both in film and television.

It was only until recently that I realized Drake has had a major impact on my film watching life. Let me explain. Three years ago, I purchased the first season of Tales from the Crypt on DVD. As any fan of the series would attest, the show’s first season is its strongest, having the input of creator William M. Gaines on set just before his death to ensure the utmost quality and care. One of the most famous and popular episodes of the season (and arguably the entire series) was And All Through the House. For the uninitiated, it is the episode in which Drake plays an escapee from a mental asylum dressed as Santa who brings his own brand of Christmas cheer to a woman after she murders her husband for his money. It’s a twisted episode, one that was directed by the great Robert Zemeckis and I distinctly remember watching it when I was a child, so it was a great nostalgic trip to realize that it was part of the first season set. By the end of the episode, I discovered why it was one of the most memorable viewing experiences of my childhood. It wasn’t because of the gore (there wasn’t as much as I remembered, by the way), it wasn’t because of the spooky music, exquisite directing or menacing atmosphere. It was simply because of the great performance by Larry Drake as the psychotic Santa. Now, this wasn’t an Oscar or Emmy worthy performance by any means, nor was it supposed to be. It was just a fun and wildly creepy performance; one that epitomized what Tales from the Crypt was all about.

And then it hit me. Wait a minute, is this guy… Dr. Giggles? Holy shit, I almost fell off my chair. Dr. Giggles was one of those horror movies that eluded me as a child. When I was younger, I was all talk; lying about having seen a number of horror movies just to appear tougher than I really was. I did eventually see all of them, but not as many as I said I did at that age. Dr. Giggles was one of those films because, quite frankly, it terrified me. That laugh, the fact that a doctor could be the one torturing you (and enjoying it!), his acting so non-chalant while ripping you to shreds – this was freaky stuff. And Drake relished in it. It became his M.O. Other creepy roles followed after Tales from the Crypt. Dr. Giggles was one. He then played Durant in Darkman and its sequel. He was cast in another Tales from the Crypt episode (The Secret). Over time, he was also cast in a number of television dramas, the most famous being L.A. Law in which he portrayed Benny Stulwitz and won two Emmy’s for his performance.

Drake, in my opinion, is one of those actors that you always look at and say “oh… that guy”. Chances are you don’t know his name, but you’ve definitely seen his face. His talent is similar to Michael Keaton, in that his eyes do most of the “talking”. He can play the protagonist or the antagonist; although, he would much rather play the evil character. His eyes reveal such a fact. His acting is the type that doesn’t call attention to itself, which makes it that much more effective when it hits you over the head like a sledgehammer. He’s a very simple actor, one that doesn’t rely on any sort of gimmick or extravagant acting method in order to create a series of wonderful characters to impress you with. His film and television resume reveals a man who is multifaceted in his craft; he can be dramatic one moment and absolutely nail-bitingly terrifying the next.

As of late, Drake has focused his skills on the small screen. To be honest, deep down I want to see him enter the big-screen horror genre once again. His looks and mannerisms are perfectly suited for that genre, which is more than I can say for the majority of actors working in this day and age. In my opinion, a great actor is one that captures your attention without even uttering a word. What I find most impressive is that Drake’s glare is one that harbors anger, fear, happiness, joy and depravity often with the blink of an eye. That is a near impressive feat for any actor, male or female, regardless of age.

At the end of the day, Larry Drake is an actor known for his characters rather than his name. Hell, even I remembered him because of his incredible performances as Santa and Dr. Giggles. While he’s played his fair share of good, wholesome people, Drake is an actor who loves the dark side of humanity. And what’s better, he even understands the inner workings of the demented; he knows how important it is to inject the character (regardless of how twisted they are) with a unique sense of humanity. “Evil characters are usually more memorable to audiences because you don’t see them every day. What you do see are people trying to get by and be socially acceptable and follow most rules. I mean, nobody slows down on the freeway when things are going well. They slow down when there’s an accident, to see if they can see some blood. Nobody reports good stuff on the news, they report bad stuff. The bad news is more distinctive, it shocks us.”

Larry Drake may be an actor who will never receive the accolades he so greatly deserves, but those who are aware of his talents and his wonderfully off-kilter characters remember him fondly. I’m one of them.

Next week, I wonder: what ever happened to… Jonny Lee Miller?