Larry Drake’s epigrammatic name always looked perfect on schlocky horror movie posters, but he’ll be remembered for a wealth of roles that couldn’t possibly have less in common.
The actor, who died Thursday at the age of 66, is probably best known by TV viewers of a certain age for his immensely empathetic depiction of Benny, the mentally handicapped, eternally loyal mailroom clerk on L.A. Law—a performance that garnered the 6'3" actor two straight Emmys. Drake’s Benny has a Dostoevskian innocence to him, not too far removed from Of Mice and Men’s Lennie (a role Drake played on stage, which lead to his casting on L.A. Law). He was introduced late in season one, when he was cajoled into committing a crime; after being acquitted, he starts working at the law firm, where he becomes beloved by the employees. The Association for Retarded Citizens of the United States, now called The Arc, praised the performance in 1988, as well as Drake’s outspoken concerns about the portrayal of the mentally handicapped on TV. The role made Drake—for a brief, fleeting moment—a household face.
Drake is also remembered, by a more esoteric crowd, for his much nastier turn as the finger-severing kingpin Durant in Sam Raimi’s Darkman (1990), a superhero movie as stylishly histrionic as Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and as violent as his Evil Dead run. If you were a young person with an affinity for comics or action movies, and you had the pleasure of seeing Darkman in the ‘90s, before superhero movies were the status quo, you probably remember Raimi’s jaunty, gleefully gaudy direction and Drake’s nasal nefariousness. The nails-on-a-chalkboard sound of his yelling, those flinty eyes…No comic-book adaptation has ever cast an actor as pulpy-perfect.
Raimi directs Darkman like a comic-addled boy playing with his action figures, and Drake plays Durant like the adult who corrupted the boy with comics. (The way Durant cuts off his victims’ fingers resembles, in an unnerving way, a kid collecting comics.) When Liam Neeson’s titular scientist-turned-superhero frames Durant for a petty crime in order to impersonate him, Drake gets to face-off against himself, giving little variations on the same shrill lines. “Shoot him!” “No, shoot him!” His snarling and virulent temper are light years away from the affable Benny.
Neeson veered into more Oscar-apt territory with Schindler’s List before transmogrifying into a gray-haired, one-man militia in the 2000s. Drake did not go on to do bigger, better projects—no Oscar-nominations, no big-budget action franchises. (It would be remiss of me not to mention the 1992 C-grade slasher flick Dr. Giggles, in which Drake has a lot of fun chopping up bodies and spitting out awful puns.) His would-be break-out role became his defining role. And that’s just fine.