Sam Bottoms: Eloquent career draws to a close

In 1979, when Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now opened, the director, crew and cast were acclaimed. Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper consolidated their fame, and Laurence Fishburne, who had been 16 years old when the film had begun shooting more than three years previously, went on to greater things. However, Sam Bottoms, who has died of a brain tumour aged 53, had reached the peak of his career.

Bottoms was 20 when Coppola cast him as Lance B Johnson, a gunner assigned to accompany Captain Willard (Sheen) up river in a gunboat to his fated meeting with the renegade Colonel Kurtz (Brando).
As Willard narrates: “Lance was a famous surfer from the beaches south of LA. You look at him and you wouldn’t believe he ever fired a weapon in his whole life.”

Bottoms gave Lance the air of a holy innocent, seemingly oblivious to the madness around him, surfing to please the megalomaniac Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Duvall) while napalm lingers in the air, although being stoned most of the time helped him cope. “Disneyland. Fuck, man, this is better than Disneyland,” he exclaims.

There were parallels between Bottoms and Lance. “In 1976 I had been surfing a lot, I sort of was that character,” he recalled. “I was living that southern California beach lifestyle.” Sam was born in Santa Barbara, California, the third son of James “Bud” Bottoms, a sculptor specialising in bronze statues of marine mammals, and his wife, Elizabeth, a movement therapist. All four brothers—Timothy, Joseph, Sam and Ben—became actors, beginning at the Youth Theatre Productions in Santa Barbara. Gradually, Joseph and Ben phased out their careers in favour of art, while Timothy and Sam continued acting, though the former was the more successful. Yet there was no evidence of sibling rivalry in the close-knit family.

In 1970, when Timothy had begun shooting his second feature, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, in Archer City, Texas, 15-year-old Sam came along to watch his elder brother. One day, Bogdanovich and his then wife, the producer and costume designer Polly Platt, spotted Sam sitting on a street corner and asked him if he would like to be in the movie, not knowing he was Timothy’s kid brother.

Sam’s debut film role as Billy, speech impaired and with learning difficulties, who spends his time uselessly sweeping the dusty streets, is touching without being sentimental. His eloquent, wordless performance reaches perfection when the louts of the town set the “idiot kid” up with a local prostitute in the back of a car.

Bottoms then appeared as one of the Class of ‘44 (1973), the disappointing sequel to Summer of ‘42, made two years earlier, and rancher Gene Hackman’s father-dominated younger brother in Zandy’s Bride (1974). He has some splendid scenes as a wounded soldier whose life Clint Eastwood tries to save in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), generating the blend of innocence and strength so effective in Apocalypse Now.

The year and a half spent in the Philippines jungle on the war movie was mentally and physically gruelling for everyone involved. “It was all on-camera flares, explosions, concussions to the ear,” Bottoms remembered. “There was no shrapnel, but there was a lot of debris. I was picking stuff out of my skin for months and months afterwards, even though I was wearing flak jackets. It was pretty intense.” In the 1991 documentary about the making of the movie, Hearts of Darkness, Bottoms revealed that he had not taken acid, like the character, but had consumed uppers for the role. “I realised after that interview I had sort of broken an actors’ code,” he explained. “I regret that very much. I believe that whatever it takes for an actor to get to a scene, that’s his business. And I don’t think that’s something to be shared with the public.”

During the shooting he met his future wife, Susan Arnold, who was apprentice editor on the film, and moved to San Francisco to be with her and the film’s postproduction. Offers came in, though nothing to compare with Apocalypse Now. “I had set my ideals pretty high,” Bottoms told Scarlet Cheng of the Los Angeles Times. “I probably should have been living in LA at that time. I was getting great opportunities. But I wasn’t able to execute them because I think emotionally my head wasn’t in the right place. I was terrified of celebrity. I was still really young, and I didn’t have good guidance or management by someone who could see the long term.”

Nevertheless, he continued to work, though some of his choices were less than judicious. For example, he starred in a low-budget Roger Corman-produced Jaws rip-off called Up from the Depths (1979), mainly because he wanted to go back to the Philippines “as part of my Apocalypse healing period”. But there was little excuse for some of the many cheap horror films and straight-to-video stuff that followed over the years. The few exceptions were his charming turn as Lasso Leonard James in Eastwood’s Bronco Billy (1980), actually a Vietnam draft dodger hiding out in a Wild West show. He was also reunited with Coppola as a sensitive young recruit in Gardens of Stone (1987), a mellow study of the effects of the Vietnam conflict on the soldiers at a military base near Washington.

On television, he appeared in the mini-series East of Eden (1981) as Cal Trask (the role taken by James Dean in the film version of John Steinbeck’s novel) with his brother Timothy, in ageing makeup, playing his father, and in Island Sons (1987) with all three of his brothers. In recent years, he had small parts on the big screen such as a horse trainer in Seabiscuit (2003), Claire Danes’s taciturn father in Shopgirl (2005), and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s tolerant father in SherryBaby (2006).

In 2001, Bottoms was briefly in the spotlight again with the release of Apocalypse Now Redux, with sequences cut from the original, including a scene with Lance and a Playboy Bunny that shows how the war had dehumanised even sex.

Sam Bottoms is survived by his second wife, the producer Laura Bickford, two daughters from his first marriage, Io and Clara, his parents and his three brothers. -

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