The Late Movies: The Many Faces of Tom Waits

Ransom Riggs

A lot of people know Tom Waits' music -- his bassy growl of a voice, clanking rhythm sections and anachronistic, wheezing accordions and harmoniums sound like no one else. Fewer people know Waits as an actor: with a face almost as distinctive as his voice and an unforced, natural weirdness, he's a popular casting choice for adventurous directors looking to fill roles of drifters, maniacs, street preachers and edge-of-madness loners. These are some of my favorite scene-stealing performances by Waits.

As Renfield in Bram Stoker's Dracula

He played Dracula's thoroughly-insane assistant to a tee in Francis Ford Coppola's excellent adaptation of Dracula.

The Fisher King

Waits plays a homeless, disabled vet begging for change, and gives a great monologue -- "ya see, I'm kind of what you'd call a moral traffic light... "

Down by Law

A great scene between Waits and Roberto Benigni.


As a crazy preacher in the desert, in the otherwise terrible Domino.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Heath Ledger's last film features a great performance by Waits as Satan himself.

Coffee and Cigarettes

A scene between Waits and Iggy Pop. "There's nothing worse than roadside surgery ..."

Queens Logic

As a criminal in the early-90s indie Queens Logic.

Book of Eli

Just released in theaters, Book of Eli is a not-bad post-apocalyptic flick starring Denzel Washington. Waits plays the flinty and nostalgic owner of a dusty pawn shop. Here's a clip -- embedding disallowed.

Short Cuts

He plays Lily Tomlin's limo-driving husband in Robert Altman's wonderful Short Cuts.