' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Daniel von Bargen

Thursday, March 05, 2015

In Memoriam: Daniel von Bargen

Late in Season 8 the writers of “Seinfeld” made a curious choice to have George Costanza lose his job with the New York Yankees. It revolved around an outlandish plot development, the kind that earmarked those final, not-as-stellar seasons, in which our portly, balding anti-hero is “traded” to a chicken company in Arkansas. It never made sense. Not even rationally so much as creatively, because it meant the iconic caricature of George Steinbrenner (voiced by Larry David, portrayed with his back always to the camera by Lee Bear) would no longer have a place in the show. How on earth could you supplant Steinbrenner? Who in the world could you employ to equal such substantial comic genius? The show itself didn’t seem to know. They started Season 9 – the last – with Mr. Thomassoulo (Gordon Jump) and almost instantly realized he didn’t have that vital sitcom je ne sais quoi. A few episodes later George had taken a different job with an Industrial Smoothing company whose CEO, Kruger, was played by Daniel von Bargen.

Von Bargen was a “that guy” actor. “Oh! That guy!” He routinely appeared in thrillers playing supplementary roles. His IMDB page is littered with law enforcement appellations. Lieutenant Nilson. Lieutenant Kearney. Chief Olson. Police Chief Yardley. Sheriff Cooley. Sheriff Jackson. Sheriff Tate. His well-known role on the sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle” made him a “Commandant.” Even though he doesn’t get an actual name, Jury Foreman in “Philadelphia” sounds like a relief. Still, he always had an indelible presence, evinced in “A Civil Action” where despite a staggeringly skilled cast he appeared late in the game as Mr. Granger, the witness who could turn the tide, and nails it in a one-scene walkoff, glowering with simultaneous hesitancy and willingness. And he even took one of the worst lines of movie dialogue I’ve ever encountered, “Ride, postman, do you hear me?! I said, ride!” in Kevin Costner’s exceedingly lamentable “The Postman” (1997) and gave it absolutely everything he had, a quality which I respect to the nines.

Yet now it’s virtually impossible to not view him, whatever the role may be, through the prism of “Seinfeld”. To wit, on Oscar Sunday, as I waited for the show to begin, I watched bits and pieces of a “Crimson Tide” re-run and there he was screaming doctrine as Vladimir Radchenko, a Russian ultranationalist inadvertently predicting Putin. “That's Kruger,” I thought.

Von Bargen only appeared in four episodes of “Seinfeld” but the shadow he cast makes it seem as if there so many more. What’s sort of incredible is how he didn’t try to steer away from Steinbrenner’s daftness and instead cultivated a daftness that was all his own, a daftness that was, in many ways, more humorous and more human. The Steinbrenner of “Seinfeld” was a totalitarian eccentric, an egotistical goofball, so consumed by his own thoughts and desires that George could literally leave the room without being detected while Steinbrenner rambled on and on. But Steinbrenner still held firm to his empire whereas Kruger could not have cared one iota less about industrial smoothing. He possessed the air of a man who had been through life’s wringer and, more or less, given up. When he locks himself out of his office he does not express frustration nor even confusion, just mutedly joyous resignation. “All right,” he says to no one as he saunters off down the hallway, “I’m going home.”

Though Kruger and Costanza possessed similar philosophies toward “work”, a fundamental difference still lingered. Even as they both did everything in their power to not do anything, the latter felt hostility toward everyone, toward the whole world, while the former had made some sort of peace through complete indifference. This is exemplified in the one truly glorious episode from the final season, “The Burning”, when Kruger enlists George and only George to assist him with some sort of massive project. Kruger does nothing, forcing George to do everything, which understandably infuriates George, and when George expresses fear that they won’t finish this “project” on time, Kruger merely replies “I’m not too worried about it.” It was a remarkable reversal. A character with less inner drive than Costanza seemed unthinkable, but von Bargen made that notion convincingly, and hilariously, come true. In the infamous Festivus episode, when Frank Costanza airs the traditional grievances and turns them toward how much Kruger’s company “stinks”, von Bargen hardly reacts. Why would he? His character knows his company stinks. He seems ready for it to implode. He seems to want it to implode.

“The Burning” also centered around the attempts of everyone to go out on a “high note”, which Kruger does, cracking a joke and subsequently turning his back on the “project”, and on his own company building’s sign which has apparently fallen into disrepair, and exiting the room, arms aloft. Von Bargen died on Sunday, aged 64, from a long illness, per reports that began to emerge yesterday. It would seem safe to assume this long illness related to his battle with diabetes, a battle that became terribly, notoriously public when he attempted to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head and failed. That was February of 2012. Considering such an act, I cannot even attempt to imagine what sort of pain, physical and emotional, he must have been in for the ensuing three years, and it’s a dreadful reminder that in this life so few of us ever actually get to go out on a high note.

So let’s go out on a high note right here. Let’s observe that Mr. von Bargen was able to lift himself out of a career of being “that guy” by becoming, simply, Kruger, forever and ever, amen.

1 comment:

Derek Armstrong said...

Terrific remembrance. Thanks Nick.