Approximately six years ago, I was watching Slither (2006) with my friend, who once met Kevin Meaney. A familiar actor appeared, but I couldn’t place the name. I asked, “Who is that guy? Why do I know that guy?” My friend who once met Kevin Meaney replied, “You probably recognize him as the Naked Karate Mallrats Guy.” And so began my appreciation for a character actor named Michael Rooker. Or as I have always called him since that day, the Naked Karate Mallrats Guy.
My friend was absolutely correct. I recognized Rooker from his role as Jared Svenning, the father of T.S.’ love interest, Brandi Svenning, in Mallrats (1995). Rooker hit a grand slam in that movie as the success-obsessed, overprotective father and villain to T.S. and Brodie. He took part in at least two very memorable scenes. In addition to his hilarious daily training routine involving naked karate, he was also the victim of Brodie’s chocolate-covered ass-pretzel. Good times.
Strangely enough, my introduction to Rooker had happened well before his memorable turn as Jared Svenning. The first time I saw him was in my favorite baseball movie, Eight Men Out (1988). In the historical drama, he played Arnold “Chick” Gandil, the ringleader of the eight players who had taken money from gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series. It would be easy to ignore Rooker given the cast, which featured very young versions of Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, D.B. Sweeney, and David Strathairn, as well as veteran actors Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, and Christopher Lloyd. But Rooker more than held his own in a pivotal role, serving as the opportunist foil to Cusack’s honorable Buck Weaver.
I had also seen Rooker in JFK (1991), when he took on the role of Bill Broussard, Jim Garrison’s assistant-turned-FBI informant. It was in JFK that Rooker’s best strength shined through. It’s a film that takes place primarily in New Orleans and Dallas. If you’ve ever lived in the American south, then you can spot a fake southern accent a mile away. You never have to worry about that with Rooker, who was born in Alabama. Rooker’s southern accent could not be more authentic. If I was a television or movie casting director and I was charged with casting a southerner, Rooker would be one of the first people I’d call.
As a matter of fact, Rooker is currently plying his craft on AMC’s The Walking Dead as Merle Dixon. The show takes place in Georgia, and Rooker’s accent fits the show and the character like a glove, albeit a metal glove with a knife attached to it. The accent isn’t hammy or overdone. It’s smooth and natural, the perfect southern accent to hear from an actor or actress.
If you’re a horror fan, then you most likely recognize Rooker simply as “Henry”, as in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). If westerns are your thing, then he’s Sherman McMasters from Tombstone (1993). Maybe you’re a huge action fan and you know about Rooker because of Cliffhanger (1993). Maybe you know him from one of his tens of other roles, including the giant evil blob-monster in Slither or more recently in Super (2010). Rooker is a character actor but he’s one that’s not afraid to tackle unique films and genres.
Everyone has a favorite character actor or actress, someone whose name eludes top-billing but whose acting ability leaves an impression on us. This article just as easily could have been about Laura Linney, James Cromwell, Jena Malone, M. Emmett Walsh, or Kathy Bates. For me, it happens to be Michael Rooker. Long live the Naked Karate Mallrats Guy.