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Credit: 20th Century Fox

An ode to Tim Curry, one of the true kings of genre

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Aug 12, 2020, 6:00 PM EDT

I cannot remember the moment when Tim Curry first entered my life. I do, however, have an extremely clear memory of the first time I laid eyes on Tim Curry as Frank N. Furter. My grandparents were hosting a drinks night at their house for my family. I was 13 and my sister was 10. After everyone was suitably liquored up, my grandmother dug out a VHS of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and asked if me and my sister had seen it. Given that we were tweens, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that we hadn’t (although we both knew “The Time Warp” from cheesy kids’ birthday parties), but our parents had always been super lax about the movies they let us watch. So my sister and I sat as close to the TV as we could, wondering what to expect, and then “Sweet Transvestite” kicked in, changing our lives forever.

Over the course of a 50+ year career, Tim Curry has played hundreds of roles across film, television, theater, video games, and audiobooks, but the chances are that the first thing that comes to mind when you think of him is Frank N. Furter, and for good reason. That moment when Susan Sarandon screams and Curry, his make-up so pristine that people have spent decades trying to replicate it, introduces himself through song is seared onto the brains of generations of viewers. Whether you were a tightly-wound kid or were already letting your freak flag fly, Curry’s extravagant reveal of his corset and fishnets, all topped off with that irresistible eyebrow raise, blew the dust off your life in a major way. It certainly did for me and my sister, who is a devoted Rocky Horror fan to this day.

Unbeknownst to us both, we were already highly familiar with the work of Tim Curry long before he made himself a man and put on a show. Curry’s back catalog is so varied and extensive that we were introduced to him in so many forms that we didn’t even recognize. You probably were too. Did you watch The Wild Thornberrys or The Worst Witch as a kid? Did you play the Command and Conquer or Gabriel Knight games? Did a cruel older relative introduce you to the ‘80s miniseries of IT when you were so not ready to be that scarred for life? Tim Curry’s omnipresence in the world of entertainment, but especially geek culture in its various facets, is a comforting constant. It’s a sin that he isn’t considered one of the great kings of genre fiction.

What makes Curry so memorable in even the least interesting projects is his sheer presence. Even when you can’t see him, he makes such an indelible impression that you can’t take your eyes off him, regardless of what form he’s in. A lot of it comes down to that voice. Nobody else in the world sounds like Tim Curry, equal parts sinister and lascivious. It’s so distinctive yet surprisingly malleable, which is why he’s been a staple of voiceovers, radio, video games, and animation for decades. It can be seductive or scary or haughty or hilarious with the slightest of modulations. Didn’t it blow your mind as a kid when you realized that Frank N. Furter, Pennywise, and Nigel Thornberry were the same guy? That’s acting.

Said voice is also ideal for the world of genre in all its variety and demands. There’s nothing that horror, sci-fi, and fantasy loves more than a hefty dollop of sinister camp and that’s Curry’s bread and butter. His turn as the Lord Darkness in Ridley Scott’s Legend, a movie that required him to five and a half hours of prosthetics application every day, is the perfect mix of truly terrifying and utterly ludicrous. Curry’s theatrical past — he’s done everything from Shakespeare to Amadeus to Monty Python — comes in most handy for such roles. Sure, you could have slathered anyone in that devil make-up, but even though he’s utterly unrecognizable in Legend, you know it’s him. It couldn’t be anyone else, and Curry is one of the few actors alive who possesses that kind of force. Crucially, he has always seemed like he’s having an absolute blast in every role he plays, be it a singing pirate or a homicidal clown. That sort of energy is infectious to audiences and we can’t help but feel that joy too.

Even at his most famous, Curry never stopped being a jobbing actor, the kind of worker who took the roles, did the gig, and moved onto the next project. That means he did basically every project you can imagine. His Wikipedia list of performances is, frankly, bonkers. He did audiobooks for Lemony Snicket AND Anne Rice? Just researching this piece, I discovered how many shows and movies from my childhood Curry was in and even I hadn't noticed. Go check for yourself and see just how many things you obsessively watched as a kid were actually Tim Curry projects. That drove home the most potent aspect of Curry’s appeal as a true king of genre: regardless of your age or your pop culture tastes, the chances are that Tim Curry was in some form or another present in your life. There are very few performers who can lay claim to such things, even those who are, arguably, more popular in the mainstream than Curry. He may be deeply iconic for that one sweet transvestite role but if you ask ten people to name their favorite Curry works then I bet you they can all give wildly different answers, and each and every one of them will be legitimate choices.

Tim Curry retired from public life in 2012 after suffering a stroke, although he has made one or two appearances on-screen since then. His legacy lives on in ways that most actors can only dream of, but it still feels like he’s oddly underrated in the pop-culture consciousness. Decades of being a scene-stealer across every possible medium of entertainment should get a whole lot more credit than he’s received. Even if he’d chosen to retire after The Rocky Horror Picture Show, his place in history would have been sealed, but surely with hundreds of projects under his belt and the oft-unacknowledged adoration of millions, he deserves a bit more than that?

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