Well-reputed for his "extreme" cinematic personifications in multiple genres, the American character player Peter Boyle doubtless made his onscreen personas doubly intense by pulling directly from his own personal journey to the top -- a wild, unlikely, and occasionally tortuous trek that found Boyle aggressively defining and redefining himself, and struggling constantly with a number of inner demons.
Born October 18, 1935, in the hamlet of Northtown, PA, Boyle graduated from La Salle College and joined the Christian Brothers monastic order, under the name "Brother Francis." He prayed endlessly and earnestly until he developed callouses on his knees, but could never quite adjust to the monastic life, which he later declared "unnatural," with its impositions of fasting and celibacy. Dissatisfied, Boyle dropped out and headed for the Navy, but his brief enlistment ended in a nervous breakdown. With no other options in sight that piqued his interest, Boyle opted to pack his bags and head for New York City, where he worked toward making it as an actor. It made perfect sense that Boyle -- with his distinctively stocky frame, bald pate, oversized ears, and bulbous nose -- would fit the bill as a character actor -- more ideally, in fact, than any of his contemporaries on the American screen. He trained under the best of the best -- the legendary dramatic coach Uta Hagen -- while working at any and every odd job he could find. Boyle soon joined a touring production of Neil Simon's Odd Couple (as Oscar Madison) and moved to Chicago, where he signed on with the sketch comedy troupe The Second City -- then in its infancy.
Around 1968, Haskell Wexler -- one of the most politically radical mainstream filmmakers in all of Los Angeles (a bona fide revolutionary) -- decided to shoot his groundbreaking epic Medium Cool in the Windy City, and for a pivotal and notorious sequence, mixed documentary and fictional elements by sending the members of his cast (Verna Bloom and others) "right into the fray" of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots. Boyle happened to still be living in Chicago at the time of the tumult, which dovetailed rather neatly with Wexler's production and brought Boyle one of his first credited Hollywood roles -- that of the Gun Clinic Manager in the film. Unfortunately (and typically), Paramount cowed when faced with the final cut of the film -- terrified that it could incite riots among its youthful audience -- and withheld its distribution for a year. In the interim, Boyle landed the role that would help him "break through" to the American public -- the lead in neophyte writer-director John G. Avildsen's harrowing vigilante drama Joe (1970). The film casts Boyle as a skin-crawling redneck and bigot who wheedles an Arrow-collared businessman (Dennis Patrick) into helping him undertake an onslaught of death against the American counterculture. This sleeper hit received only fair reviews from critics (and has dated terribly), and Boyle reputedly was paid only 3,000 dollars for his contribution. But even those who detested the film lavished praise onto the actor's work -- in 1970, Variety called the picture "flawed" but described Boyle as "stunningly effective." Film historians continue to exalt the performance to this day.
Innumerable roles followed for Boyle throughout the '70s, many in a similar vein -- from that of Dillon, the slimy underworld "friend" who betrays career criminal Robert Mitchum by handing him over to death's jaws in Peter Yates' finely-wrought gangster drama The Friends of Eddie Coyle, to that of Wizard, a veteran cabbie with a terrifying degree of "seen it all, done it all" jadedness, in Martin Scorsese's masterful neo-noir meditation on urban psychosis, Taxi Driver (1976), to Andy Mast, a sleazy private dick, in Paul Schrader's Hardcore (1979). In 1974, however, Boyle broke free from his pattern of creepy typecasting and temporarily turned a new leaf. He unveiled a deft comic flair by playing the lead in Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks' daffy spoof of old Universal horror pictures. The film's two comic highlights have Boyle and Gene Wilder (as the grandson of Dr. Victor Frankenstein) soft-shoeing to "Puttin' on the Ritz," and Boyle and Gene Hackman (as a hapless, bearded blind man) farcically sending up the gothic cabin scene from Mary Shelley's novel in a riotous pas de deux. Boyle's subsequent forays into big-screen comedy proved decidedly less successful on all fronts, however. He played Carl Lazlo, Esquire, the solicitor of Bill Murray's Hunter S. Thompson, in producer/director Art Linson's Where the Buffalo Roam, the pirate Moon in Mel Damski's dreadful swashbuckling spoof Yellowbeard (1983), and Jack McDermott, a Jesus-obsessed escaped mental patient with delusions of healing, in Howard Zieff's The Dream Team (1989) -- all of which received lukewarm critical reactions and flopped with ticket-buyers. (Though it went undocumented as such, the Zieff role appeared to pull heavy influence from Boyle's monastic experience). A more finely tuned and impressive comic role arrived in 1992, when Boyle teamed with Andrew Bergman for an outrageous bit part in Bergman's madcap farce Honeymoon in Vegas. As Chief Orman, a moronic Hawaiian Indian who bears more than a passing resemblance to Marlon Brando, Boyle delighted viewers, and caught the attention of critics. Many read the role as less of an homage than a dig at Brando, who had viciously insulted one of Bergman's movies in the press. For many viewers, this ingenious sequence made the entire film worthwhile.
On the whole, the actor continued to fare best with big-screen dramatic roles throughout the '80s and '90s. Highlights include his role as Detective Jimmy Ryan in Wim Wenders' film noir Hammett (1982); Commander Cornelius Vanderbilt, the assistant of South-American explorer William Walker, in Alex Cox's 1987 biopic Walker; and Captain Green in Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992). In 1996, Boyle transitioned to the small screen for a permanent role as Frank Barone, the father of comedian Ray Romano's Ray Barone, on the hit CBS sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. The series brought the actor his broadest popularity and exposure, especially among younger viewers -- a popularity not only attested to by the program's seemingly endless syndicated appearance on local stations and cable affiliates such as TBS, but by its initial series run -- it lasted nine seasons.
Tragically, Peter Boyle died of multiple myeloma and heart disease almost exactly one year after Raymond took its final network bow, and shortly after his appearance in the holiday film The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause. He passed away in New York's Presbyterian Hospital, on December 12, 2006, only two months after his seventy-first birthday. Alongside his film and television work, Boyle occasionally acted on Broadway, off-Broadway, and repertory stages, in such productions as Carl Reiner's The Roast (1980), Sam Shepard's True West (1982), and Joe Pintauro's Snow Orchid (1982). Boyle met journalist Laraine Alderman in the early '70s, while she was interviewing Mel Brooks for Rolling Stone. They wed in 1977, with former Beatle John Lennon as Boyle's best man; the marriage lasted until Peter's death. The Boyles had two daughters, Lucy and Amy, both of whom outlived their father.