In show business, typecasting is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it pigeonholes artists to a detrimental level, forcing them to remain within a particular idiom if they want to continue making a living at their craft. On the other, it can be a gift, a kind of insurance for actors and filmmakers where, as long as their “type” remains in demand (and, additionally, they remain a desirable example of it), they have a sort of job security.
Then there’s the secret, third aspect of typecasting, one that’s typically not unlocked without reaching a certain level of notoriety or success: playing against type. Not only is switching things up attractive to the artist as a way of diversifying their work and demonstrating their range, but it allows the work to gain an additional, meta-textual edge that it may not otherwise have with someone else.
One of the most across-the-board examples of a movie playing against type is 1993’s Mad Dog and Glory. The film, written by Richard Price (whose novels The Wanderers and Clockers became feature films in their own right), follows a meek crime scene photographer, Wayne Dobie, dubbed “Mad Dog” by his peers in mocking contrast to his shy demeanor. In a chance encounter during a convenience store robbery, Wayne saves the life of local Chicago mobster Frank Milo, and a strange sort of friendship begins, culminating in Milo ordering one of his employees, Glory (played by Uma Thurman), to spend a week with Wayne as a weird thank-you gift.
Based on that synopsis, along with the knowledge that Robert De Niro and Bill Murray would be portraying the male leads, it’d be easy to assume that Murray would play the lovelorn photographer and De Niro would play the intimidating mob boss, especially given that the latter’s frequent collaborator, Martin Scorsese, was one of the producers of the film. Yet that was not to be the case: De Niro insisted that he play Wayne, and then offered the idea that Murray, who up until that point had largely played likable if not quite heroic roles, could play Frank. Ironically, it’s this typecasting switcheroo that likely contributed to the film’s failure at the box office upon release 30 years ago; Universal Pictures and the audience couldn’t grasp how to market or interpret the film, respectively.
Yet Mad Dog and Glory is a far more interesting and compelling film than it would’ve been had it been cast to type. From a historical perspective, it acts as a necessary chess move on the part of both De Niro and Murray to prove to the industry, as well as audiences, that they had a wider range as actors than previously seen. Granted, it wasn’t the first instance of them spreading their proverbial wings, but the fact that they are ostensibly in the “wrong” roles and still make their performances work counts for a lot. The impact of their efforts in Mad Dog and Glory was felt fairly quickly after its release: witness, for instance, Murray’s turn as the thoroughly villainous Ernie in 1996’s Kingpin, and De Niro’s sublime work as the similarly unassuming Louis in 1997’s Jackie Brown. While it’s entirely possible both actors would’ve landed those roles without Mad Dog and Glory, it’s clear that their work in the earlier film paved the way toward them.
Meanwhile, watching the movie today (with both actors now enjoying a long and varied career of many types of roles) remains a special experience thanks to the tension inherent in De Niro and Murray’s performances. They became typecast in certain roles for a reason, of course, and their work in the film doesn’t see them shed those screen personas completely. Murray makes Frank a charismatic shark of a mobster, a naturally amusing man who ironically can only get polite, “don’t-whack-me” laughs while moonlighting as a bad stand-up comic in his own club. When Frank becomes violent, it’s uniquely upsetting and scary to see Murray in that mode. With Wayne, De Niro allows himself to be not just vulnerable but a little dorky: his celebratory dance to Louis Prima after sleeping with Glory is adorably uncool, and his meekness in the presence of Bill Murray seems that much sadder than if the role had been played by another tough guy.
This casting against type ultimately became an issue during the last act of the film, resulting in a studio-mandated reshoot. One of the more intriguing aspects to De Niro’s performance is seeing the simmering anger behind his eyes as others, especially Frank, demean and dismiss him. That anger eventually boils over into a David and Goliath-esque moment, where the once mild-mannered Wayne challenges Frank to a fistfight over Glory. As originally written and shot, Frank easily overpowers the photographer, but decides to back off afterward. Test audiences recoiled when they saw the scene, according to director John McNaughton. As he recalled in a 2019 interview: “The trouble is that actors have personas and even though Bob was playing against type, he was the Raging Bull to the public.” The ending was reshot, with De Niro-as-Wayne landing a hit and Glory stepping in to stop the fight altogether instead.
Mad Dog and Glory represents a break from typecasting for more than just De Niro and Murray. For one thing, the script was originally written to take place in New York City, and McNaughton along with producer Stephen A. Jones moved it to their native Chicago due to a union strike in NYC just before filming. For another, the film represents McNaughton’s first non-horror movie feature after 1986’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and 1991’s The Borrower.
Even so, it continues his exploration of the same themes: crime, violence, and masculinity issues. In this way, De Niro as Wayne and Murray as Frank represent a fascinatingly nuanced duality, with each exhibiting different facets of the male ego, all while Thurman’s Glory struggles to navigate between them. It makes Mad Dog and Glory a compelling character piece along with being an amusing drama and a genuinely touching love story, and had the script been made with a series of more obvious typecast-y choices, it’s very possible that this writer would not have written this article or recommended the film.
“Mad Dog and Glory” is available for digital rental or purchase.