We just lost Levon Helm to throat cancer. Of course, he is best known as the drummer and singer with the influential rock group The Band – it’s Levon’s voice on Up on Cripple Creek, The Weight and The Night They Drove Dixie Down, among others. He appeared with The Band in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece 1978 concert film The Last Waltz.
Levon also had a rich movie career. His 17 acting credits include some very top shelf stuff. He was Loretta’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter. In The Right Stuff, he played Ridley, test pilot Chuck Yeager’s aircraft mechanic, the guy who loans him Beeman’s chewing gum before each life-risking test flight. He was also the narrator in The Right Stuff.
I particularly loved one of his last roles, Old Man with Radio in Tommy Lee Jones’ overlooked 2005 The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Playing a blind man living alone on the Mexican border, he was absolutely haunting.
Here’s an 8-minute clip from The Right Stuff in which Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier for the first time. The scene is introduced by Levon Helm as the narrator, and then Levon as Ridley helps Yeager (Sam Shepherd) into the test plane and loans him his Beeman’s. What a wonderful voice.