“Who said you could act? You couldn’t act your way out of a traffic ticket… I just want you to flex your muscles and grunt.”
Although those lines are spoken to his struggling actor character in The Female Animal (1958), for many they’d also be an accurate summation of George Nader’s own career. A tall, dark and handsome closeted gay man who worked in Hollywood during the 1950s, often in ‘beefcake’ roles, it was perhaps inevitable that Nader – who was born 100 years ago on 19 October 1921 – would have been overshadowed by his close friend, Rock Hudson. Hudson was probably the greater performer, and certainly had the better filmography, but to overlook Nader’s work altogether is to miss out on a host of entertaining features, and some surprising professional moves.
His first starring role was in 1953’s Robot Monster, which is still regularly cited as one of the worst films ever made. While it’s hard to argue with that consensus (for one thing, the eponymous monster is actually a man in a gorilla suit and a diving helmet), it made a huge amount of money on its shoestring budget, and went on to garner cult classic status. Robot Monster arguably remains Nader’s most famous feature – a dubious distinction, to say the least.
Much of Nader’s movie output was defined by its so-bad-it’s-good quality, but there are hidden gems scattered throughout the entertaining trash. His memorable supporting turn in western Four Guns to the Border (1954) garnered him a Golden Globe for most promising newcomer (an award also given to such legends as Richard Widmark, Paul Newman and Richard Burton). He was a strong presence in Six Bridges to Cross (1955), as the good-hearted cop who tries to guide a recalcitrant Tony Curtis on to the straight and narrow, and in Man Afraid (1957), as a man scared for his family after he kills a burglar in self-defence and the burglar’s father decides to avenge his son.
The best film in which Nader starred was the underrated British noir Nowhere to Go (1958). He plays a thief who is aided in his escape from prison by his partner (Bernard Lee). When his partner demands too big a share of the loot as payment, Nader’s character makes a horrible mistake that sets a string of escalating crises in motion. There’s plenty to recommend Nowhere to Go, including stylish, French New Wave-inflected direction from Seth Holt and an uncredited Basil Dearden, and robust supporting turns from Bernard Lee and Maggie Smith (in her cinematic debut). But it’s Nader’s commanding, charismatic lead performance that anchors the movie and drives the action forward.
Alas, Nowhere to Go got a lukewarm critical reception and disappointed at the box office, and so Nader was unable to capitalise on what should have been a big boost for his ailing career. And as the 1950s faded out and the 1960s in, TV work started to dominate his schedule.
In 1965, however, Nader received that much needed boost, albeit in an unexpected way. He was cast as Jerry Cotton, the American FBI agent and James Bond-esque hero of a run of German action movies – he starred in eight between 1965 and 1969. While the Jerry Cotton series never had a big impact outside of its country of origin, domestically they were hugely successful, with a long afterlife in the German cultural imagination. One of Nader’s last public appearances was at a Jerry Cotton retrospective in 2000.
Following his brief stint of stardom in Germany, Nader’s movie roles dried to a trickle, and a car accident in the mid-1970s resulted in an eye injury that made his final retirement from acting medically necessary. Still, he had one last unexpected professional move up his sleeve – he turned to novel writing. In 1978 he wrote Chrome, a groundbreaking and well-received work of gay science fiction, in which a human man falls in love with an android.
After that book’s publication, he largely retired from the spotlight, living the rest of his life in private with his long-term partner Mark Miller. Nader died in 2002, aged 80.
On the centenary of his birth, we remember the only Hollywood actor who could boast that he starred in one of the worst movies of all time and one of the most underrated film noirs; was one of Germany’s most popular action heroes, and a successful sci-fi novelist. Although there have undoubtedly been more talented actors overlooked by history, the variety and iconoclasm of Nader’s remarkable career truly made him one of a kind.