In Memory of Turk Muller
I, and about 2,000 other people, lost a good friend recently. His name was Terry Muller, but everyone who knew him called him Turk. If you ever met him, even for a minute, you remember him. If you’ve ever seen a movie he acted in, you recognized his face immediately. If you ever had the chance to have drink with him or talk to him for ten minutes, he was your friend for life. He was that kind of guy. I think when Dos Equis made those "Most interesting man in the world" commercials, they were talking about Turk.
Turk was best known as an actor, and he worked very hard at his craft. He appeared in several huge feature films ("The Fugitive", "Payback" and "Public Enemies" to name a few) as well as countless stage plays and television series. I remember he shared with me once how hurt he was when a friend referred to his acting career as a string of "near misses." Turk considered himself to be a very successful actor and I agree with him—a lot of actors would kill to have half the credits that Turk had. Most importantly, Turk was able to complete a lot of projects that were important to him. It’s interesting to note how many roles were created specifically for Turk—I personally wrote or collaborated on at least three scripts that featured a "Turk" character and I’ve heard of half a dozen other scripts either written or in development with Turk in mind. Turk also had a tendency to make roles his own when he performed them. I plugged him into a complicated role in a staged reading once just because I had no other actors who fit—he didn’t fit either, but I thought it would be fun to see him try it. After hearing him read the part, I couldn’t put the play on without him. To this day I can’t imagine anyone else in that role.
When I met Turk, I was acting in a play at a local college. My friend Shane was also in the cast and one night he was really excited backstage, pacing around nervously, but sporting an irrepressible grin. I asked him what was up and he said "Turk is out there tonight." I had heard him mention Turk before, but I never paid much attention. The performance went on and I did not have my best night (although Shane did, as I recall). Shane dragged me through the crowd after the show until I was face to face (or face to neck) with the friendly giant that was Turk. Okay, he wasn’t that big (about 6’4"), but at 6’1", I’m not used to having to look up at too many people. He greeted me with his trademark gruff voice and Chicago accent (not like a "Superfans" type accent, but more of a "Chicago tough" kind of sound). Somehow or another, he found a polite way to tell me that my performance stunk, but he enjoyed the show anyway. I’ve always appreciated politeness and brutal honesty—we hit it off right away. He dragged the cast out that night for a few "pops" at a local saloon and I was pulled into the legend of Turk.
If you walked into a bar with Turk you could be assured of three things. 1. He would buy you a drink. 2. He would know the owner. 3. By the end of the night, he would know at least half of the bar. I’ve seen him sit down with bums and multi-millionaires and they all enjoyed his company and he theirs. Walking into a bar with Turk guaranteed that you would be meeting some new people and you would be leaving with a story to tell. Shane summed up the legendary status of Turk in bars across America with a story he shared with me the day after Turk’s death. Shane was in a bar in Los Angeles, over a thousand miles from where Turk called home at the time. He mentioned the name "Turk Muller" to a friend he was talking with. The bartender came over and said something to the effect of "You know Turk Muller?" Shane said that he did and asked the bartender if he knew him as well. The bartender indicated that he didn’t know Turk, and was in fact a little leery of meeting him because he had been hearing stories about him from his bar patrons for almost 20 years.
When people looked at Turk, or spoke to him briefly, it was easy to be fooled. He looked like kind of a bruiser (he played semi-pro football, I believe, and still looked the part). This, coupled with the fact that he loved to talk about sports (particularly his beloved White Sox) and the fact that he usually had a few cocktails in him, made it easy for people to think he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. People who rushed to that judgement couldn’t have been more wrong. In subjects like politics, philosophy, religion, literature or the craft of acting, you would be hard-pressed to find someone more knowledgeable than Turk, and he could absolutely humiliate you in a debate on those subjects if you entered unprepared. I love the printed word, but Turk still managed to hit me with at least one literary reference or quote that I was unfamiliar with in just about every conversation.
Everyone who knew him has a cherished Turk memory and I’m no exception. Mine goes back about five years to the time I entered a wiffleball tournament and found myself in need of a partner. I should preface this by saying that Turk and I played softball together for a couple years in the past (to this day I credit him with fixing a problem with my swing). Anyway, I lamented to Turk that I couldn’t find anyone who plays wiffleball and he mentioned that his son was a great wiffleball player, but he was going to be away at school during the tournament. After brief consideration, he said "Ah, what the hell, I’ll join with you." I asked him if he’d ever played wiffleball before and he gave me his deadly-serious Turk glare and said "Rog, you know who plays wiffleball? Kids and guys who aren’t good enough to play real sports. You and me, we’re At-letes. This is going to be a joke. I’ve never played wiffleball before, but you and me are going to kick their asses all over that field or pitch or court or whatever the hell they call it." Well, it was a joke, but the joke was on us. We were so tired and sore after the warm-up games that we were bounced in the first round, but we had a blast.
Along with my memories of Turk, I carry four badges of honor proudly. The first and most important is one I share with a number of men across the country—I am one of Turk’s "guys." If you are one, you know, and it’s roughly the equivalent of knighthood. The second badge of honor is that I once bought Turk a drink. Whenever Turk was gainfully employed, he was a hard man to buy a round for, but he would buy for you all night long, whether he knew you or not, in come cases. The third badge is that I was once able to do Turk a favor. Again, Turk gave of himself like nobody I knew—he never turned down a request for a favor and he never asked for anything in return. Except once. He asked me for a favor and I was able to help him out. That’s about all I can say about it until the statute of limitations is up. The fourth and final badge is both a compliment and a constant reminder to me of where the bar has been set on how to live my life. Turk once introduced me as a "gentleman", one of the few true gentlemen left in the world. That’s high praise coming from him, and I intend to spend the rest of my life trying to live up to it. Thank you, Turk, for everything you taught me and everything you did for me and all of your friends and acquaintances. The world is a little darker and colder without you in it. You are, and will continue to be, missed.