Like a first cup of black coffee, Gary’s initial brush with homelessness was bitter, but not for the reasons one might expect. It wasn’t that he lacked a warm bed, or that he didn’t have enough food, or easy access to a toilet and shower. Of course he didn’t like the deprivation, but he got by well enough, working odd jobs for pocket money and bathing in the sinks of public restrooms.
And it wasn’t that he was a seventeen year old kid gone AWOL either, (his straight-laced father thought the military would do him good) or that he was in Japan and didn’t know the language. Youth bolstered his natural state of fearlessness and charm; plus he was whip smart. He learned to speak fluent Japanese in just a year.
No, the bitterness that encased him sneaked in where he least expected, from the tiny chinks in armor as natural to him as the gait of his walk–his immunity to attachments, his inability to conform. It struck him in the pendulum of his being, that swung high and drug low, where he craved pure freedom that he cut with alcohol and illegal substances.
Gary liked his coffee black. While in Japan he began the downward spiral of two steps forward and five steps back.
The MP’s caught up to him and threw him in the brig. His parents worked out a dishonorable discharge and brought him home. There he built things and learned to sew.
He married his sister Debbie’s best friend. With her he fathered two daughters, who barely knew him before the couple divorced.
Years passed. He drifted and danced, popping and locking, jumping from the street to the flophouse and back again. Along the way he went to rehab, was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and found work as an extra in the 80s television series Thirtysomething.
His family gave him money and cell phones when things got so desperate that he called. Otherwise, they worried themselves sick and learned to live with not knowing where he was.
Both parents blamed themselves. If only they hadn’t let Gary skip a grade in high school, they thought. Mr Poulter, in particular, regretted encouraging his son to join the Navy and pushing him to like sports.
Ever so often a sense of clarity prevailed. He would apologize and refasten ties only to–in the rage of a drunken stupor–threaten his sister, Debbie, at the drop of a hat.
Finally, she refused to see or talk to him. When his father lay dying, Debbie warned Gary not to come.
Three days after he left Austin with the traveling carnival, Gary called his sister Maria in a panic. He had been caught stealing money. Some of the carnies smacked him around, stripped him naked and left him on the side of the road.
Maria paid his way back to Austin, bought him another cell phone and put him into a Motel 6. There he entertained fellow lodgers with his roller skating skills.
Weeks later he called her again. This time he put Nicolas Cage on the phone.
Gary improvised for his audition. He spoke Japanese. He danced. The camera loved him. His even featured face was handsome at every angle. His blue eyes flashed weary wisdom enlivened with mischief.
The casting agents were thrilled. Gary was even better than they thought. They envisioned him in a small speaking role as a shop keeper, a barfly or, maybe, a laborer if–and it was a big IF–he could be trusted to keep it together on and off the set.
Agent John Williams called Maria. She told him Gary had some past issues, some of them serious, but if they would keep tabs on him, she believed he could do it. He and his partner, Karmen Leech, met with director David Gordon Green. They gave him the skinny and showed him the tape.
Green was blown away. To him, Gary seemed a perfect fit for the character Wade, a degenerate drunk and cruel patriarch of an itinerant family, the third lead in Joe. He called Gary in for another audition. Afterwards they had a long heart to heart.
Gary went back to the Motel 6 with the part.
On the set, Gary bonded easily with cast and crew. He talked heavy metal with Nicolas Cage. He hammed it up with the artists in hair and makeup, joking he didn’t need any makeup to play a drunk. They agreed. When he learned the production coordinator liked to rollerblade, he let her borrow his beloved skates.
To the show biz professionals, Gary’s genuine enthusiasm was a refreshing break from the monotonous discipline of 12 hour shoots. He entertained them with his dance moves and mouthed off irreverently, like he owned the place. Even when he wasn’t scheduled, he’d show up on the set. And he always showed up sober.
Cage, who starred as the title character, Joe, was especially impressed with Gary’s work ethic. “He was always on point. Always knew his lines. Never missed a day. He was always on time,” the actor said in an interview with Hollywood Outbreak.
Costar Tye Sheridan, who played Wade’s abused, resourceful son, remembers Gary being impulsive–in a good way. “He was very talented. Quick. Very smart,” mused the young actor who has worked with director Terrence Malick and actors Reese Witherspoon, McConaughey and Brad Pitt. “You really had to be on your toes. You never knew what he was going to say or what he was going to do,” he said, speaking of the improvisational skills that meshed so seamlessly with Green’s unorthodox cinematic style. “It was an honor to work with him.”
Joe wrapped in December 2012, but not before Maria flew down and watched some of the filming. She was impressed with Gary’s performance, but even more so with the crew’s reaction to it; her brother made a producer cry.
Before she left, she managed to get Gary and Debbie on the phone. They talked a long while and made peace.
Gary attended the wrap party, looking sharp in a retro, two toned Cuban shirt and black fedora. To everyone’s delight, he owned the dance floor. Green presented him with a new set of false teeth, a present for a job well done.
Before he left town, Cage encouraged Gary. “If you can keep it together for a year, your phone is going to ring and your life is going to change,” he told him. Gary looked at Cage sadly, unconvinced. “Really?” he asked.
The production team stayed around a little longer while they struck the set. Lead coordinator Shanti Delsarte (who had borrowed Gary’s roller skates) let him stay awhile in a house the crew had rented. John Williams (the casting agent who had discovered him) got him a hard look for a part in the movie Parkland that was filming in Austin. Gary didn’t get it, but Williams persevered as his advocate and industry insiders took notice. He was quickly up for another part in a project filming in New Mexico.
But Gary seemed, if not oblivious, then, dull to his opportunities. When he met up with production assistant Hugo Garza to retrieve some of his personal belongings, he was gloomy and detached. He told Garza that he was going a way for a long, long time. He was drinking again.
Then, in early January, 2013 Gary suffered debilitating seizure that sent him to the ER. There he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Doctors told him he had anywhere from six weeks to six months to live, though he would have to wait three months before he could be treated.
He and Maria made plans to spend his last days at her home in Colorado, but he wasn’t ready to go there just yet. Nor was he willing to dole out more money for a hotel room. He decided to buy a tent and pitch it in one of the homeless encampments on Lady Bird Lake.
Six weeks later his body was found there, face down, his fly unzipped so he could urinate, his feet still encased in the mud. His death was ruled as an accidental drowning due to acute ethanol intoxication.
Not long after Gary died, John Williams got a call. They wanted Gary for the part in New Mexico.
“Even though he’d never been on camera, he had the guts and the instincts. He knew how to hit a mark. And he could actually deal with subtle direction because he had been acting all his life.” –David Gordon Green