Friday, February 3, 2017

"Little Nicky" Needleman (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #76)


The TWIN PEAKS Character Series surveys eighty-two characters from the series Twin Peaks (1990-91) and the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) as well as The Missing Pieces (2014), a collection of deleted scenes from that film. A new character study will appear every weekday morning until the premiere of Showtime's new season of Twin Peaks on May 21, 2017. There will be spoilers for the original series and film.

An orphaned brat with a tragic backstory, Nicky isn’t much liked by the other characters onscreen – or the viewers.


Thursday, March 16, 1989
Nicky arrives at the sheriff’s station as part of the “Happy Helping Hand” organization. His new mentor/companion Dick Tremayne has promised to take him out to lunch. However, when Dick realizes the woman he's looking for isn't at the station, the plan is almost cancelled. To console the upset little boy, a sheriff’s deputy agrees to go with them. At the diner Nicky orders a sundae and blows the whipped cream in Dick’s face. He then spins Deputy Andy’s stool, sending him flying to the ground when he sits back down.

Friday, March 17, 1989
On a dirt road somewhere, Dick is fixing a flat tire while an impatient Nicky sits in the driver’s seat, turning the axle, beeping the horn, and playing with the windshield wipers. Dick yells at him; then the car unexpectedly collapses, nearly crushing Dick. Nicky rushes to his side, terrified that “Uncle Dick” is going to die. Dick seems a bit concerned too…and suspicious of Nicky. That evening, when Dick talks to Andy about the boy, the deputy imagines Nicky dressed as the devil surrounded by flames.

Characters Nicky interacts with onscreen…

Dick Tremayne

Deputy Andy

Norma Jennings

Impressions of TWIN PEAKS through Nicky
Inevitably, since he’s a child, Little Nicky’s Twin Peaks is a playful, rather broadly comical place (comical in theory anyway). He’s also the first character in these studies whom we see in more than one location, including the sheriff’s station when we visit for the first time. No Cooper, Laura, or anything of much consequence intersects with his storyline (even the decidedly third-tier Dick/Andy/Lucy romance remains an unspoken backdrop). Nicky’s scenes are the goofiest of any character we’ve dealt with so far and arguably of any character will meet going forward. That said, this is our first character study to touch in any way on the supernatural, however cartoonish. It won’t be the last and, thankfully, the spookiness of these paranormal connotations can only improve from here.

Nicky’s journey
Perhaps because the character was so obnoxious onscreen, most of Nicky’s actual arc occurs after he’s exited the show. The entire investigation and explanation of Nicky’s devilish curse (both his birth mother and foster parents died mysteriously) spans several episodes before lamely resolving itself, but that needn’t concern us here; these character studies (except for Laura’s) are focused on the characters’ actual appearances. As such, Nicky begins as an extremely generic but mildly sympathetic “little boy” character and grows increasingly annoying until his presence is almost unbearable.

Actor: Joshua Harris
Harris worked regularly as a child actor in eighties and nineties television, with guest appearances and TV films (including a starring role as a little boy dying of AIDS in Go Toward the Light; his parents were played by Linda Hamilton and Richard Thomas). Most notably, he was a regular cast member of Dallas for six years and over a hundred episodes, playing Bobby and Pam Ewing’s son from 1985 to 1991 (another actor played the part as a toddler from 1982 to 1985). The actor shifted his focus to baseball as a teenager, spending one season in the minors after college. When Christopher Ewing returned as a major character in the Dallas revival of 2014, the role was recast with Jesse Metcalf. Harris discusses his time on Twin Peaks in Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks by Brad Dukes. (series pictured: Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1992)

Episodes
Episode 18 (German title: "Masked Ball" - best episode)

Episode 19 (German title: "The Black Widow")

Writers/Directors
Barry Pullman writes Nicky as “a wide-eyed vulnerable-looking little boy” which is not exactly how he comes off – at one point the description even asks “Who could not love this kid?” The following teleplay was written by Harley Peyton and Robert Engels (the revelation of the character’s haunted past would eventually be scripted by Scott Frost though Nicky himself doesn’t appear in that episode). Duwayne Dunham directs the boy in his first appearance, while the final image of him in the series – that dreadful thought balloon – was apparently improvised by Caleb Deschanel (it’s not on the page).

Statistics
Nicky is onscreen for roughly four minutes. He is in four scenes and two episodes, taking place in two consecutive days. He is featured equally in both episodes. His primary location is the trail where Dick’s car breaks down. He shares the most screentime with Dick.

Best Scene
Episode 18: I use “best” advisedly but Nicky’s introduction at the station is certainly the least obnoxious moment we spend with the character, and Dick’s transparent callousness is much more amusing than the subsequent slapstick.

Best Line
“How much does it cost?” (before blowing the whipped cream in Dick’s face)

Additional Observations

• Here's what we eventually learn about Nicky's past: his mother was an immigrant chambermaid at the Great Northern who was raped and died in childbirth. She was buried in Potter's Field and Nicky was sent to an orphanage. A loving couple adopted him when he was six before dying in a horrific car accident, robbing him of a family once again. Doc Hayward tells this story to Andy and Dick, who have been hunting for clues about the boy's past ever since a social worker (played by Molly Shannon) dropped a few breadcrumbs. The would-be detectives are reduced to penitent tears, ending the Nicky arc. Summarized like this, the history sounds ghastly and heartwrenching but as written (we're told that a little boy dragged two adults out of a burning car) and delivered onscreen, the monologue plays as winking, comically over-the-top exaggeration. As such, it lacks both pathos and humor - another example of how Twin Peaks squandered a character and storyline with some potential for resonance.

• Nicky is very much part of an early nineties trend of smartass kids playing violent pranks on goofy adults. See also, in 1990 alone: Problem Child, Bart Simpson, Home Alone, pretty much every Nickelodeon advertisement of the time. I wondered if Nicky was directly inspired by Kevin McAllister, since Home Alone came out that same fall, but apparently the episodes were written a couple months before that November release. Then my answer arrived... I looked for Problem Child's release date (July 1990) and this photo popped up:


• So, I definitely just wrote an entire blog post on Little Nicky. Haha…


SHOWTIME: No, Harris is not on the cast list for 2017. Another nineties child named Harris (Hank) does appear, but I don’t think there’s any relation. Whether Nicky continued to be plagued by a “persistent random misfortune” is left to our imagination.

Monday: Daryl Lodwick
Yesterday: Nancy O'Reilly

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