A Regular Guy’s Slingshot to the Screen

Robert W. Welkos is a Calendar staff writer

Each fall, as the leaves begin to change hues and Razorback football mania grips the state, Orr’s Furniture Center in Malvern, Ark., holds its big 10-day anniversary sale.

It’s a time when folks from nearby Hot Springs and the surrounding hamlets receive fliers in the mail inviting them to come on down to Orr’s for the best buys on La-Z-Boy chairs, Bassett tables, Sealy mattresses and Stiffel lamps.

“In that 10-day period, we will run nearly 10% of our yearly volume through that store,” says co-owner Rick Dial. “We send out 6,000 letters for a private sale on the first three days. Then we advertise on television, radio and newspapers. We’ve done it now for 15 years and people know to wait, because, beginning in the middle of October, we’re fixing to go run a big sale.”


But to the people of Malvern--population 10,000--Dial is not only their local furniture king, he’s also a Hollywood celebrity.

Not long ago, he was standing in a vast hangar at Van Nuys Airport exchanging dialogue with no less a star than John Travolta in a scene from the film “The General’s Daughter,” a thriller about a woman’s murder on an Army base that Paramount Pictures will release next summer. Dial plays a forensics expert who assists Travolta in investigating the crime.

“When I get there, the body is laying out, [but] the clues that surround the body don’t jibe with the story that everybody thinks,” Dial said. “The hands of the victim aren’t like they should be after a struggle. She’s tied to a tent post. No dirt under the fingernails. And, of course, there’s a lot of footprints around the body.”

But when he wasn’t thinking about his lines, Dial was checking the calendar, notifying producer Mace Neufeld that he had to high-tail it out of L.A. and back to Malvern so he could launch the big furniture sale.

“This is my vay-cation,” Dial said of the movie, “and that is my vo-cation.”

Balding, bespectacled with a Michelin Man physique, Dial has managed what professional actors would jump at the chance to do--appear in a string of big movies with big movie stars.


In addition to the Travolta movie, Dial was featured in “Sling Blade” with his good pal Billy Bob Thornton, playing the owner of a lawn-mower repair shop. In “The Apostle,” Dial appeared with Robert Duvall playing the part of a radio station owner. And, more recently, Dial has a bit part as a correctional officer in a film called “Mumford” being directed by Lawrence Kasdan. Ironically, it wasn’t until he came up for the role in “The General’s Daughter” that Dial even had an agent.

Dial’s success tells a lot about Hollywood, where a lifelong friendship with someone who just happens to hit it big can turn your own world upside down. Why, before you know it, you’re rubbing shoulders with people you only read about in People magazine at the local barbershop.

Even Dial, 43, shakes his head when he thinks how fate has added a glitzy new dimension to his life.

“It’s like a dream,” he says, bowing his head and shaking it from side to side.

How are his neighbors taking it back in Malvern? “People in Malvern are cool about the whole thing,” he said. Rather than a celebrity, however, Dial sees himself as the town “personality.”

“I still announce all the high school football games on Friday nights and the home basketball games,” Dial said. “My wife, Phyllis, is the city clerk and I’m on the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce. That’s my focus.”

Some might say that Dial’s fate was sealed back in the third grade at Pratt Elementary School, when a scrawny kid named Billy Bob Thornton enrolled in the class. The two hit it off, playing football and baseball and taking a keen interest in music.

As Cub Scouts, Rick and Billy Bob and a few other friends even had their own rock ‘n’ roll band.

“We did air guitars back in sixth grade,” Dial recalled. “All we wanted to be in those days was rock ‘n’ roll stars.”

Years passed, and Thornton went off to New York and Hollywood to seek a career in show business. Dial worked as manager at Orr’s, while he and Phyllis raised three children--today they are 24-year-old daughter Heather; 18-year-old son Ben, who just entered college; and 7-year-old daughter Beth.

In 1997, Dial and two partners bought Orr’s previous owner. The store now has 11 employees and occupies 25,000 square feet of space, which, Dial explained, features “middle-of-the-road stuff.”

One day Dial got a phone call from Thornton, who wanted to know if his childhood pal would act in a film he was writing.

“He said, ‘I’ve written this movie and I’m going to make it in Arkansas and I’ve written a part with you in mind,’ ” Dial recalled. “I said, ‘I can’t do that. I’ve never done that in my life.’ ”

But Billy Bob was persistent. “ ‘It’s a real low-budget film,’ ” Dial says he told him. “ ‘Your friends and your family will go see it; my friends and family. Maybe a thousand people will see this movie and then it’ll probably go straight to video. It’s not a big deal.’

“I said, ‘What the heck, it might be kind of neat,’ ” Dial adds. “I’ll get to meet [co-stars] John Ritter and Dwight Yoakam and that kind of stuff. So, I did it. Then it just mushroomed.”

The movie was called “Sling Blade” and was shot in nearby Benton, Ark., about 20 minutes from Dial’s front step.

Rather than go quickly to video, “Sling Blade” went on to create a sensation in Hollywood, garnering Thornton Oscar nominations in acting, directing and screenplay adaptation, the latter for which he won.

“Everybody was rah-rahing Billy Bob, and me too,” Dial says. “It was just a neat thing to have an old buddy win for this movie, and that’s the way everybody looked at it, and me too.”

Now, it so happened that Thornton had screened his film for Robert Duvall (which Dial pronounces Duvall in his easy Southern accent). Duvall had played Thornton’s father in “Sling Blade,” and he was casting “The Apostle” at the time.

“ ‘Who’s that?’ ” Dial said Duvall asked Thornton. “ ‘I have a part for him in my movie. Who’s his agent?’

“[Billy Bob] said, ‘He ain’t got an agent. He just works out of his furniture store,’ ” Dial recalled. “So, Billy Bob called me a few days before Duvall called me and said, ‘Now, Rick, you’re gonna get a call from Robert Duvall, so now don’t hang up, it’s not a prank, it’s really gonna be him.’

“I thought, ‘God, what do you mean?’ So, sure enough, he calls my job and says, ‘Ricky? This is Bobby Duvall and I’m a friend of Billy Bob Thornton.’ Like I’m not gonna know who he is until he tells me he’s a friend of Billy Bob. And then he asked me to do that part in his movie.”

When that movie wrapped, Dial got the chance to play a bit role in Kasdan’s film “Mumford,” but it wasn’t until he was offered a part in “The General’s Daughter” that people told him he’d better get an agent to negotiate the deal.

“This is a big-budget movie,” Dial said. “I don’t have any business being there, but they don’t know that.”

Dial said there may be another movie he’ll do down the line.

“Billy Bob is supposed to do a movie in a year or so called ‘East End,’ ” Dial said. “It’s about growing up in the ‘70s in a rock ‘n’ roll band.”

But if it happens, it happens. Dial isn’t worried.

“If I never get another call, it suits me fine.”