Look at Benicio del Toro as he chats with BUILD’s Ricky Camilleri — he’s a ’50s beatnik, a Russian revolutionary, a wolfman, a Silicon Valley malcontent. I know Benicio very slightly, and I’ve heard the stories. Deep cat, wicked laugh, hungry poet, a man of appetites. Or, if you will, “the thinking man’s Hollywood badass.”

I was persuaded that Benicio was extra-level 24 years ago. That’s when I first saw him as Kevin Spacey‘s outgoing assistant in George Huang‘s Swimming With Sharks. In January ’95 I saw him in The Usual Suspects at Sundance, enjoyed the hell out of his Fred Fenster riff in that police line-up scene, and the rest was history.

Three personal encounters: (a) In April ’95 I persuaded Benicio (plus Bryan Singer, Elizabeth Shue, Lara Flynn Boyle, Gregg Araki, Don Murphy, et. al.) to pose for a Los Angeles magazine piece about the new neo-noir. Benicio didn’t want to pose with a gun, and I sided with him — I felt his pain. A low-key argument with my editor ensued; (b) A brief “hey” at West L.A.’s Lazer Blazer; (c) I next ran into Benicio at Gare du Nord on 1.1.00 — the day after the big Millennial new year. Standing on the platform with a suitcase, cool as a cucumber….”yo!”

I’ve no argument with Benicio being the new Lee Marvin or Warren Oates. Why have these analogies surfaced? Because critics are hugely impressed with Benicio’s Richard Matt in Ben Stiller‘s Escape at Dannemora (Showtime, 11.18). Me too, although I’ve only seen two episodes’ worth. I’ll be working on the remainder this weekend.