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Modern Character Actors
December 14, 2002 2:05 PM   Subscribe

Oh I Just Love This Whatzisname Guy! Aren't we ungrateful about character actors whose work we so enjoy? Sometimes we only realize what their names are when they die. Yet without them the Cinema would be unbearable.
posted by MiguelCardoso (47 comments total)

 
My favourite contemporary character actor is Eugene Levy. You'll notice that in the trailer for his latest film - Bringing Down The House (Quicktime req.) - his name isn't even on the credits, although he features heavily.

Here's a hardworking, versatile actor who's actually saved several awful films (the American Pies) and yet whose name is by and large unknown. It just ain't fair...
posted by MiguelCardoso at 2:11 PM on December 14, 2002


Here's the complete index of the character actors featured in the first link.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 2:16 PM on December 14, 2002


is eugene levy on this list? i tried the actor index list and came up with nil. not that i have any idea who eugene levy is, i was just curious as to what character he played in the american pie movies.
posted by poopy at 2:18 PM on December 14, 2002


ok. did quick google...so that's Eugene Levy...cool. funny guy, and you're right, he was great in the american pie movies, although i wouldn't go so far as to say that he saved them.
posted by poopy at 2:22 PM on December 14, 2002


Fametracker.com has a section called Hey, it's that guy! about character actors, dedicated to the late J.T. Walsh.
posted by amarynth at 2:25 PM on December 14, 2002


Poopy: I meant character actors like him are often the only watchable thing about bad movies. They're familiar, funny and, although type-cast, damn good at what they do. Being longer-lasting than movie stars they also add continuity and some sort of acting integrity.

For instance, in old movies, imho, they've dated less than ther stars.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 2:29 PM on December 14, 2002


i loved how the movie 'galaxy quest' tackled this issue with my favorite character, Guy.

One of my favorite scenes:

Guy Fleegman: Nobody knows! Do you know why? Because my character isn't important enough for a last name, because I'm gonna die five minutes in.

Gwen DeMarco: Guy, you have a last name.

Guy Fleegman: DO I?! DO I?!?! For all you know, I'm "Crewman Number Six"!
posted by poopy at 2:36 PM on December 14, 2002


Eugene Levy was on SCTV during the late seventies and early eighties (I think, not having been born for most of the period).

I think some of it has to do with just not having a large enough brain to keep all those names in it. I'm bad enough with names as it is, but I do my best to remember the ones I like.

-----

Don't forget the whatzername girls, Miguel. My favorite is Chesty Nurse #3. She doesn't quite have the acting prowess to land the lead gigs, but she knows how to do what she does just as well as her husband, Country Mechanic.
posted by The God Complex at 3:03 PM on December 14, 2002


Eugene Levy is kinda more well known after the American Pie movies. They even advertise his name when he's appearing on a small enough show.

Another favorite Christopher Guest-alumni-character-actor is Fred Willard. Ahh, Fred Willard.

And am I mistaken, or wasn't William H. Macy one of those guys whose face you recognize but you never knew his name until approximately Fargo? Same with David Morse and The Green Mile.

I love the very idea of a character actor. If I became an actor, that's what I would want to be.
posted by Hildago at 3:04 PM on December 14, 2002


Hildago, Fred Willard is also reasonably well known by anybody who forces themself to watch The Tonight Show. Luckily for you, I guess you're not one of them ;)
posted by The God Complex at 3:09 PM on December 14, 2002


amarynth: j.t. walsh and his son spent a few summers with my family when i was in my early teens. he was a fantastic guy who survived some tough times without getting bitter.
i still miss him
posted by dolface at 3:11 PM on December 14, 2002


peter lorre, one of the silent film stars who was transformed when sound came around.
posted by poopy at 3:14 PM on December 14, 2002


Oh, let me add some more favorites:

Graham Greene as: Native American with speaking role!
Vincent Schiavelli as: The creepy guy!
James Hong as: The evil Asian!
posted by Hildago at 3:15 PM on December 14, 2002


Thanks God Complex, I had seen him on Letterman once but I didn't know it was a regular gig. He should have his own talk show, I think.
posted by Hildago at 3:17 PM on December 14, 2002


Tonight Show is the Leno one. That's probably why you didn't notice the regular gig--you watch the better one.
posted by The God Complex at 3:29 PM on December 14, 2002


I love the very idea of a character actor. If I became an actor, that's what I would want to be.

yeah, you're right and the Coen brothers have used the character actor to their advantage: William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand, John Turturro ...

some of my personal favorites, especially frances.
posted by poopy at 3:30 PM on December 14, 2002


what defines someone as a character actor? Why are frances mcdormand or william h. macy considered character actors? I always thought character actors were people who played basically the same character in whatever film they're in - like the "geeky dad" or whatever.
posted by mdn at 3:44 PM on December 14, 2002


Aren't we ungrateful about character actors whose work we so enjoy? Sometimes we only realize what their names are when they die.

I feel this way about Bill Kennedy. The best character actor to ever have lived, IMO. He was friends with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers. A fixture in Detroit and Windsor for years.
posted by clavdivs at 3:53 PM on December 14, 2002


Character actors just play supporting roles, although that's basically the same as playing the same character over and over. And I dunno about Frances McDormand, but Bill Macy pretty much does play the slightly awkward but basically nice guy in most movies he's in.
posted by Hildago at 3:55 PM on December 14, 2002


Tonight Show is the Leno one. That's probably why you didn't notice the regular gig--you watch the better one.

Oh, heh heh. One of them anyway. Even if I'm up that late, I usually skip the first round of late night shows and go straight to Kilborn and Conan. But that's neither here nor there..
posted by Hildago at 3:57 PM on December 14, 2002


(Finishing the ellipsis in poopy's post with my two Coen brothers favorites)

...Emmet Walsh, and Dan Hedaya. Rent "Blood Simple" if you haven't seen it, it has both of them in a reverse-boomerang-double-cross murder-for-hire story.
posted by planetkyoto at 3:57 PM on December 14, 2002


Eugene Pallette.
posted by mcwetboy at 4:32 PM on December 14, 2002


mdn, character actors do not always play the same roles. they're just people who look so average that they never become "stars" but are so good at acting that they continually get work.

my favorites are m. emmet walsh, michael j. pollard, j. t. walsh, stephen tobolowsky, vincent schiavelli, john cazale, joe pantoliano... there's way too many to name.
posted by dobbs at 4:39 PM on December 14, 2002


You couldn't make a western without Slim Pickens.
posted by netbros at 5:21 PM on December 14, 2002


Mamet seems to use a stable of character actors (William H. Macy and Ricky Jay included), as does PT Anderson (Macy and Ricky Jay again, as well as Luis Guzman and, my personal favorites, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly).

And now's my chance to (hopefully) fix my bungled link here -- Fametracker's "Hey, It's That Guy" feature is actually here.
posted by amarynth at 5:28 PM on December 14, 2002


I think a lot of you are cheating. A character actor's name is, by defintion, unrecognizable. Not Macy, Hoffman, Bushemi or any of the others - they're supporting actors. Although actors who started out with small parts are interesting, real character actors, like some mentioned here, live and die without really registering in the public consciousness.

Also, more links! ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:55 PM on December 14, 2002


The sad truth is we need to know what they look like before going "Yeah, he/she's great!" Not that there all that many photographs of them on the Web...
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:57 PM on December 14, 2002


I'm not sure about all the actors in that list being character actors. A few that seem to have been left of the list above are:

Al Leong: You won't see a movie with an asian gangmember/thug without him.
John Saxon: For the number of Movies this guy's been in you'd think he was a household name. For the last 20-30 years he's been the dark evil bad guy dude.
Fred Thompson: The man who got so typecast as a government official he became one.
posted by aaronscool at 6:01 PM on December 14, 2002


yeah, you're right and the Coen brothers have used the character actor to their advantage: William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand, John Turturro ...

One of 'em (I think it was Joel) even used Frances in a different way. He married her.
posted by Ufez Jones at 9:49 PM on December 14, 2002


I wouldn't think there would be so much disagreement about the term. While there is certainly flexibility -- and a person can drift from one category to another over the course of a career -- generally character actors are considered a subset of supporting actors. They're the ones who are good, but not necessarily good-looking -- not lead actor material. They may be known for a certain schtick, like the garrulous Steve Buscemi or officious J.T. Walsh, but more often they're capable of a wide variety of notable performances, like William H. Macy. The canonical character actor is certainly Peter Lorre, who embodied, at times, all these qualities. To understand the difference between a character actor and a supporting actor, think of Star Wars. Ford was a leading man, Peter Cushing a consummate character actor, and though he may have been just right for the role of Luke, Mark Hamill a doughy, one-note supporting player. Sometimes character actors may emerge into leading-man status; one example, to my mind, is Tommy Lee Jones. Oh, and here's a good-looking character actor: Bruce Campbell.

But the one thing that runs in common is that you notice their performances, however small. They're scene-stealers. But unlike, say, Bronson Pinchot's Serge from Beverly Hills Cop, now relegated to awkwardly hawking discount eyewear, character actors can do it again and again in different milieus. Often, the best leading men seem to have an off-center character-actor-esque air about them: Michael Caine, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, Tobey Maguire.

I wouldn't say it's an exclusively American province, of course, but character actors have been an important part of American film since the naturalism that flowered in the 1970s. Altman, the Coen Brothers, and Paul Thomas Anderson have flourished relying on large stables of nearly exclusively character actors. There's also a Tarantino branch that has brought the idea of character actors into overlap with the blowzy summer blockbuster, one of the nicer trends fertilized by Jerry Bruckheimer: Con-Air, The Rock, and Armageddon all make great use of character actors (and excessively dramatic editing) to make for a visceral movie experience. An earlier example that's better than all of them is Cameron's The Abyss, or Aliens. True, at some level, these are merely types, but it's tapping into the same secret that audiences are more involved when they care about the characters, and the drama is more involving when it derives from the characters principally.

Still, I have to admit that at a broader level the term includes folks whose names you never learn, or who merely play the same bit part in many movies ('that Western saloon keeper with the weaselly face'). But this is what I think of when I hear the term.
posted by dhartung at 11:04 PM on December 14, 2002


Interesting character actor trivia: Richard Edson, perhaps most famous for his role as the joyriding garage attendant in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, was the first drummer for Sonic Youth.
posted by sklero at 12:30 AM on December 15, 2002


Okay, here is my favorite "What's His Name" More info. here . (shame they don't list commerials--there have been many of those.
posted by RunsWithBandageScissors at 12:42 AM on December 15, 2002


When I saw the subject of this post, the first person that came to mind was Harry Morgan.

The second thing that came to mind was a very young Ira Glass (host of This American Life on NPR) asking Morgan why he thought he never got "leading man" roles [text link but requires Real Audio to hear the show]. Talk about a real 'cringe' moment, asking an Emmy Award winning ensemble actor why he thought he wasn't Cary Grant.

Great post Miguel.
posted by m@ at 9:17 AM on December 15, 2002


I usually think of character actors as the talented actors who play a variety of supporting roles and actually act, as opposed to movie stars, who basically play themselves.

In addition to the great actors listed above, I like John Spencer.

Fred Thompson: The man who got so typecast as a government official he became one.

Actually, he was a government official, then became an actor, then became (or stayed) a government official. He was a minority counsel on the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (“Watergate Committee”). He played himself in his first movie, and appears (sort of, it's archival footage) as himself in Oliver Stone's JFK.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:19 AM on December 15, 2002


Dobbs already mentioned John Cazale, whose films make one wonder what his career would have been if not for a young death. A favorite veteran of film, Warren Oates.
posted by G_Ask at 11:13 AM on December 15, 2002


It's often been said that British actors are all character actors by default, and there does seem to be something to that. (Maybe it's the influence of all those repertory companies, although that system has apparently been running into trouble as of late.) Anyway, I'm always pleased when I see Peter Blythe, Michael Kitchen, or Julian Wadham in the cast list.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:21 PM on December 15, 2002


I'm surprised no one has mentioned Vincent Schiavelli, oft typecast as "the ugly guy". You might remember him from such films as Ghost and Buckaroo Banzai. He also writes sicilian cookbooks, and food-related memoirs.
posted by condour75 at 1:32 PM on December 15, 2002


oh and someone did mention him... Sorry hidalgo, did a find on the page but must've had the spelling wrong!
posted by condour75 at 1:33 PM on December 15, 2002


And Buffy! Vincent Schiavelli was on Buffy (see episodes "Surprise" and "Innocence")!

Buffy's also spawned a collection of folks who should be great next-generation character actors: Seth Green, Alyson Hannigan ... there are more, give me time.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 2:53 PM on December 15, 2002


Another site to check out is Who Is That? It does have pictures, but unfortunately the list is woefully short. On the plus side, I figured out that this guy is Bob Gunton.

I can't believe no one has mentioned Clancy Brown.
posted by O9scar at 3:32 PM on December 15, 2002


Oh come on, how could they not include the great and powerful Tony Shalhoub? He kicks ass in everything he's been in. He single-handedly made Galaxy Quest worth watching.
posted by ssmith at 4:45 PM on December 15, 2002


I've haven't a hard time coming to grips with the idea of Eugene Levy even being considered "obscure." Christ, he was a crucial part SCTV. Clearly one of TV's brightest hours? Hello?
posted by davebush at 7:52 PM on December 15, 2002


Two words: Don Cheadle.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:45 PM on December 15, 2002


Ian Holm? John Hurt? Character actors? These are leading men and among the greatest actors of their generation. Just because they turn up as Robot and Dead Man No.1 in Alien doesn't make them character actors.
posted by Summer at 3:39 AM on December 16, 2002


For that matter, Brian Cox and Sir Michael Hordern as well.
posted by salmacis at 5:25 AM on December 16, 2002


"I've haven't" - type much? Make that "I'm having" ..and to all a good night.
posted by davebush at 6:47 AM on December 16, 2002


'Often, the best leading men seem to have an off-center character-actor-esque air about them: Michael Caine, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, Tobey Maguire.'
-dhartung
'I usually think of character actors as the talented actors who play a variety of supporting roles and actually act, as opposed to movie stars, who basically play themselves.'
-kirkaracha

i would agree with kirkaracha, but find that character actors are all too often type-cast (according to their last performance), thus their role stays virtually constant, and is independent of the production in which they perform. whether or not they like being cast in this way is a debatable point, i would imagine that if you believed yourself to be an actor, then being type-cast would tend to grate with the artistic sensibility.
i think that people who get stuck being type-cast, unless they are working to survive, show a lack of imagination and a surfeit of greed which puts me off their films. unless i blame it on the domination of decision making in film-making by bean counters.
watching the same faces rehashing the same parts over and over is tiresome. if is playing the leading role in a film, then you can be assured that their character will not die, become disabled or represent any behaviour that could seen as being detrimental to the image that the actor (read actor's PR/publishing company's propaganda department) is promoting in the public arena, unless the departure from the norm is the raison d'etre of the film. thus the story is burned into the public conciousness, so they arrive at the cinema with expectations they feel the need to have fulfilled, akin to a baby playing peek-a-boo in a comfortable and secure environment. however, these are not infants, they are adults with an infantile level of sophistication, cosseted by the media multinationals to remain a pliant and reliable revenue stream.
this type of thing has probably been going on since the beginning of time, as anyone who studies the history of story-telling will tell you. is the role of the stock hero character in modern day media being milked beyond its sustainable yield? will it dry up completely when the market is over-saturated, to be replaced with a short lived, but exiting period when the studios cast about randomly, as they search desperately for the next big thing? probably not.

posted by asok at 9:14 AM on December 16, 2002


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