Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Support System

James O. Born

Character Actors

I love movies. I watch old ones, new ones, good ones, bad ones, if the story grabs me, I’m happy to go.

In my opinion, most movies are made by the supporting actors. I don’t know why, I think it was my father’s influence, but I love good character actors. They are so vital to any film or TV show that without them I hardly bother to watch. Few people appreciate the impact of a fine supporting actor who never graduates to the role of “star”.

Most character actors are known by face and not by name. This is my attempt to put a name to the face and recognize their accomplishments. I lean toward comedy, even if it is just comic relief in a serious film. I’m fascinated by the successful actors who appear in more films than anyone but get only a nod on the street as if we’ve seen someone we recognize from the sotre or the neighborhood.

A good character actor must, at once not over showdown the star or story, but also be so compelling and unique that we bother to learn their names.

While watching the 1976 movie The Shootist the other day, I was reminded of this fact whenever Harry Morgan was on screen. We all know him as Colonel Potter from MASH or, if a little older, as Joe Friday from Dragnet, but he pops up in more funny old westerns than you can count. 1971’s Support Your Local Gunfighter with James Gardner is the perfect example. His energy is infectious, especially in The Shootist.

Holland Taylor is gaining a following from her Emmy award winning performance on the CBS show Two and Half Men. She is the ultimate, beautiful, witty, sarcastic, cynical older woman and is a genius. From much earlier shows like Tom Hank’s first big break, Bosom Buddies or Tia Leone’s short-lived but funny The Naked Truth, Ms Taylor commands the screen and our attention.

Steve Buscemi has a better known name and face but he’s earned it through quirky roles and fine acting. From his role in the later years of The Sopranos or his appearances in films like The Big Lebowski or Amageddon, to his stellar performance in Fargo he can be considered the king of the current crop of true character actors. His odd looks only emphasize the humanity in a guy equally at ease playing a mobster or a genius engineer with a weakness for strippers.

These are just a few of my favorite character actors but I’m always on the lookout for more.

Who do you look for onscreen? Alfred Molina? Bob Hoskins? Agnes Morehead?

I’d like to know.


  1. Bruce Campbell is one of those character actors who show up a lot, most recently in Burn Notice, which is a great little show. I'm really looking forward to the next season, starting soon.

  2. Jim: A favorite of mine is Ben Johnson. His career lasted almost sixty years ['39-'96] and his credits range from John Ford westerns to an Oscar winning turn in "The Last Picture Show."

    My favorite role of his is when he played one of the Gorch brothers in Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch," a hard boiled western if ever there was one. [It's so h/b that William Holden goes against western-hero type by saying, "If they move, kill 'em." during a robbery.]

    Johnson's credit page on IMDB makes for an interesting read.

    John McAuley

  3. Absolutely the truth-- one of the many reasons I adore David mamet movies is his cast of remarkable character actors-- it is such a treat to see so many talented people in the swing/ up on the edge/in the zone together. I recommend The Spanish Prisoner and Heist.
    N.B., there are some terrific new cable shows with great writing and acting, Burn Notice is fun, The Starter Wife with Joe Montegna.
    Nice to know TV isn't all dreck!

  4. I look for Seymour Cassell. I drove him around a few years ago when he was in town for the Florida Film Festival. Helluva guy, helluvan actor. Been in everything from Murder,Inc.,Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Dick Tracy, Indecent Proposal and Honeymoon in Vegas to episodes of the Twilight Zone, Wagon Train and Combat.

    If you don't recognize that name, go here

  5. You gets get exactly what I'm talking about.

    I agree Bruce Campbell rocks, Neil. Army of Darkness, one of his few leads, is a fun, weird funny horror movie.

    I almost used Ben Johnson on this post. From the original Mighty Joe Young to Red Dawn and a dozen John Wayne movies, he IS the best cowboy.


  6. I love Estelle Getty, the mom on the Golden Girls. I always thought she'd make the perfect Grandma Masur for the film version of the Stephanie Plum movie.

  7. One of the best was JT Walsh. He's best known for playing Lt. Col. Markinson in A Few Good Men. Walsh almost always played the bad guy, but he was so good at it you had to love him.

    He died in 1998 of a heart attack, a real loss to film and television.

  8. Jim, this kindof ties into Patty's Doppelganger post, because I've reflecting back on some your posts regarding your martial arts interest and law enforcement background, and this guy reminds me of you [Walker,Texas Ranger]. This guy is a character actor only he's the same character in everything.... Chuck Norris.I remember a cartoon I saw, twenty or more years ago, in a weekly paper up in SanFrancisco. The caption reads, "Chuck Norris trying to avoid being type cast, plays Hamlet." The cartoon depicts Norris in full regalia, cod piece and all, and he's kicking the crap out of somebody.
    There are so many good character actors out there but two which come to mind are John Malkovich or Vincent Schiavelli.

    You guys are right, Burn Notice is really a great show.My Mamet ensemble favourites are House of Games and Things Change.


  9. Good post! My character actors-Chris Walken, Bruce Campbell, Dennis Farina,Jason Statham. The latter two in a HILARIOUS film called SNATCH which is "full" of character actors including Alan Ford who brings new meaning to cockney slang and creative uses of the "f" word as if the Brits invented it!

  10. Great post Jim.....but if you love movies where do you start? Here are a few charcter actors that will stop me channel surfing in a second....Luis Guzman...Brain Van Holt...Don Cheadle....and the incrediable Paul Giamatti.

  11. You guys know your actors.

    Doug, This post was almost only about Giamatti. But he's getting too big.

    Jon, I like Norris. He is cardboard but that is a good Korean Karate man. He's like eighty-six years old now too.

  12. Also, David Straithairn and Chris Cooper and Scott Glenn and .....

    I agree, JT Walsh rocked.... esp. agst the wooden and creepy Tom Cruise!

  13. Sorry I have been away so long, but I was actually working on a fictional Novella about...."a character actor!"

    Lon Chaney Jr. always held an interest for me. He could be a leading man, but he became a leading monster for Universal Studios. He was usually not top billed, but was given the designation of last billing, usually - "...and Lon Chaney Jr. as the Monster."

    Due to his alcoholism, he parts became shorter and shorter. Yet if one looks at his supporting work in "High Noon" and "The Defiant Ones," Chaney's understated performance shifts the spotlight from Oscar Winner Gary Cooper and Sydney Poitier.

    One of Chaney Jr.'s last starring vehicle was "Spider Baby," which costarred up and coming character actor, Sid Haig. This is a "B Movie" quicky with gallows humor and a few tears, a great curtain call for Chaney Jr.

  14. Harry Morgan played Bill Gannon on Dragnet, Joe Friday's partner (Jack Webb).

    Supporters I like: Alan Hale, Jack Elam, Roy Barcroft, Hank Worden, Eugene Pallette, Gabby Hayes, Lyle Bettger.

  15. What an interesting question, JB.

    A few that come to mind among my faves:

    John Rhys-Davies (best-known for Indiana Jones movies)

    John C. Reilly (fabulous in The Hours and Chicago, especially that number he did "Mr. Cellophane")

    And my absolute fave: Charles Durning (esp in "Tootsie")

    Others of note:
    John Cazale
    Teri Garr
    Judd Hirsch
    Ruth Gordon
    Madeline Kahn...

  16. Charles Durning -- saw a wonderful tribute to him-- he is still acting!
    and Andy Garcia
    and Sidney Pollack and ...

    so many neat ones!