Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Brennan, Buscemi and Greer, Oh, My! -- A Salute to Character Actors Who Always Make the Scene

Walter Brennan
This is not an article I should be writing.

A few months back, my friend Ken texted me with a suggestion for a blog post about character actors, naming a few that I knew well--Jack Warden, Strother Martin--and others with which I wasn't so familiar (Slim Pickens, Ben Johnson, Martin Balsam).

My reply: "That's a great idea; why don't you write it?"

Such a piece would seemingly be in Ken's wheelhouse, as he has a pretty thorough knowledge of classic and more recent cinema, and has written a few guest posts on Seth Saith.

But he demurred and got caught up--rather consistently, it seems--with other, ahem, more pressing matters.

So I started thinking I would try to write this tribute of sorts to character actors. Yet while I consider myself something of a film buff, I lack the historical breadth and/or depth of Ken and several other friends, including Dave, Bob and Brad.

So on Facebook I asked my Friends to "Name a great character actor or actress of any era." 

I said that I would start with John Turturro.

While many of my Facebook queries bring perhaps a single comment--often from Dave--this one garnered over 50, likely the most "social interaction" I've ever gotten.

Again, some of the names shared were ones I knew well, but many weren't, proving that I am not nearly the best-equipped person to write this homage, especially as one of my friends, Susan Doll, is a film professor, historian and blogger for TCM.

Steve Buscemi
Susan provided some great insight, and a clarifying definition of "character actor" as:

"A secondary or supporting player. It is not the same as a versatile actor who lacks a definitive star image, or one who decides to take on a supporting role or cameo "for fun."

"In today's industry, this is the difference between star and character player: A star is calculated to pull in so much money at the box office, which producers use to attract investors to a project. That is a burden for the star but he gets better treatment on the set (points on the box office; a trailer; food preferences, assistants). A character actor does not have a dollar value; he supports the stars and the narrative. He is paid one sum; he is not touted to the press to promote the film. There are complexities and gray areas to all of this, but a character actor in general is not a major player in a film."

As her favorite character actor of all time, Susan cited Harry Dean Stanton, with Ethel Barrymore as her favorite character actress. She also mentioned Jack Elam and Allison Janney, the latter as a relatively rare example of a prominent contemporary character actress, as Alice Ghostley, Ellen Corby and Anne Ramsey were in the 1970s-1990s.

She also noted that "there are also African American character actors, though their story has a tragic aspect to it because they could only be character actors in the Golden Age. An interesting one from the Golden Age was Canada Lee, who did not play the stereotype forced on many black actors (he was in Lifeboat). Another one who defied stereotypes was Roscoe Lee Browne, from the 1970s through the 2000s. Morgan Freeman would be an interesting example of a black character actor who became a star, though he has not carried too many films by himself."

Judy Greer
As expected, my friend Dave, a devoted fan of film from all ages, offered several favorite character actors/actresses including vintage names like Peter Lorre, Warren Oates, Elisha Cook, Jr., Thomas Mitchell, Howard da Silva, Thelma Ritter and Hume Cronyn.

More recent and current actors Dave mentioned include Harvey Keitel, Dan Duryea, Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michael Shannon, Lili Taylor and Judy Greer, also a favorite of mine from several films, including Adaptation and The Descendants.

I'll also credit Dave with Catherine Keener, as I cited her as one of his favorites.

My friend Todd was the first to respond to my Facebook question, with Joseph Cotten, though Susan pointed out that, while great, Cotten largely played starring roles until he got older. But, perhaps like Todd, I remember him most fondly for supporting Orson Welles in Citizen Kane and other films.

Brad, who hosts the Chicago Film Discussion Meetup lunches I often attend, mentioned a classic--Walter Brennan, who won three Oscars for Best Supporting Actor and was great in To Have and To Have Not, Rio Bravo, Red River, Pride of the Yankees and many more--and one of the best at present: Paul Giamatti.

Robert Shaw
A bit more obscurely, my friend Bob--long a volunteer at Facets in Chicago--mentioned Victor Buono and Veda Ann Borg. Gotta admit, I looked them up and still don't think I know who they are.

Others mentioned include Stephen Tobolowsky (by Alex), Margaret Hamilton (by Mike), James Cromwell, David Morse, Ralph Waite, Scott Glenn, Sam Elliott, Chris Cooper, John Goodman, Cloris Leachman, Dianne Wiest, Michael Jeter, Hal Holbrook (all cited by Judy) and Bonnie Hunt, Ethel Banks (from Barefoot in the Park), Robert Shaw, Darren McGavin, Tony Randall and Burgess Meredith (contributed by Christine).

Amidst the many terrific Facebook Comments, I added Samuel L. Jackson, Stanley Tucci, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty and Alan Arkin--no relation--knowing that a few of these have had some nice starring roles throughout their distinguished careers. In that vein, Michael Caine also comes to mind.

I mentioned Wilfrid Brambell simply for his wonderful stint as "Paul's Grandfather" in A Hard Day's Night, and should have done likewise for Stanley Holloway as Eliza Doolittle's "Get Me to the Church on Time"-singing dad in My Fair Lady.

Brian Cox
Other favorites of mine not yet mentioned include Brian Cox (I loved him in The Boxer but he's probably better-known for the Bourne and X-Men movies), Joe Pantoliano, William H. Macy, J.K. Simmons, Gary Cole, J.T. Walsh, Rosie Perez and Marisa Tomei (though the latter was also a star for awhile). 

In perusing "Best Character Actor" lists like this one, I'm surprised Claude Rains, Christopher Lloyd, Joe Pesci, John Hawkes and Forrest Whittaker failed to get any shout-outs from me or my film-loving friends. 

But I'm sure that in reading this, Ken will not only realize he could have written it much better--perhaps with better citations of great roles by the aforementioned, whereas I'll defer to IMDB, Wikipedia and will cite several additional wonderful Character Actors and Actresses in the Comments (to this blog post). 

I hope you will as well.

1 comment:

Ken said...


Thanks for the shout out, but there's no way I could have written this piece half as well as you did. As usual you have given me something to aspire too.

For the record:

1) I mentioned Elisha Cook, Jr. too! (Think Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon.)

2) What about Lee J. Cobb???

3) There's a terrific documentary on Netflix on Harry Dean Stanton called Partly Fiction.