Don’t I know You?: 10 Great Character Actors
Everybody loves a movie-star, it’s why we go to the movies. But while the star is the main attraction, a movie can’t be made with stars alone. No, they need to be filled out and it is in these bit parts and secondary leads that you find the eccentrics, the drunks, the evil aunts and anybody else that makes a film interesting. This is where you find character actors.
Here are ten of the greatest character actors working today. While this list is in no particular order it does only include the living, so you’ll find no Walter Brennan’s, JT Walsh’s or Thomas Mitchell’s here. For more on these and the thousands of great character actors that came before them see the Wikipedia entry for Character Actors. Also, if you’re so inclined you can visit my article about the best movie duels of the last 50 years to see some of these actors in action.
1. James Rebhorn
Not the most famous of character actors, but James Rebhorn is as good a place to start as any. Character actors all tend to have their little specialty. Some play thugs and other hulking characters, some play the town drunk, some play the coward. Some, like Rebhorn, specialize in a certain type of WASP and to that end it’s no surprise when a lawyer, politician or doctor is needed for a scene and Rebhorn appears.
What’s impressive about Rebhorn is that despite playing a limited range of characters he’s built a very diverse resume of films. Bouncing back and from TV to film and from independent to studio, he’s literally done it all. Imagine my surprise to realize that not only was he in The Game, an underrated David Fincher film, but he also played Jude Law’s farther in The Talented Mr. Ripley, was a doctor in such disparate films as Basic Instinct , Far From Heaven and Meet the Parents, appeared in the Seinfeld series finale and was in the dreadful, yet bafflingly-popular, Independence Day.
What makes him unique, though, is that while he’s a character actor, he’s a rather stealthy one. While many of his brethren think being a character actors means they have a license to sport broad accents or chew the scenery, Rebhorn is very much an unselfish actor. Instead of doing his best to make the scene about himself and steal it from the stars, he is much more willing to add subtlety and depth and do what it is a character actor does, which is give support.
2. Jane Lynch
Sadly, most memorable character actors are men. I suppose that’s probably due to the fact that most movies are made for 15 year-old boys and therefore to attract those same boys all women’s parts must filled by Megan Fox or somebody else who knows how to fill out a tank-top. And then, in the rare instance that a woman gets to play a character part it’s a sad fact that more often than not these roles, as the harpyish mother or shrewish wife, are hardly what you could call memorable.
Fortunately, though, Jane Lynch is one of those women that broke the mold.
For several years Lynch seemed to be working hard on having a good, though undistinguished, career and it’s no surprise that early on she made a healthy number of TV appearances. It wasn’t until Christopher Guest’s splendid Best in Show, where she played lesbian dog-trainer Christy Cummings, a woman with serious eyes for the dog’s owner, that she finally had what could be called a breakout role.
Since then she’s stolen just about every film she’s been in, which is quite an accomplishment when you consider the folks she’s been working with. Her straight faced delivery of her characters sordid past in A Mighty Wind was a hoot, she walked off with the funniest lines in Role Models and was made immortal by the 40 Year-Old Virgin. In a movie filled with scene stealing moments – Paul Rudd confronting ex-girlfriend Mindy Kaling at a speed-dating gathering, Steve Carrell saying breasts feel just like bag’s of sand, or the ‘I know why you’re gay’ exchange – Lynch’s creepy/foul-mouthed/utterly hilarious performance as Paula, Steve Carrel’s boss, tops them all. And knowing that she’s become a real star in her own right on the TV show, Glee, makes her all the more impressive.
Note: It was tempting to put Rachel Harris on this list, or even Judy Greer, but sadly while I know who they are and am pleasantly surprised when they pop up, they just haven’t broken through yet to move beyond pseudo-obscurity to being legitimate character actors. But they will.
3. Brendan Gleeson
Brendan Gleeson is an Irishman and of imposing stature so it’s not surprising he’s done quite well playing Irish characters and other men of imposing stature. Even so, that hardly means he has limited range. While his most famous role, as Mad-Eye Moody from the Harry Potter films, plays to his strengths, he’s also branched out quite nicely, playing a central American in The Tailor of Panama, an LA cop in Dark Blue, a Maine sheriff in Lake Placid, and a barber/mercenary in Gangs of New York. Moreover, in spite of his size and almost brutish appearance he’s proven to be quite capable at playing gentle characters as well, most notably in as the father of a young girl in the zombie film, 28 Days Later and as a confederate deserter and ne’er-do-well father in Cold Mountain.
While some on the actors on this list have upwards of 150 credits to their names that Gleeson has but 65 makes him seem downright lazy. But while he hasn’t the breadth of appearances of others and may not be the most recognizable face on this list, he is easily one of the most interesting. Besides, when your CV has you working with everybody from John Boorman to Scorsese to Spielberg and Danny Boyle, you probably wouldn’t have a problem with arguing that it was quality, not quantity, that was important.
4. Ray Winstone
Ray Winstone has had a long career in the UK, mostly on TV, stretching back some 30 years. Despite his resume he was largely unknown with American audiences until Sexy Beast in 2000. With a natural arrogance, and easy sneer and distrusting eyes, Winstone excelled in that film at playing a mobster hounded by an old associate to come out of his jaded retirement and pull one last score. While Sir Ben Kingsley may have gotten the awards attention as that old associate, it was Winstone that quietly walked away with the movie.
Rather than slink back to TV Winstone has instead gone on a fairly lengthy hot streak. With his size and look it’s no secret that he specializes in tough guys, both the good and bad variety. He was the lawman using unorthodox methods to find an outlaw in 19th century Australia in The Proposition, played the leader of the home guard for all its wicked-relish in Cold Mountain, and was a Southie thug in The Departed. Indeed, he even popped up in the dreadful Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, doing god-knows-what. Still, no matter the film you can almost always rest-assured that if Ray Winstone is in it, a good bit of violence will follow.
Interesting fact: One of Winstone’s earliest roles was as Billy, the lead singer of the punk band, The Losers, in the cult film, Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains, opposite Diane Lane.. Click here to hear him sing “Join the Professionals.”
5. Stepehen Tobolowsky
Stephen Tobolowsky has been in everything and a little more and of the unknowns on this list, he probably has the most recognizable face. He’s also my favorite. Specializing in eggheads and slime balls, Tobolowsky has carved out quite a career for himself over the last 30 years or so. The IMDB lists him with at least 195 credits and it’s a fair bet that before you even get a chance to read this he’ll probably be in ten more.
Though he plays much the same type of character in every film those films have been as varied as the wind. He was Stanley Jankis in Memento, a doctor in Basic Instinct and even a KKK racist in Mississippi Burning. He was even the teacher in Freaky Friday who fails poor Lindsay Lohan – before she went insane – over some years old grudge he holds against her mother.
But just because he’s been in so many different things doesn’t mean anybody knows his name. Like Michael Richards forever being identified as Kramer, Tobolowsky will forever be known not by his own name but by the name of his most famous role, that of Ned Ryerson. Needle-nose Ned! Ned the head! Ned. Ryerson! That’s right, it’s Tobolowsky that tries to sell Bill Murray insurance in Groundhog Day and who will forever be immortalized by his warning to “watch the first step, it’s a doozy!”
6. James Gandolfini
Movies can’t be made with only movie stars, they need character actors too. But that doesn’t mean a character actor can’t become a star in his own right, because James Gandolfini is proof that sometimes good things happen to those who wait.
Before The Soprano’s Gandolfini was known primarily for playing hired muscle, and to that end he took a corkscrew in the foot in True Romance, was a bodyguard in Get Shorty and the sleazy ‘talent’ scout for the snuff-film in 8mm. He also owed more than a little bit to John Travolta, having appeared in three of Travolta’s films before The Sopranos came along – he’s since added a fourth and fifth, the here-and-gone-in-a-blink, Lonely Hearts, and the more obvious, The Taking of the Pelham 123.
Somewhat sadly, while he’s well-known from his role as Tony Soprano, and is probably what you could call a star, this has not made him a bankable enough to actually open a movie on his own. Attempts to use him as a marketing ploy have largely failed, most notably the movie The Mexican, though one wonders how much he can be blamed when Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt couldn’t even open that film. Still, even if he’s a star with low wattage it’s great when he pops up in unexpected places, such as the voice of one of the wild things in the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are.
7. Charles Napier
The face is famous, even if his name’s not. With 190 credits on IMDB – including an appearance on Hogan’s Heroes – Charles Napier is incredibly recognizable and when you get that first look at him you know exactly what kind of character he plays. With broad shoulders, square jaw, and imposing, almost menacing, manner, he’s cut perfectly for cops or military officials. It’s no surprise that his two most familiar roles have him playing one of each. In Rambo: First Blood Part II he played Murdock, the man who sends Rambo to the jungle and later betrays him, and in Silence of the Lambs he plays Sgt. Boyle, the Memphis police officer that Hannibal Lecter kills after being removed from his mental hospital.
Though Napier tends to play some version of ‘the heavy’ it’s refreshing that lately he’s begun using his image as a comedic asset. Instead of playing only gruff and hard-edged over the past few years alone he’s branched out and managed to skewer himself quite nicely with appearances on The Simpsons and as a car salesman in The Goods.
Fun fact about Charles Napier: Most people know Roger Ebert only as a film critic but during the 70s he wrote three films for legendary exploitation filmmaker and jiggle-master, Russ Meyer. The first of their collaborations was Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which provided Napier with one of his earliest roles.
8. Jeremy Davies
Not all character actors have to be big, burly guys who specialize in playing thugs. Sometimes you need a good character actress like Jane Lynch to bring wit and subversive sex appeal. And sometimes all you need is a little, nervous, twitchy, introverted guy to bring that certain kind of energy to the proceedings. Other guys on this list are good at this kind of character too – I’m looking at you, Buscemi – and to some extent all character actors regularly visit this portion of their repertoire in their work, but when I want whacked out, greasy, stuttering, crazy-eyed nuttiness there’s only one choice: Jeremy Davies.
Though he made his breakthrough in 1994 with Spanking the Monkey, Davies hasn’t had the prominent career that many others have, racking up credit after credit. In fact, there’s something almost beautiful in his relative sparse listing of film and TV appearances, especially when one considers the disparate films he’s been in.
In Saving Private Ryan he watched a Nazi stab Adam Goldberg to death only to become the angel of death himself at the end; was the murderous clone of himself in Solaris; and inexplicably he was Twister with, of all people, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Some might argue that the perfect vehicle for Davies talents was his role as Charles Manson in the TV movie Helter Skelter but for me it’s in his collaborations with Lars Von Trier and Werner Herzog where he really shines. Davies is already known for playing a certain kind of crazy and in films directed by men who love a certain kind of crazy – Von Trier and Herzog – he takes his unhinged characters to new heights. And even when the movie stinks, whenever Davies comes twitching in, you know you’re going to be entertained for at least the few minutes he’s on screen.
9. Steve Buscemi
Steve Buscemi might not be the most well known of the actors on this list, but he’s probably the most accomplished. First, he’s a triple threat, having directed four films, including the critically adored Trees Lounge. Second, whereas some character actors are content with playing one type of role – Andy Devine basically made a career out of playing the loveable drunk – Buscemi cannot be easily reduced to a shtick. Indeed, he seems to have made a career as a character actor out of subverting expectations.
Consider, when Buscemi first came to prominence it was playing the weasely, hyperactive criminal scumbag Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs – his quintessential performance. After that, who would have expected him to show up as Donny, guy so quiet and unable to get a word in edgewise nobody really notices right away when he drops dead of a heart attack, in The Big Lebowski. Then, to follow this with a sensitive, thoughtful performance as the lonely, dweebish record collector in Ghost World, is just divine.
Buscemi has popped up in any number of places over the years. Imagine my surprise to realize he played Buddy Holly in Pulp Fiction, he too was on The Simpsons, or, when I sat down to watch Lonesome Dove, and there he was again. Even better, since he’s started to look a little grizzled lately this has given him a chance to branch out even further, especially is his turn as the creepy, strangely inappropriate and completely hilarious private investigator in a pair of episodes on 30 Rock.
10. Harvey Keitel
Harvey Keitel is another one of those guys that’s broken through and had fame – to a certain degree – though not enough to actually open a movie big. Early on he seemed to specialize in playing toughs and deadbeats, but he’s spent the last 35 years being in just about everything. He was there in the beginning with Scorsese, playing Jodi Foster’s pimp in Taxi Driver. He was fired from Apocalypse Now, was one of the duelists in The Duelists (one of my favorites), brought a certain something to The Piano, and had to drop out of Eyes Wide Shut for scheduling reasons. Despite being nowhere near conventional somehow or other he’s managed to make himself a star, whether the public cares or not.
While Keitel generally can’t open a movie himself he is at least well-known and has been known to use what fame he has to help out new filmmakers. It’s my contention that every day when Quentin Tarantino wakes up he should thank Harvey Keitel for ever agreeing to play Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs. While QT may have wound up making that film with or without Keitel, and may have still had a directing career, without Keitel’s early commitment and the money they were able to raise because of it, the movie would not have been nearly the same and the history of film would have been forever altered. If nothing else, it is that fact that should qualify Keitel for immortality.