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February 20, 2007 |

By Daniel Carlson | Guides | February 20, 2007 |

I’ve always loved the details in movies, those recurring little patterns or attention to the corners that give the experience a whole other level. Growing up, my best friend and I were united through movies, and our version of currency in this bankrupt world was traded in obscure knowledge of below-the-line crew and, more importantly, character actors. I don’t mean the kind of male stars who play unique characters instead of more conventional leads, e.g., Samuel L. Jackson. I mean the guys who played nothing but character roles and hovered below the public radar. We came of age on names like John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, William H. Macy, Sam Rockwell. One of the reasons we loved The Limey so much was because it had Luis Guzman. And then there’s Safe Men, which had the awesome confluence of Giamatti, Rockwell, Mark Ruffalo, and Steve Zahn.

But those are all actors who have crossed over into the mainstream since their inauspicious debuts. Giamatti and Reilly have been nominated for Oscars; Hoffman has won one; Macy is a member of Filliam H. Muffman. They’re still fantastic performers who take on roles different from more typical leading men, but they’re too big now. The purpose of this list is to highlight and celebrate those actors whose lengthy careers seem to far outweigh their public identity, who keep churning out dependable performances in a variety of roles that, thanks to their skill, rise above the level of rote and take on a small but vibrant life of their own. Studying character actors, several things start to pop out, including the paradoxical nature of typecasting: Each of the performers inevitably lucks into that career-defining role that both provides them with the ability to keep working but also unfortunately limits them to a narrow range of parts. Another is noticing the patterns in appearances that crop up over time. It seems like everyone passed through “Law & Order” at one time or another, or “The X-Files,” or “The West Wing,” or “Seinfeld,” or even “Crime Story.” And while long-running TV series are clearinghouses for those actors with the familiar faces but forgettable names, movies provide opportunities for groups of those same actors to breeze in and out again. Sure, it’s probably not worth knowing that the same guy played the unwilling sales target in Glengarry Glen Ross and the psychiatrist in Matchstick Men. Or that the same guy played a security chief in Sneakers and Jonathan Kent on “Lois & Clark.” But these performers are the glue of the medium, holding everything together and sometimes — many times — more interesting than the rest of the film. And when two or more character actors manage to converge in a movie or TV show, it provides a glistening little moment of frisson to see those nameless faces reunite.

Culling the list to just 13 names was a difficult task, and I decided to stick with male performers for the sake of convenience. Sorry, Ileanna Douglas. (Readers should feel free to burn me in effigy for my wanton sexism, or just, you know, get over it.) I also had to pass on such heavy hitters as Harris Yulin (Ghostbusters, The Hurricane, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Fred Thompson (The Hunt for Red October, Die Hard 2, “Law & Order: Every Stinkin’ One of Them”), and Will Patton (Armageddon, Remember the Titans). If I have sinned against you and the house of your father by not including your favorite character actor, throw it in the comment section. There are dozens of them, all worth knowing about, but here are the cream of the crop:

rebhorn_mug.jpg James Rebhorn — The Suit
James Rebhorn has made a career out of playing smarmy men in ties. His most recognizable role is also his most definitive, as the duplicitous secretary of defense in Independence Day. (For starters, he had to pretend that Bill Pullman was believable as a fighter-pilot-turned-president, which should have at least gotten Rebhorn an Oscar. At least.) Rebhorn’s success is due in part to the fact that he’s appeared in so many films, averaging two to four appearances a year for most of the 1990s. He’s always slightly dickish, but never overtly cruel; he’s tough enough to stand up in Basic Instinct and Carlito’s Way, but he also appeared on “The Adventures of Pete & Pete.” Rebhorn excels at playing the charming but shifty businessman, perhaps best seen in The Game. He plays the frontman for CRS, the organization hired to inject a little life-threatening fun into the existence of Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), but Nick learns the truth when he sees Rebhorn on a TV commercial. A character actor playing a character actor; it doesn’t get much better than that.

walsh_mug.jpg J.T. Walsh — The Authority Figure
The late, great J.T. Walsh was one of the best character actors of all time because of his ability to always create a specific and believable screen presence. A variety of bit parts in the 1980s led to bigger supporting roles in the ’90s, and Walsh was usually typecast as a morally dubious leader of men, as seen in Good Morning Vietnam, Backdraft, and his most recognizable role, Lieutenant Colonel Markinson in 1992’s A Few Good Men. As Markinson, Walsh was both a convincing officer and a pitiable worm, worn down by his complicity in the sad goings-on at Guantanamo Bay, and it wasn’t too surprising to see the character eat his gun. Walsh’s roles for the rest of his life were of varying size and quality, but he went out on a high, as the control-crazed mayor of Pleasantville. He could be thoroughly likable and completely untrustworthy at the same time, which is no small feat.

katt_mug.png Nicky Katt — The Punk
I first saw Nicky Katt in Dazed and Confused, but I first noticed him in The Limey, where he played a crass, cocky thug who absolutely stole every one of his scenes. He’s got the kind of generic handsomeness that dooms him to blending in with groups of men his age whenever he’s cast in ensembles, as happened in Boiler Room and Rules of Engagement. He was virtually unrecognizable as a punk in School of Rock and a weird pseudo-Nazi thug in Sin City, but that’s what makes him a true character actor: He’s always entertaining, but his appearance is so malleable that he never upstages the action around him. He’s just consistently great at what he does. In The Limey, while Terence Stamp was busy killing and Peter Fonda was mugging for the camera like the washed-up celebrity he was actually playing, Katt was calmly working the background, and he gave a unique life to his part of the story. Plus he’s hilarious and crude. Sometimes you just can’t beat that.

ivanek_mug.jpg Zeljko Ivanek — The Lawyer
In the shadowy brotherhood of character actors, Zeljko Ivanek could be James Cromwell’s cousin. He’s almost always fastidiously attired in a suit and tie, and often plays lawyers or other blandly respectable professional men. As is often the case with character actors, he’s defined by one of his first major roles: His nuanced turn as ASA Ed Danvers on “Homicide: Life on the Street” was fantastic and charted the course for the rest of his career. If he’s not a lawyer, he’s a cop or a doctor, as seen in everything from Donnie Brasco (fed) to A Civil Action (lawyer) to Dancer in the Dark (lawyer) to Unfaithful (cop). He showed up briefly on “The West Wing” as it was transitioning from its era of Sorkinian wonder to Wellsian torpor, and he even showed up in the first season of “24,” and just the other day he appeared on “Lost.” If you need a go-to actor with strong dramatic chops to browbeat a defendant, Zeljko’s your man.

gainey1.jpg M.C. Gainey — The Redneck
M.C. Gainey has been working steadily for more than 25 years, but he’s only graduated from a string of anonymous TV appearances to supporting roles with actual names since the early ’90s (though he did play “Unafraid Miner” in 1993’s questionable Geronimo: An American Legend). After having his Southern edge completely dulled for a turn in The Mighty Ducks, the Mississippi native came into his own as Swamp Thing in the brain-rotting, fire-filled unintentional comedy of Con Air. He was a grizzled, grinning redneck, both completely insane and completely OK with it. Every role since then has been a version or extension of that one, from his work as Zeke/Tom/Mr. Friendly/Pick A Creepy Nickname on “Lost” to a highway patrolman in The Cooler to Rosco P. Coltrane in the ill-advised remake of The Dukes of Hazzard. But his best performance may well be as an angry, aggressive husband in Sideways, Alexander Payne’s loving little ode to lonely bitter men in Southern California. Watching him have angry sex with his wife is Payne’s little jab at red-state America — there’s a TV in the bedroom playing what appears to be B-roll of Bush and Rumsfeld while the couple screws in the foreground — and Gainey brings the perfect mix of biker machismo and barely concealed mental instability. Plus, it’s just a hilarious scene. Ironically enough, Gainey is only credited in the film as “Cammi’s Husband”; maybe he hasn’t come too far from his roots after all.

morse_mug.jpeg David Morse — The Strong, Potentially Deadly Father
David Morse tends to play the kind of likable guy who would break someone’s legs for screwing with his family. He wouldn’t be happy about it, and he probably wouldn’t even enjoy it, but he’d still trot out the ol’ Louisville Slugger and go to town if you hurt those precious to him. Morse has an easy voice and pleasant demeanor, which makes him stand out in his roles, whether it’s the reluctant terrorist commando of The Rock or the loving dad in Contact or even Brutus Howell in The Green Mile. But it’s his coiled, energetic performance in Down in the Valley that fully captures Morse’s ability to play the overly protective caregiver. He competes for the love of his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), who’s infatuated with her unstable new boyfriend (Edward Norton), and Morse has the skill to keep the character from simply becoming a blindly screaming and domineering patriarch. There’s a desperation in his love for his daughter that drives his actions, and it makes the coming violence sadly predictable.

sadler_mug.png William Sadler — The All-American
Everybody knows William Sadler, but they don’t know it. And it’s not his portrayal of Death in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey that’s endeared him to us, either. No, Sadler is best known as Heywood in The Shawshank Redemption, which is easily Frank Darabont’s best Depression-era movie set in a prison and based on a Stephen King story. Sadler’s from New York, but he’s got this corn-fed Midwestern vibe that makes him the perfect Everyman, believable as everything from a villain (Die Hard 2) to law enforcement (“Roswell”) to an ordinary, nerdy father (“Wonderfalls”). He’s perfect as Heywood, a mix of protective aggression and surprising sweetness and humor. He works a slow transformation in Shawshank, going from one of the inmates who mock Andy Dufresne to eventually warming to him and later sharing warmly in the stories of the time they served together. Sadler keeps working because he’s an easily accessible, interchangeable American man, and he makes it look easy.

logue_mug.png Donal Logue — The Schmo
If memory serves, the first thing I saw Donal Logue in was Sneakers, a classic guilty pleasure of early-’90s cinema that features David Strathairn playing a blind guy and a pre-death River Phoenix, as well as Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier doing buddy comedy. Plus it’s got Eddie Jones, another great character actor. Anyway, Logue played a weird, smarmy mathematician about as far as possible from the lovable schlub roles he would later inhabit. He was always the scruffy sidekick, appearing in the corners of films like Disclosure and Jerry Maguire, but it was as the husky lothario Dex in The Tao of Steve that Logue came into his own as a character performer. The Tao of Steve is a breezy, sweet little romantic comedy that’s completely carried by Logue’s performance, and he’s been playing the same kind of scruffy good-times sidekick ever since. Not even his leading turn on “Grounded for Life,” which ran for an astonishing/disturbing 90 episodes, has elevated his profile. But for that, I’m selfishly grateful: This way he’ll keep on doing stellar supporting work that makes otherwise intolerable films that much more survivable.

polito_mug.jpg Jon Polito — The Greasy Gunman
Good grief, Jon Polito has been in everything. From Silvio the landlord in the reverse-peephole episode of “Seinfeld,” to detectives on both “Homicide: Life on the Street” (with fellow listee Zeljko Ivanek) and “Crime Story” (with listee Michael Rooker), all the way through Flags of Our Fathers, with hundreds of film and TV stops in between, Polito has been everywhere. Everywhere. But it’s his roles in a series of Coen brothers films that have been some of his most memorable character creations. Polito often plays a slimy character with vague underworld overtones, as in the stellar Miller’s Crossing, where he plays Johnny Caspar and gives a wonderful little soliloquy about “character” and “ethics.” Polito was only 40 when he took on the role of Caspar, originally written as a man in his mid-50s, but his mix of anger and self-pity turned the character into something both charismatic and vaguely unsettling. He’s strong enough to yield the spotlight to the rest of the ensemble in whatever he does, and that only makes him more watchable.

jacott_mug.jpg Carlos Jacott — The Bumbling Friend
Carlos Jacott is a master of low-key, rapid-fire humor that relies on physical grace and facial expressions to land the joke. He made his screen debut as Otis in Kicking and Screaming, Noah Baumbach’s first (and greatest) film, and every role since than has been influenced to some degree by that one. His manner is completely unassuming and thoroughly genial, and it allows him to get away with a little more flourish than another character in the same situation (though there’s really only so much any man can do with “She Spies”). As one of the two staff writers who exit in revolt on “Studio 60,” Jacott was easily the more human, relatable of the pair, miles away from Evan Handler’s creepy, angry little pissant of a writer. But oh, Otis: I laugh every time. Baumbach’s ode to twentysomething ennui is beautiful and sad and just about the most wonderful way there is to break your heart, but it’s almost as if Jacott, along with Chris Eigeman, is existing in another movie entirely from the main story, which involves a boy and a girl and a whole lot of angst. Jacott is clumsy and aloof and lightning-quick when riffing with Eigeman, and steals every scene he’s in. It’s brilliant.

tobolowsky_mug.jpg Stephen Tobolowsky — The Geek
Has there ever been a better geek that Stephen Tobolowsky? He’s made a stellar career out of playing the kind of socially retarded nerd you’d assume him to be by glancing at his mug shot, and he’s used that kind of superficial prejudice to his advantage. He’s great as a toy-designing nerd who likes Chinese food in Sneakers (sadly, he never shares the screen with Donal Logue), playing the role of hapless loser to the hilt. He’s best known for playing Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day, the annoying insurance salesman who keeps pestering Bill Murray. He’s quirky, somewhat dim, and the kind of guy who doesn’t know he’s been put on this planet to be an irritant to others, but Tobolowsky’s so harmless and even lovable that his characters are more amusing than annoying. His resume is sprinkled with films that are, say, less than choice — The Glimmer Man comes sadly to mind — but it doesn’t matter. No one plays Tobolowsky like Tobolowsky.

stormare_mug.jpg Peter Stormare — The Thug
You’ve seen him. Trust me. And I don’t just mean as the head engineer on the series of VW “Unpimp My Ride” ads. The Swedish Stormare is best known for playing quirky foreigners. He shares a connection to Polito through the Coen brothers and Jerry Seinfeld; Stormare was the head nihilist in The Big Lebowski, as well as Slippery Pete the electrician on the fantastic “Seinfeld” episode where George wanted to save his Frogger score on an aging arcade machine. Much as Jean Reno has become Hollywood’s default Frenchman, Stormare has become the reliable European of All Trades, from the Russian cosmonaut in Armageddon to snuff-porn director Dino Velvet in 8MM. He was even Satan himself in Constantine, which makes an odd kind of sense: He’s foreign, but still white; unnerving, but still somehow human; male. But Stormare isn’t a thug. There’s always a comedic undertone to his roles, as if he could never actually hurt you, just embarrass himself in the process. Like the nihilist dismissed as a coward by Walter Sobchak in Lebowski, Stormare excels at violence tempered with goofiness. Just watch Fargo to see what I mean.

rooker_mug.jpgMichael Rooker — The Guy Who Will Freak Out And Kill You
Has there even been a role that Michael Rooker hasn’t made inherently creepier by his presence? The doomed lieutenant in “Crime Story”; the terrifying racist in Mississippi Burning; the abusive ex in Sea of Love; even Claire Forlani’s dad in Mallrats. The list goes on and on. Rooker is the consummate nutcase, that guy who’s managed to avoid prison and psychiatric institutions and carved out a horrible little place in society for himself. He always seems about to jump right over the table and attack you without provocation. He deserves special recognition for combining screen charisma and extreme discomfort into one quivering form, as he did in Slither, playing the alien-possessed Grant Grant. He seduces and then impregnates one of the women in his small town, and though the scene would be eerie no matter who was playing the role, Rooker’s queasy, violent sexuality makes the scene infinitely more frightening. If you’re still not convinced, just rent Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. And try to sleep.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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