Digital Polyphony

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Top 25: Great Character Actors

 

So what is a character actor? Well, that's a hard thing to pin down for some, and you'll find ever changing/ever evolving lists of such because actors are always changing/evolving themselves, but basically it boils down to actors who are often in supporting roles - rarely are they leading men or leading ladies, and often times they're put into a certain type of role over and over again. That's not always the exact case as many are just called upon for supporting roles to personify a character because they're great actors to pull it off, but even then those actors have something distinctly "them" in the process, whether it be how they look or how they act in certain roles. The former is more "typecast actor" than a "character actor," though they still count as character actors as well. Where would all those old westerns be without Gabby Hayes typecast as the crazy, hootin' n' hollerin' sidekick or babbling old town codger?

There's a lot of actors who make a fine living playing character and supporting roles, some might have even flirted with being a leading man here and there, though they far from are names to "open" a film as they say. I think that's a good way to determine who is a "lead" and who is a great supporting/character actor - if their names are at the top of a poster, will the vast majority of people know who they are? I know in my line of work, when discussing who might be good for what role, many on the list get marked off because they just aren't a "name" to carry something on their own, though they may be great actors in their own right.

So here's 25 amazing character actors. This isn't a finite list or anything of the sort, but 25 actors that you probably know and love yourselves, and I could have listed 25 more if I wanted (actually even more, you can them at the very end). So consider this a celebration, of sorts, of great actors (and one actress...female character actors are strangely rare) that you always know as "that guy" or always have an idea what to expect of them and what they bring. 


25: Alan Rickman

Often Cast As: A Villain 

 

Simply saying he's often cast as a villain is kind of pushing for Rickman, I should say. He's actually got a pretty wide range of roles. He's a great example of a character actor, though, because he's often cast into certain parts because of his ability to be distinguished with it: here that distinguishable aspect being his voice. Rickman's voice is just awesome, and it's no wonder he's so good in theatre and as villains because his delivery naturally compels you.

Movies to See: Die Hard, Dogma, the Harry Potter films, Galaxy Quest, Sense and Sensibility, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,


24: Ray Winstone

Often Cast As: A British Gangster

 

Sometimes, you're just damn good at what you do. Ray Winstone can shell out the intensity of an Englishman about as good as anyone and has really become a hell of an actor despite having a relatively low-key, filmography. But his ability to portray a tough/hard guy kind of has me labeling him as the English version of Harvey Keitel. You know what you're going to get when you cast him, and if cast just right he'll absolutely shine as shone in films like Sexy Beast and, recently, 44 Inch Chest.

He often has a beard for facial scruffiness, which makes this picture of him a strange choice by me but I like it. I suppose the touch edge of him is no surprise seeing as how, before he was an actor, he was an amateur boxer. He's pretty much this generation's Bob Hoskins only probably not yet big enough to headline and carry a film just yet like Bob could.

Movies to See: Sexy Beast, 44 Inch Chest, The Proposition, The Departed


23: Joe Pantoliano

Often Cast As: Either a criminal or an investigator's sidekick - he's best in crime genres.

He may not always choose the best films to be in, but Joey Pantoliano himself will at least be good in them.He's really one of those reliant character actors that simply just delivers what is asked of him.

"A character actor to me was someone who played a bunch of different roles versus a leading man or supporting actor, I wanted to be a character actor and do good parts. The guys that inspired me were Spencer Tracy, Robert Duvall, Albert Finney and Michael Caine, you, know, urban guys that came from the street. I just thought if they could do it, then so could I. They were the kinda guys who started out being the fourth guy through the door and then, at last, they get a line of dialogue." - Joey Pants

Movies to See: Memento, The Sopranos (TV), Bound, The Matrix


22: Harry Dean Stanton

Often Cast As: The casual, laid back guy. 

 

The first example on this list of a "that guy" character actor. Stanton's career is lenghty covering multiple decades and across a ton of films and television appearances. His body of work alone (well over 150 roles) gets him on any list of great character and supporting actors. He's quite versatile, but is noted mainly for his rather rugged and distinct, weather-beaten look and quiet, laid-back acting.

"I learn about myself. There is no self. You learn you're not a self. You learn you're nothing. Ultimately. Hopefully" - HDS

Movies to See: Paris Texas, Cool Hand Luke, Kelly's Heroes, Pretty in Pink


21: Dennis Hopper

Often Cast As: A man one step over the edge and with a screw loose

 

Though his career was often up and down, when Hopper got into a role, he absolutely delivered. A majority of his characters are...well...let's just say they're all rather troubled - Hopper himself noting his own personal troubles as pretty much the inspiration he drew from (and the man had plenty).

Hopper's recent passing really had people reflecting on his body of work and how it has really been taken for granted. True, not every film was great and after a while his villain roles began to repeat themselves, but the gems he had in there were really unforgettable and, often, the most memorable parts of the film he was in such as his brief appearance in True Romance or his iconic character Frank in Blue Velvet.

Movies to See: Speed, Blue Velvet, Hoosiers, True Romance


20: Vincent Schiavelli

Often Cast As: The confused guy. 

 

I remember watching Tomorrow Never Dies and thought that the man hired to kill James Bond looked familiar as he confront him in the hotel, probably the best scene in the entire film. "Isn't that the guy from Ghost?" As I got older, I saw Amadeus, and again I asked myself "Isn't that the guy from Ghost?"

Yes, it was, and Schiavelli is certainly "that guy." Schiavelli has a massive filmography to his name, but he shares a common film with many on this list: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, as the film that really put him on the map.Known for his droopy eyes and face, a guy that looks like he's tired but far from it, Schiavelli is really one of the most recognizable character actors out there...and there's a good chance few people even know his name. 

Movies to See: Ghost, Amadeus, Fast Times at Ridgemont Hig


19: Robert Shaw

Often Cast As: An intelligent and hard nosed villain.

 

"Quint" kind of says it all when discussing Robert Shaw, who brought to life one of the greatest characters in cinema history (and a role that was originally intended for another character actor, Sterling Hayden). Shaw, though, had himself a hell of a great career before his untimely passing in 1978. The 70s, in particular, really shaw Shaw come to fruition as a fantastic character actor, and often a villain such as Blue in The Taking of Pelham 123 and the mobster Lonnegan in The Sting.

His roles before that were still villainous as well, such as From Russia with Love where he really shone as one of the best Bond villains in the franchise and Col Hessler in Battle of the Bulge. His career well exceeds these classic roles, notably as a stage actor and novelist.

Movies to See: The Taking of Pelham 123, Jaws,  From Russia With Love, The Sting

 


18: James Cromwell

Often Cast As: Hmmmmm.....

 

He'll always be "Stretch" to me, but Cromwell has, especially in the latter part of his career, garned some fantastic roles. I wanted to say he's often cast as a "statesman" or a "villain" but then I think of his subtle, wonderful performance in Babe and it just throws it all out the window. Cromwell's characters, though, all have a calmness about them - an older man seemingly always contemplating and thinking, usually he plays someone in a position of power or someone trying to keep some sort of order.

Movies to See: LA Confidential, Babe, The Queen, Six Feet Under (TV), Star Trek First Contact


17: William Sanderson

Often Cast As: The dimwit.

 

Now I would have to assume most people know Mr. Sanderson like I do: as Larry the dimwitted matinenance man on Newhart for eight seasons. These days, though, you probably know him from True Blood or Deadwood, where he plays strikingly different characters and does it wonderfully. He has a certain delivery that makes him unique – a kind of “I’m sure” but with hesitation as he says it, or even confusion to cover his either ignorance of his malice depending on the character. 

His characters are always, seemingly, thinking a mile a minute. In Blade Runner, he as J.F. Sebastian shows a man just out of bounds of reality, but you never question his genius. In Deadwood, he was the villainous sort, though more for necessity than desire, and you always got the idea he was planning and scheming yet he delivered it as though he was ignorant and uncertain. Most recently in True Blood, he’s probably playing his most normal, down-to-earth character he’s played in some while. Like any good character actor, he does what is called of him, and he does it well.

Movies to See: Gods and Generals, Blade Runner, Deadwood (TV), True Blood (TV)
 


16: M. Emmett Walsh

Often Cast As: A little bit of everything, but often associated with a cop role. 

 

If we go by the "character actors often bring something unique and distinct that we identify them with" rule, M. Emmett is entirely about how he delivers dialogue. It's not his voice, really - he speaks quite normally, but it's how he uses it with lines. It's a little hard to explain, so here's a video with his distinctly acting.

Roger Ebert has a rule: if M. Emmett Walsh or Harry Dean Stanton, two incredibly prolific character actors, are ever in a film, the film has to have at least something going for it. That comment isn't necessarily about the quality of the film, one look at both actors' history and you can see not every film is a classic or even remotely good, but by having them in the film automatically gives it a better push and lifts it up at those points where a character actor can.

Movies to See: Blood Simple, Cannery Row, Ordinary People, Serpico


15: John Malkovich

Often Cast As: Whatever character needs a good voice and cold eyes (or himself)

 

A bit of an obvious choice, certainly. John Malkovich is, often, one of the first names people think of when they think of a character actor (or just great actor in general) Truth be told, Malkovich really doesn't do nearly as much film as he does theatre, but when he chooses a role it's more or less because John Malkovich is the only one that really could play it. He has this way and demeanor about him, as though he's nonchalant yet completely purposeful. Perhaps that's why he doesn't do a ton of roles - that certain angle and approach to a character doesn't come up too often. "I can make any character unlikeable," says Malkovich in an interview last year which also labeled him the "scariest character actor not in Hollywood."

Though he may not do a absolute ton of roles, especially in comparison to others on this list, you can pretty much bet Malkovich will be a name considered to play it if it suits is rather unique acting style.While not a great film, the first movie that probably comes up in many peoples' minds is Con Air. In fact, when someone even mentions that movie it's usually promptly followed by "Man, Malkovich was awesome in it." His characters are always commanding of whatever scenes they are in and his dialogue always intriguing, haunting and hypnotic even if the writing itself isn't particularly good - he'll still act like it's good and convince you completely. 

Movies to See: In the Line of Fire, Being John Malkovich,  Dangerous Liasons, Shadow of the Vampire, Burn After Reading


14: Sam Elliot

Often Cast As: The wise "stranger."

 

Well, not always a "stranger" necessarily, but always the guy that the main character will talk to at some point and usually have some sort of revelation after speaking to him. It's either Elliot's deep, southern-gentleman voice or his mustache, I don't know which. He's often cast as the wise character in some form - the man that brings things to light and clearly states what needs to be done. 

I first saw Elliot's take on this in the film Tombstone, as it turns out that's just one of many westerns he was in (many made for TV movie westerns) and he always has that tall, commanding look about him in each of them.

Movies to See: Tombstone, Road House, The Big Lebowski


13: Harvey Keitel

Often Cast As: The Tough /Determined Guy

 

Keitel started early as a leading man, and managed to shoehorn in a few nice indie movies here and there, but quickly, as in just a few films, began becoming cast as the tough guy. Or, rather, he's cast as the guy who absolutely commands a presence if not dominates the scene over the other characters. His characters are focused, purposeful and have a goal of something they want to get done. He used this element and his stern look incredibly well across the board, from gangsters to Judas, and you never want to make him angry.

Movies to See: Taxi Driver, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, The Last Temptation of Christ


12: Peter Lorre

Often Cast As: The villain, usually foreign.

 

Peter Lorre is an actor many, who don't watch old movies, might recognize as a caricature in a Looney Tunes cartoon than the gifted actor he really is. This was the "that guy" of his era. Everybody knew him, and everyone really loved him even if he seemed to always be the bad guy. He did have some hero roles here and there, though, and even did a series of Mr. Moto (a Charlie Chan knock-off) where he starred, but his roles in films like The Maltese Falcon, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Secret Agent established his distinct style and roles.

Lorre, though was a leading man initially and most notably in the film M, Fritz Lang's masterpiece that put Lorre on the map and his German acting career was taking off.,and Lorre smartly left and quickly found success thanks to guys like Hitchcock admiring him in M - and rightfully so seeing as how that M still stands as one of the great performances of all time. Then World War II happened, but he found a great niche in America.

Movies to See: M, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Maltese Falcon


11: Maggie Smith 

Often Cast As: An Upstanding Lady / Matriarch persona

 

Now most reading this probably know Dame Smith as Minerva McGonagall from the Harry Potter films. What some may not know as this two-time Oscar Winner, for decades upon decades, was one of the best character actors of all time. Like some others on this list, she began her career as a lead, but once her fame began to grow and notoriety with it (and began to emerge as a top talent out of Britain), she soon found herself sitting comfortably as a character actor, often in great ensemble character pieces like Death on the Nile, Murder by Death and even today with the Harry Potter films and Gosford Park, and found that quite lucarative, being nominated for her supporting roles across countless awards, from Oscars to BAFTAs (with a few lead roles here and there...to keep appearances, as you know).

Movies to See: A Room With a View, California Suite, Gosford Park, Othello


10: Forrest Whitaker

Often Cast As: A Calm, composed character with an edge and potential to explode.

 

I don't know of a single person that doesn't like Forrest Whitaker. Maybe it's his style and delivery, or the fact he just seems like a really nice guy even when he's playing an asshole. It's probably the fact that he smiles all the time too. Forrest first started his career with smaller bit parts in larger ensembles, such as Platoon, Good Morning, Vietnam and Fast times at Ridgemont High. Then he was cast in the lead in Bird as Charlie Parker which really put him on the map. He had some off-and-on lead roles here and there, but his strongest comes from his supporting roles, most recently his fantastic role on The Shield combined with his role in The Last King of Scotland where he pretty much reminded everyone why he is so damn good at what he does.

It's kind of debatable whether or not Whitaker can still be considered a "character actor." Fair enough, but I do....plus he's awesome and I wanted him on this list.

Movies to See: The Shield (TV), The Last King of Scotland, Bird, Ghost Dog, Species, 


9: Brad Dourif

Often Cast As: The creepy guy, usually a villain.

 

Dourif has been making movies since well before I was born, and like a few others on this list started getting noticed thanks to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (an ensemble full of young character actors like Christopher Lloyd, Danny Devito, Vincent Shiavelli). Like a lot of character actors, he's distinct in his physical appearance and often gets lost in whatever role is asked of him. Most know him lately from the Lord of the Rings films as Grima, our resident backstabber, and others might be familiar with his voice as Chucky from the Child's Play movies (including the remake in production - a smart choice for once). 

Movies to See: Lord of the Rings The Two Towers and Return of the King, Deadwood (TV), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next


9: Joe Pesci

Often Cast As: A loudmouth funnyman or a gangster (or both at once).

 

Though he had some nice leading man vehicles tailored specifically to him, Joe Pesci is always going to be known for his iconic characters that either would beat the hell out of someone as a gangster or make you laugh as a bumbling idiot. He just had both personas nailed perfectly across a slew of films and more than held his own against some powerhouse actors. On both takes, though, he exuded the unpredictable. You never knew what any of his characters were going to do before they did it, and often it would cause problems for whoever is playing the main character (usually it was De Niro). 

Movies to See: Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, Lethal Weapon 2, My Cousin Vinny 


7: Claude Rains

Often Cast As: A sophisticated, sometimes ambiguously moral man.

One of the finest British actors of his day, and even a leading man through some  of it, Raines, by the time he started to show up on American films, soon found himself situated as a fantastic character actor opposite the likes of Bogart, Grant and Stewart. His characters were all different yet similar - often ambiguous on intentions and morality and, in a few cases, difficult to sympathizes (such as Prince John opposite Errol Flyn's Robin Hood or The Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera). He had a nice handful of leading roles (notably The Invisible Man, his first major film role) but it was always in small character pieces of opposite the big stars he found himself. 

Movies to See: Casablanca, Notorious, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Skellington, 


6:  Christopher Walken

Often Cast As: The Speech maker

 

You know him, you better love him, Walken is always the guy to call if you need a character that has to tell a story or deliver a speech. "Delivery" is what he's best known for and in some cases many of his lines seem entirely geared for his ability as though the writers knew Walken would be cast. Walken's mystique, though, has probably surpassed his own filmography. His stints on Saturday Night Live showing the man can do humor and brief cameos in a slew of films always leaves people with grins. But he's also a hell of an actor with a surprisingly good amount of range such as the father in Catch Me if You Can, the paranoid psychic in The Dead Zone and the villain in the guilty pleasure, The Rundown. His best role was the one that got him the Oscar, though: The Deer Hunter. 

Movies to See: The Deer Hunter, Catch Me If You Can, The Rundown, The Dead Zone, Suicide Kings 


5: Paul Giamatti

Often Cast As: The intelligent, smart guy.

 

He wasn't named the "The World's Best Character Actor" by Time in 2005 for nothing. Despite some great, small indie film lead roles, Giamatti has always played magnificently in supporting positions. He's played the calm and subdued, the conniving and villainous and the eccentric and outgoing. He's often so perfect in his roles that he can overshadow the stars of the film, such as having the best scenes in Cinderella Man thanks to his performance and being the most memorable aspect of Shoot 'Em Up, both leading man vehicles for Russel Crowe and Clive Owen respectively. Most of his early films were merely bit parts but by the late 90s and early 2000s, he was making paths into more lucrative supporting roles. He's also a guy that could easily start being the big star and top-billed actor if he wanted to, but even after the success of Sideways and American Splendor, he went right back to some fantastic character roles with The Illusionist, Fred Claus (where he was a pretty damn good St. Nick, I thought) and The Last Station.

Movies to See: The Illusionist, Sideways, Cinderella Man, Man on the Moon, Shoot 'Em Up 


4: Steve Buscemi

Often Cast As: A quirky, smart guy with a mind just outside of reality.

I don't know anyone who doesn't like Steve Buscemi. His gawky look, rather unsettling grin and strangely-shaped skull brings thoughts of another great character actor: Peter Lorre. Buscemi always manages to steal the spotlight in his movies. Look at Reservior Dogs, an ensemble piece full of great actors, and who does everyone remember the most? Mr. Pink. Buscemi has a unique delivery of lines, usually full of energy which makes him a perfect fit for the likes of Tarantino dialogue or Coen Brothers quirkyness. He's shown a good amount of subtlety in his performances too, best seen recently in The Messenger and his guest stint on The Sopranos.

Movies to See:  Fargo, Reservoir Dogs, Armageddon, Ghost World, The Wedding Singer


3: John Turturro

Often Cast As: John Turturro (everything just has that "Turturro" spin)

 

Another Coen Brothers vet (in case you haven't noticed, they almost always work with an ensemble of great character actors with few star-focused films in their repertoire). Despite having a good fifty or so films over his career, to my knowledge Mr. Turturro has only one where he was billed as a lead (Barton Fink). Much like our number one, he seems pretty darn content playing the supporting role - which is good because he always delivers. He's a guy that knows his comfort zone and his capabilities, and a character actor is it and it's a badge that, I think, he bears proudly.

Movies to See: Miller's Crossing, Quiz Show, The Big Lebowoski, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Do the Right Thing 


2: Christopher Lloyd

Often Cast As: An eccentric. 

 

Talk about a staple in character actor history, Christopher Lloyd is really what it's all about. Not only did he give us some classic characters, he absolutely got lost in them, most notably Doc Brown from the Back to the Future films - an iconic performance if there ever was one. Lloyd, and this might sound familiar by now, really came on to the scene thanks to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but really became famous thanks to the long-running show Taxi. Ah, when sitcoms were worth a damn....

Movies to See: Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Addams Family


1: Gary Oldman

Often Cast As: Whatever Gary Oldman wants (but usually a villain or a man conflicted).

When looking to cast a specific type of character, studios have one of two choices

1) Compile a list of actors that often play such a role and would fit in

2) Just cast a damn good actor that can pull the character off. 

Gary Oldman is the second choice. Oldman is a guy that, should he desire to, be a full-on leading man. He's done some lead roles here and there, but a majority he's always been the bridesmaid, never the bride. He seems content in that, most recently in films like The Book of Eli and The Dark Knight. Oldman is, simply, one of the best actors living today. He has a motto of never playing the same character twice, always looking to challenge himself and test his abilities which makes it a little difficult to merely call him a "character actor," and he always delivers even when a movie itself may not; often he'll rise well above it in many cases and be the one good thing about it. 

Movies to See: Leon, The Fifth Element, Sid and Nancy, JFK, True Romance...ok everything the guy's goddamn brilliant.


Honorable Mention - Best Character Actor Turned Lead: We've seen a lot of character actors grow into lead actors, guys like John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Bob Hoskins I mentioned earlier, Michael Caine, Sam Rockwell recently, John Goodman especially, Ernest Borgnine, Don Cheadle (who is playing Miles Davis in an upcoming biopic...perfectly cast),and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. You know...you could easily add them to the above list also because some of their best roles came when they were pulling the character actor card. That and careers are ever-changing.

The best "character actor turned lead" though, no not Robert Duvall though that's a superb choice, has to go to Gene Hackman. Hackman's roles in The Hunting Party, I Never Sang for my Father and Bonnie and Clyde. Then he, rather quickly actually, showed his amazing range and soon began getting lead roles which he accepted with open arms. He was never a "good looking" guy, but looked like an everyday guy, yet still he was one of the great leading men in my eye and all thanks to the grunt work of working your way up that acting ladder. Some men and women never get that far, they're always "that guy" or perfectly happy with supporting roles but strong characters. Hackman and guys like him are, really, what acting is all about and a shining example of a terrific acting career - he just did his job, promoted his films, and happily went home at the end of the day. You never saw him with major controversies or in tabloids, save for one incident a few years ago where a driver with road rage instigated a fight with him and he returned the favors...a 60+ year old man that can still kick your ass, and you never saw him say anything bad about anything. Considering his tough upbringing and rather late entry into acting, it's surprising that he carried himself so damn well.

 


Wait, how did this turn into a Gene Hackman tribute? Then again, maybe I'm putting him on here solely for selfish reasons seeing as he's a personal favorite and, on top of it all, quietly retired earlier this year from acting and he deserves a damn tribute.

 For another great list of character actors, this blog covers even more!

As does this one!

Oh hell...here's just a massively insane list.

You'll notice similarities, differences and the like, but either way it's all a celebration of wonderful actors, so list your own as well. But seeing as how I can't put everyone on a list, and I left off some personal favorites on top of it all (David, Trejo, Hom, Ironside), here's just a whole list of more great ones that were very much considered:

 ----

More Great Character Actors: Dan Hedeya, JK Simmons, Robert Davi, Keith David, Danny Trejo, William Sadler, William Forsythe, William Atherton, Jon Polito, Dianne Weist, Tim Curry, Tom Wilkinson, Michael Ironside, Alan Alda, John Rhys Davies, Jeremy Davies, Brion James, David Morse, William Fichtner, Ronny Cox, Jeffrey Jones, Edie McClurg (had to put her next to Jones), Leo G. Carroll, Barry Pepper, Joan Allen, John Lithgow, Denholm Elliot, Jane Lynch, Sydney Greenstreet, Stephen Root, Paul Winfield, Joan Marshall, Hattie McDaniel, Fred Willard, Gabby Hayes, Ron Silver, Vera Miles, Richard Kind, Charles Napier, Colm Feore, Jonathan Harris, Roscoe Lee Browne,Clint Howard, Sam Rockwell, Brian Cox, Lane Smith, James Rebhorn, Daniel Stern, Richard Farnsworth, Peter Stormare, Crispin Glover, Iam Holm, Sterling Hayden, Ron Pearlman, Patricia Clarkson, Ned Beatty,

 

 

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