Character Actors

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Character Actors


In the casting hierarchy of most films leading men and leading ladies are at the top, followed by actors who populate the cast by colorfully but realistically embodying a range of characters. In films and television virtually all actors below the rank of star and above bit players are supporting actors, although not necessarily all are character actors. The term is ambiguous: to many it is an honor to be called a character actor, as it suggests fully developed skills that enable the actor to play almost any part within limits. It also suggests experience and seasoning, often on stage, film, and television, as in the phrase, "veteran character actor." But to others, it seems a slight, a designation of subordinate rank.

Moreover, the terms "character actor" and "supporting actor" are often confused with each other, although there are clear distinctions between them. A supporting actor plays a role subsidiary to the leads in terms of narrative centrality and screen time. Throughout film history many actors being groomed for stardom, or those who just miss out on the star rank, have played supporting parts, including Macdonald Carey (1913–1994) in Shadow of a Doubt (1943); Teresa Wright (1918–2005) in Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Best Years of Our Lives (1946); Gig Young (1913–1978) in Teacher's Pet (1958); Tony Randall (1920–2004) in Pillow Talk (1959); Colin Farrell (b. 1976) in Minority Report (2002); Alec Baldwin (b. 1958) in Pearl Harbor (2001) and The Aviator (2004). These are lead types in supporting roles. Yet within some films there is no question that the actors are character actors—Thelma Ritter (1905–1969) in Pillow Talk, and Patricia Collinge (1892–1974), Henry Travers (1874–1965), Hume Cronyn (1911–2003), and Wallace Ford (1898–1966) in Shadow of a Doubt. The actors are marked by the eccentricity of their appearances and voices and by the fact that compared to those in the first list they have played a wide range of characters in a great many films. The character actor usually possesses ordinary, though distinctive, looks and is marked by the ability to transform into such a variety of characters that the character in each film, not the actor (or the actor's own personality), predominates. This is why audiences often recognize character actors without being able to name them, a "problem" that Tony Randall probably never had. However, the film industry does need star character actors for lead roles in some films, such as Lon Chaney (1883–1930) or Charles Laughton (1899–1962) as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923, 1939), David Strathairn (b. 1949) as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), or Philip Seymour Hoffman (b. 1967) as Truman Capote in Capote (2005). The 2005 Academy Awards® played out a full role reversal, with George Clooney (b. 1961), a classic leading man type, winning Supporting Actor (for Syriana, 2005), and Philip Seymour Hoffman, a prototypical character actor, generally in supporting roles, winning Best Actor, for Capote.


The star system that developed in the early decades of the film industry prized certain highly photogenic men and women of great physical beauty and charisma. Yet early on, the public also took to its heart actors who were not so much personalities as chameleons capable of creating a range of characters. In the 1920s, Lon Chaney, "The Man with the Thousand Faces," intrigued audiences just as much as Greta Garbo or Rudolph Valentino. The public also embraced actors who looked like people they might know in life, especially after the coming of sound brought scores of stage actors before the cameras and a more realistic aesthetic to the cinema. The top box-office star for two years in the early 1930s was Marie Dressler (1868–1934), an earthy and homely actress in her sixties. Also during the early talkie era, when acting experience seemed briefly to matter more than looks, the Academy Awards® for Best Actor went to the elderly thespian George Arliss (1868–1946) and to such expressive but physically ungainly talents as Wallace Beery (1885–1949) and Charles Laughton. Even the matinee idol Fredric March (1897–1975) tied with Beery for the 1931–1932 Best Actor award by playing leading man and character actor in a single film: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Therefore, when journalistic accounts of the late 1960s and early 1970s tried to describe such unglamorous lead actors as Dustin Hoffman (b. 1937), Gene Hackman (b. 1930), and Al Pacino (b. 1940) as examples of the "character actor as star," the idea was not new. Yet it always seems exceptional, especially after several decades of the studio system when glamorous stars were backed up by platoons of ordinary looking but prodigiously talented actors and actresses. Comparing the making of a film to the building of a table, director Frank Capra (1897–1991) said, "On the top of my table, which is bright and shiny, I have these lovely dolls that are my leading actors and actresses. But it is not a table until I put legs under it, and those are my character people. That's what holds my picture up" (Davis, The Glamour Factory, pp. 122–123).

During the studio era, the appearance of certain character actors was as much a mark of high-quality moviemaking as lavish production values or prestigious story properties. Some character players were as identified with a single studio as the stars were. Peter Lorre (1904–1964) or Sidney Greenstreet (1879–1954), inevitably meant that the movie they were in was from Warner Bros.; the appearance (except when they were loaned out) of Jane Darwell (1879–1967), Celeste Holm (b. 1919), or Charles Coburn (1877–1961) meant Twentieth Century Fox; Frank Morgan (1890–1949) or Louis Calhern (1895–1956) signaled an MGM picture. Others showed up in the films of any number of production companies in a single year. These were the actors like Porter Hall (1888–1953), Beulah Bondi (1888–1981), Gene Lockhart (1891–1957), and Henry Travers (1874–1965) who appeared in film after film in the studio period but were not tied to a particular studio. Other national cinemas had essential "character people" as well. The French films of the 1930s are as unimaginable without such stalwarts as Jules Berry (1883–1951) or Marcel Dalio (1900–1983) (who later worked extensively in Hollywood) as American films would be without Eve Arden (1908–1990) or Edward Everett Horton (1886–1970).

Examples of the value of character actors are legion. In 1939, when Hollywood produced an unparalleled number of classic films, half of them seemed to feature Thomas Mitchell (1892–1962), who played prominent roles that year in Stagecoach, Gone with the Wind, Only Angels Have Wings, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Despite his seemingly ubiquitous presence in films throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Mitchell, like other Hollywood character actors, returned periodically to the stage; in the 1950s he also became a fixture of TV drama anthology programs, live or filmed, leading the parade of actors below the star-level who streamed from the fading movie studios to the opportunities offered by the new medium.

As an example of the importance of character actors to the texture, rhythm, and drama of a film, consider High Noon (1952), a movie made in the first days of independent production in the early 1950s but with a cast seasoned in the studios. Known for its elegance of design, this suspenseful western told in real time won a Best Actor Oscar® for Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane, and also offered opportunities for a range of character actors to show their stuff. These included not only Thomas Mitchell and other familiar faces such as Otto Kruger (1885–1974), Lon Chaney Jr. (1906–1973), and Harry Morgan (b. 1915), but young actors Lloyd Bridges (1913–1998) and Lee Van Cleef (1925–1989), who had been stuck in B movies; the Mexican-born actress Katy Jurado (1924–2002), typed in ethnic parts; a theningenue, Grace Kelly (1929–1982); and a young Jack Elam (1918–2003), who would put in a memorable turn years later in a High Noon pastiche, C'era una volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968). The compulsory narrative economy that the film calls attention to by its very structure requires each of the actors to establish character briskly.

The ensemble of High Noon does what the casts of all films do, except that the limited place and time setting—a small frontier town between 10:32 and 12:00 on a Sunday morning in the early 1890s—throws the ensemble as an ensemble into unusually vivid relief. The way the characters, one by one, refuse the marshal's request for help turns the spotlight onto even the smallest speaking part. By a slight swagger, Lloyd Bridges establishes his character as brash, ambitious, and essentially selfish—"too young," as Kane tells him. Jurado needs to convey strength and intelligence, and she manages to do so, while not entirely succeeding in throwing off the "hot-blooded Latina" stereotype the film imposes upon her. In a scene in which she curtly and abruptly dismisses Harvey (Bridges), her current lover, she has to turn convincingly from mocking but affectionate laughter and humor to anger and indignation. A movie in which most of the characters except the hero and heroine become unsympathetic, High Noon creates a number of types familiar from westerns, and then works against their usual meanings. Costuming and makeup have a great deal to do with the performances. The saloon-keeper (Lucien Prival, 1900–1994), for instance, is typed as a dude, with slicked-back hair, a moustache, white shirt and bowtie, and a corset pulled over his bicep. This complements the character, who is written as a smooth, complacent loudmouth.

Authoritative actors like Kruger and Mitchell, as the judge and the mayor, respectively, play their accustomed roles, only in a place where authority is being abandoned, replaced by expediency and complacency. Mitchell, who frequently played bloviating orators and other long-winded types, is in the background through most of the film, but emerges at the climax of the long church scene to give a lengthy, prevaricating speech. The mayor's address starts out seemingly in support of the marshal but ends up naming Kane as the cause of the impending trouble. He urges Kane to flee in the hopes that if the killers do not find their target, they will quietly leave town. Mitchell speaks in a steady, practiced and confident rhythm and cadence that belies the mayor's cowardly, head-in-the-sand attitude. Moreover, Mitchell's speech enhances Gary Cooper's performance and increases the audience's identification with the character Cooper plays. Kane is waiting for his friend the mayor to begin urging the men to join him in confronting the threat to their town; reaction shots to Cooper emphasize his dismay at the failure of people he trusts to do what he, Kane, sees as obviously right. When Mitchell gets to the payoff of his speech, he intones the lines, "You better get out of town, Will, while there's still time," with a "we care about you" empathy that proves false when he reaches the end: "It's better for you"—pause—"and it's better for us," the hardness and quickness of his delivery of the last line leaving no doubt as to the betrayal it signifies.

b. Tenafly, New Jersey, 28 November 1950

Prominent American character actor, a frequent presence in films of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, Ed Harris is a slight, wiry fair-haired man with liquid grey eyes and a resonant baritone voice. He may be as well-known to moviegoers as the biggest stars, occasionally playing leads but usually taking well-chosen supporting parts. In many of his films Harris has but a handful of scenes, yet his character is the one viewers often remember.

Harris is a chameleon, convincing as a Nazi assassin in one film (Enemy at the Gates, 2001), a comically befuddled military base commander in another (Buffalo Soldiers, 2001), a hard-nosed CIA-type in a third (A Beautiful Mind, 2001), a kindly small town football coach in a fourth (Radio, 2003). However, he rarely alters his physical appearance, seldom covering his bald head with any kind of hairpiece except when he has to resemble an actual person (as, for example, head of NASA Mission Control Gene Kranz in Apollo 13, 1995). And while he may have become identified with authoritarian roles of a military and/or national security bent, he is equally convincing playing the rowdy husband of country singer Patsy Cline (Sweet Dreams, 1985), a poet dying of AIDS (The Hours, 2002), or one of the predatory salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross, 1992). He is reminiscent of the best character actors of the Hollywood classical era. Like Thomas Mitchell, Claude Rains, and Arthur Kennedy, he can create a character who is villainous or sympathetic, authoritative or pitiful, seemingly by making a few slight adjustments to his gaze, posture, walk, and diction.

Harris studied theater at the University of Oklahoma and began his professional career in commercials and TV series guest spots before being cast in Knightriders (1981) and Creepshow (1982) by horror cult film director George Romero. Harris's breakthrough came in The Right Stuff (1983), in which he gave a spot-on portrayal of astronaut John Glenn, imbuing him with a touch of messianic self-delusion. Also in 1983, he made his New York stage debut in Sam Shepard's Fool for Love, for which he won an Obie.

Harris has received four Academy Award® nominations as of 2004, three of them for Best Supporting Actor. His career peak to date came in 2000 when he portrayed the painter Jackson Pollock in a dream project that also marked his directorial debut and brought him an Academy Award® nomination for Best Actor. As with many male character actors, advancing age has been good to Harris, with wrinkles and lines enhancing his aura of authority, and increased gravel in his already rich voice intensifying the sense of life experience.


The Right Stuff (1983), Under Fire (1983), Walker (1987), The Abyss (1989), State of Grace (1990), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Apollo 13 (1995), Nixon (1995), The Truman Show (1998), Pollock (2000), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Radio (2003), A History of Violence (2005)


Fein, Esther B. "Shaking a Hero Image." The New York Times. 22 July 1985: C13.

Harrison, Helen A. "Recreating Pollock, Gingerly." The New York Times. 16 February 2001: E1.

Kimmelman, Michael. "Frame by Frame, an Action Film Dripping with Art." The New York Times. 10 December 2000: AR15.

Dennis Bingham

Mitchell usually played weary authority figures, flawed and alcoholic, like Doc Boone in Stagecoach or Diz, the hard-bitten newspaperman in Mr. Smith, or beloved and benign like Pa O'Hara in Gone with the Wind or the ineffectual Uncle Billy in It's a Wonderful Life (1946). While Mitchell could also infuse competent, efficient functionaries like Tumulty, Wilson's political aide and White House Chief of Staff in Wilson (1944), Darryl Zanuck's gargantuan biopic of Woodrow Wilson, with an air of blarney and drunken Irish charm, a stereotype was never far from any of Mitchell's portrayals. Like most character actors of his era, Mitchell played types, but in a system that counted on actors to invest their

types with individuality and humanity, making them into differentiated characters.


Although character actors as a group are associated with the studio period, they are also valued in the New Hollywood. In the more naturalistic context of film acting since the 1960s, the ordinariness of character actors is their stock in trade, belying though it does their idiosyncrasy and frequently their range. In one evening at the movies in September 1979 Charles Durning (b. 1923) was seen in Starting Over, a film then being sneak-previewed; in North Dallas Forty, the theater's regular feature; and in the coming-attractions trailer for yet a third movie, When a Stranger Calls. Continuing this cyclical, generational theme, in 2002 John C. Reilly (b. 1965), the kind of supporting actor, who, like Mitchell and Durning, is called "dependable" by reviewers, had featured roles in three of the five Academy Award® nominees for Best Picture: Chicago, The Hours, and Gangs of New York. The year before, Jim Broadbent (b. 1951), a "reliable" British character actor, had played key roles alongside three of the Best Actress nominees, Judi Dench (b. 1934) in Iris, Nicole Kidman (b. 1967) in Moulin Rouge, and Renee Zellweger (b. 1969) in Bridget Jones's Diary. After all this fine support, the least the Academy could do was name Broadbent the year's Best Supporting Actor, which it did, for Iris. After films made them known, Durning, Reilly, and Broadbent all found on the stage, where each of them started, a fount of lead roles. Furthermore, Durning, a veteran of D-Day who continued to maintain a full work schedule in his eighties, also found television to be a steadier source of meaty roles than the movies, just as Thomas Mitchell had five decades before.

Very occasionally, actors have broken through to lead roles and stardom after years of character parts: examples are Walter Matthau (1920–2000), Lee Marvin (1924–1987), Tommy Lee Jones (b. 1946), Morgan Freeman (b. 1937), and Paul Giamatti (b. 1967). Others, such as Claude Rains (1899–1967), Kathy Bates (b. 1948), Mary Steenburgen (b. 1953), John Heard (b. 1946), Alfre Woodard (b. 1952), Ed Harris (b. 1950), and Jon Voight (b. 1938), receded into character roles after taking a run at stardom. Women, in the gender caste system of Hollywood, are more likely than men to fall from lead roles to character parts after age forty, and are much more likely to find work on television than in films.

Character actors, unlike some stars, are usually equally adept at drama and comedy. The same qualities that make these actors effective as menacing heavies or pathetic victims can render them comic as well. For example, Durning, a skilled farceur, started in films playing tough cops and other gruff professionals in The Sting (1973), The Front Page (1974), The Hindenburg (1975), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and others. A former hoofer, Durning was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, the only nomination accorded the musical comedy Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), in which he appeared in a single scene as a prevaricating singing governor in a show-stopping number, "Sidestep." The same year he conveyed ardor, hurt feelings, and embarrassment, all with delicate comic timing, as a would-be suitor to Dustin Hoffman-in-drag in Tootsie. Years later he played broad comedy in two Joel and Ethan Coen pastiches, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) (as another dancing governor), which pay homage to the breakneck comedies of Capra and Preston Sturges (1898–1959) with their large retinues of character actors (often the same ones shared between them). Short, overweight, with a bulbous nose, Durning was probably born to play W. C. Fields in some never-tobe-made biopic, but will have to settle instead for the anti-Fields, Santa Claus, whom Durning has portrayed five times to date in TV films or movies made for the children's video market, such as Elmo Saves Christmas (1996).

SEE ALSO Acting;Casting;Star System;Stars;Studio System;Supporting Actors


Davis, Ronald L. The Glamour Factory: Inside Hollywood's Big Studio System. Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press, 1993.

DeCordova, Richard. Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Dyer, Richard. Stars. London: British Film Institute, 1979.

Naremore, James. Acting in the Cinema. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Roof, Judith. All about Thelma and Eve: Sidekicks and Third Wheels. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Dennis Bingham