Supporting Actors

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Supporting Actors


The category of supporting actor includes all actors who play secondary, supporting roles in films. These roles can be played by actors who also appear in leading roles in other films, or by character actors. Character actors typically play similar roles from film to film, and very frequently have a distinctive look, voice or manner which precludes them from playing leading roles in most mainstream films. George Clooney is an example of an actor who has played both leading roles (Ocean's Eleven, 2001) and supporting roles (Syriana, 2005). A more traditional character actor is Peter Lorre, who played similar supporting roles in films such as Casablanca (1942) and The Maltese Falcon (1941). While character actors frequently play supporting roles in films, they also occasionally play leading roles, such as Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude (1971) and Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent (2003).

The system of leading and supporting actors used in American cinema is also found in other countries, where supporting actors serve the same function as they do in the United States. Great Britain's Dame Maggie Smith (Gosford Park, 2001), Spain's Juan Diego (El Séptimo Día, 2004) and France's Jean Carmet (Les Misérables, 1982), are examples of actors who have earned critical praise and numerous awards and nominations for supporting performances in their native countries.


Supporting roles were an essential element in the theater long before the movies were invented, and they served much the same function that they would come to serve in motion pictures. Supporting actors were unnecessary in the earliest movies: short documentaries, called actualités, featured images from real life and therefore did not use actors at all, and others were short, staged scenes that featured only a very small number of performers. By the early twentieth century, film narratives became more complex and started featuring a hierarchy of characters similar to what had previously existed in the theater, with some roles playing a more prominent part in the plot's development than others. As movies grew longer and their narratives more elaborate, supporting roles were needed to flesh out the stories. Once Hollywood's star system began to take shape around 1910, the use of supporting players became more pronounced, with one or two stars taking the major roles in each film and an array of character and supporting actors handling the remaining, smaller roles.

Although supporting actors had appeared in movies since very early on, the category of Supporting Actor was not officially recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences until 1937, eight years after the Academy began giving out their annual awards. The inclusion of supporting actors in the Academy Awards® was initially a way for the Academy to appease the members of the actors' union, the Screen Actors Guild, formed in 1933 as a response to studio business practices that actors felt were unfair, including cuts to and limits on actors' and writers' salaries, and a tightening of studio control of actors under contract. When the Academy sided with the studios in this dispute, the Screen Actors Guild denounced the organization and required its members to resign from the Academy. In 1936 the Screen Actors Guild, along with the Writers Guild and the newly formed Directors Guild, sent telegrams to its members encouraging them to boycott that year's awards ceremony. The following year, in an effort to placate the actors and increase their interest in the awards, the Academy added the categories of Best Actor and Actress in a Supporting Role. That same year the Academy increased the number of acting nominees in each category from three to five. The first year the supporting acting winners received plaques instead of statuettes, but in the following years they received the same statuettes as the other award winners. The winners of the first supporting actor and actress awards were Walter Brennan (1894–1974) for Come and Get It (1936) and Gale Sondergaard (1899–1985) for Anthony Adverse (1936).


Compared to leading roles, supporting roles frequently provide more opportunities for "nontraditional" actors—actors who fall outside the narrow boundaries of age, race, and appearance that have long defined leading roles in Hollywood. Although leading roles have historically tended to be played by actors who are young, white, and conventionally attractive, supporting roles have been filled by a vast spectrum of performers who do not necessarily fit the "look" of a typical Hollywood star.

In some films the leading characters are played by elderly actors, but the vast majority of movies feature leads in their twenties and thirties. Many older actors who play supporting roles were leading actors earlier in their careers and have made the transition to smaller roles, often because of the scarcity of leading roles for actors past a certain age. Alan Alda played leading roles in the 1970s and 1980s, but in the 1990s and 2000s has primarily played supporting roles in films such as Flirting with Disaster (1996) and The Aviator (2004), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award®. Meryl Streep's career has followed a similar trajectory; she appeared almost exclusively in leading roles throughout the 1980s, and though she still occasionally plays the lead, she appears with increasing frequency in supporting roles, such as in The Hours (2002), Adaptation (2002), and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004). Although older supporting actors are often cast in pedestrian roles as parents or grandparents, they are sometimes given the chance to play more challenging and showy roles. In Rosemary's Baby (1968) Ruth Gordon gives a memorable performance as Minnie Castevet, the brash and flamboyant neighbor to Mia Farrow's Rosemary. The difference between the characters played by Gordon, the character actor, and Farrow, the ingenue, is striking. Whereas Farrow is constricted by the audience's expectations for leading ladies and the conventions of the genre, which dictate how she should behave in certain situations, Gordon has more freedom to create her own character. Similarly, Thelma Ritter (1905–1969), who was forty-two when she made her film debut in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), exhibited a gloomy humor in her films, commenting wryly on the action and bluntly stating truths that the leading characters refused to acknowledge. Her age and her status as a supporting player made her characterizations possible; the leading ladies she played opposite, such as Grace Kelly in Rear Window (1954) and Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959), would never have gotten away with Ritter's brand of acerbic wit.

Just as older actors have found a great many supporting roles available to them, so have child actors. Children have appeared in supporting roles in countless films, and many have received critical and public acclaim. At the age of ten, Tatum O'Neal won the Best Supporting Actress award for her work in Paper Moon (1973), becoming the youngest person to win an Academy Award®.Other notable supporting performances by child actors include Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger in Oliver! (1968), Mary Badham as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Anna Paquin in The Piano (1993), and Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense (1999). Children, like adults, can give a wide range of performances in supporting roles, from sweet and endearing (Drew Barrymore in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, 1982), to demonic (Linda Blair in The Exorcist, 1973).

b. Brooklyn, New York, 14 February 1905, d. 5 February 1969

Over the course of her career as one of the most popular supporting actresses in motion pictures, Thelma Ritter was nominated for a total of six Academy Awards® but never won, making her one of the most nominated actors in any category never to win an Oscar®. She appeared in movies, television, radio, and theater, in a career that spanned close to sixty years. With her trademark gravel voice and bleak expression, Ritter was best known for playing world-weary characters who could steal a scene with a blunt wisecrack or witty retort.

Rittter attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and then spent the next several years performing in stock companies around New York, with occasional stints in vaudeville and on Broadway. While performing in stock she played a wide variety of roles, both supporting and lead. In her later film career, her versatility enabled her to play many different types of roles as well as to shift easily between drama and comedy. In 1946 the director George Seaton, an old family friend, asked her to play a cameo bit in his film Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Ritter's performance as a weary shopper whose young son drags her to Macy's to visit Santa Claus so impressed studio head Daryl Zanuck that he ordered additional scenes for her and signed her to an exclusive contract.

Entering motion pictures at the age of forty-two, Ritter's age combined with her somewhat frumpy appearance and Brooklyn accent destined her for supporting rather than leading roles. She was often cast as a working woman, usually a maid or secretary whose wry, offhand remarks cut to the heart of the situation. As Stella, the cynical nurse in Rear Window (1954), and as Alma, the perpetually hungover maid in Pillow Talk (1959), she is engagingly straightforward and unflappable. Ritter's performance in Pickup on South Street (1953) as Moe, the weary yet opportunistic street vendor, alternates between comedy and pathos and is one of the best of her career. For this performance Ritter earned her fourth consecutive Academy Award® nomination. Her other nominations were for All About Eve (1950), The Mating Season (1951), With a Song in My Heart (1952), Pillow Talk, and, in a dramatic performance as the long-suffering mother to Burt Lancaster's title character, Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).


Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A Letter to Three Wives (1949), All About Eve (1950), The Mating Season (1951), Pickup on South Street (1953), Rear Window (1954), Pillow Talk (1959), The Misfits (1961), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Boeing Boeing (1965)


Parish, James Robert. Good Dames. New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1974.

Kristen Anderson Wagner

Throughout Hollywood history leading performers in films have overwhelmingly been white. This was especially true during Hollywood's classical era, when studio films featuring nonwhite performers in starring roles were almost unheard of. Supporting roles have been offered to actors of color with a much higher frequency than have leading roles, and these performances are marked with the versatility and artistry commonly found in supporting performances. The African American actress Hattie McDaniel (1895–1952) won a Supporting Actress Academy Award® for her 1939 performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, making her the first nonwhite actor to be nominated for, or win, an acting Oscar®. Despite this recognition of her talents, McDaniel spent the bulk of her career playing cooks and maids for white leading ladies such as Margaret Sullavan (The Shopworn Angel, 1938), Barbara Stanwyck (The Mad Miss Manton, 1938), and Ann Sheridan (George Washington Slept Here, 1942). Dooley Wilson, who won acclaim for his role as Sam, the piano player, in Casablanca (1942), also had a difficult time finding supporting roles of substance; like McDaniel, he frequently appeared as a servant in films such as Higher and Higher (1943), in which he played a chauffeur, and My Favorite Blonde (1942), in which he played a railway porter. Over the years, the caliber of supporting roles played by African Americans has increased tremendously,

allowing these actors to showcase their talents by playing a wide range of characters. In Pinky (1949) Ethel Waters turned in a moving performance as the title character's strong-willed grandmother; Whoopi Goldberg won an Academy Award® for her supporting performance as a flighty psychic in Ghost (1990); and in The Crying Game (1992), Jaye Davidson played an English transvestite in love with an IRA soldier. These vastly divergent roles demonstrate the range of characters played by African American supporting actors.

Like African American performers, other minority actors have found success in supporting roles when leading roles were unavailable to them. The Japanese-American actor Sessue Hayakawa (1889–1973) delivered a powerful performance as the inflexible head of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Rita Moreno's turn as the spirited Puerto Rican immigrant Anita in West Side Story (1961) earned her critical acclaim and an Academy Award®. Nonwhite actors have increasingly filled roles of complexity and substance. The Iranian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo gave a riveting performance as the wife and mother of a family torn apart by tragic circumstances in House of Sand and Fog (2003). Sandra Oh, a Canadian actress of Korean descent, played a comedic role as a free-spirited wine lover in Sideways (2004). Puerto Rican-born actor Benicio Del Toro has had memorable supporting roles in a number of films, among them The Usual Suspects (1995), Traffic (2000), and 21 Grams (2003). Although a substantial discrepancy between the numbers of leading roles available to white and nonwhite actors persists, the freedom and creativity available in supporting roles is evident in the performances of countless minority actors.

The overwhelming majority of leading actors in Hollywood films are conventionally attractive, but the same standards do not apply to supporting actors. Actors who fit specific character "types" due to their weight, height, or appearance can find work in supporting roles. Marty Feldman, whose gaunt face and bulging eyes prohibited him from working as a leading man, played a number of memorable supporting roles, such as in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975) and in Young Frankenstein (1974), as Igor, the hunchbacked laboratory assistant. Like Feldman, the talented comedian Mary Wickes was not considered conventionally attractive enough by the studios to play leading roles but found success and longevity as a character actress in films such as The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) and Sister Act (1992). Other actors who do not fit Hollywood's conception of what a leading actor should look like have had similarly successful careers as supporting and character actors, including world-weary but tough-as-nails Ritter, rough-edged William Demarest, and three-foot-nine-inch Billy Barty.


Actors who specialize in supporting roles sometimes describe their work as similar to performing in a stock theater company, for which actors fill multiple roles in a variety of plays over the course of a single season. Similarly, an actor who plays supporting roles will frequently be asked to perform a wide assortment of types. Versatility is a key element in the career of many supporting players. Frances McDormand, for example, played two very different supporting roles in the films Raising Arizona (1987) and Mississippi Burning (1988). In the former, she does a comedic turn as a wildly enthusiastic mother of a small army of children; in the latter, she has a dramatic role as the abused wife of a small-town sheriff in 1964 Mississippi. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson's supporting roles as a strung-out crack addict in Jungle Fever (1991) and a self-assured, cool-as-ice hit man in Pulp Fiction (1994) allowed him to showcase his versatility as an actor and paved the way for lead actor roles in subsequent films.

Some supporting actors, especially those who specialize in character parts, play the same sort of role from one film to the next. These actors are usually cast as a particular type and play it often enough that audiences know what to expect as soon as they see the actor in a film. Eve Arden, for example, made a career of playing wisecracking, independent women in films such as Mildred Pierce (1945) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and Henry Travers appeared in numerous films playing a kindly old man with a twinkle in his eye, as in The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

Appearing in supporting roles gives actors other advantages as well. Because they are not the stars of the films, supporting actors are not held responsible by the studio for a film's failure. Also, supporting actors can appear in more films in the course of a year than can leading actors because the amount of time they need to commit for filming is often significantly less. Supporting roles can be liberating for actors, because they are often allowed more latitude in terms of characterization. Agnes Moorehead, who played supporting roles in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), and numerous other films, described the freedom enjoyed by supporting actors: "in each individual role the character actor is rarely limited in the amount of characterization he can invent. He is like a painter with a very large palette of colors from which to paint an interesting picture with dimension. It can be a subtle performance or an eccentric one" (quoted in Steen, p. 104).

Supporting actors are frequently called on to provide comic relief. These comic roles often occur in otherwise serious films to diffuse tension and provide the audience with a small break in the drama. Some actors, like Arden, Ritter, and Donald O'Connor, made careers out of playing comic seconds; others, including Moorehead and George Sanders, alternated between comic and dramatic supporting roles. A notable early example of a comic supporting role occurred in D. W. Griffith's epic Intolerance (1916). Constance Talmadge played a feisty mountain girl in the Babylonian sequences, providing light moments in this otherwise heavily dramatic film. Critics and audiences took note of her small part, propelling her to stardom as a leading comic actress of the silent era. Russ Tamblyn's performance as Riff in West Side Story serves a similar purpose; his comic songs and dancing allow the audience to enjoy a few laughs in the midst of the tragic story.

The wisecracking best friend who delivers witty remarks and wry observations is a supporting role found in countless films of all genres. Among many examples are Arden in Mildred Pierce, Barbara Bel Geddes in Vertigo (1958), Ritter in The Misfits (1961), and Patricia Clarkson in Far from Heaven (2002). These characters act as confidantes of the film's leading lady or man. Because the demands of narrative and convention exert less pressure on supporting actors, they are freer to experiment and test boundaries. The characters played by Arden, Bel Geddes, and Ritter are single and remain so throughout the film, enjoying an integrity of independence unavailable to the leading characters, who are expected to fulfill romantic expectations. While the leading characters must, as a rule, be sympathetic to the audience, the comic supporting characters can be blunt and abrasive. In A Patch of Blue (1965), Shelley Winters plays the abusive and bigoted mother of a blind daughter. Winters, who won an Academy Award® for her performance in this film, is thoroughly convincing in creating an intensely unlikable character. Lee Ermey's drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket (1987) is another character whose insulting and abrasive manner makes him entirely unsympathetic to the audience. Unlikable supporting characters can help create conflict in the plot, providing a counterpoint to the leading actors who serve as the films' heroes. In the more restrictive classical era, comic supporting characters could also enjoy some harmless amorality with impunity: they could drink, smoke, and chase after the opposite sex, behaviors generally denied to the leading characters.

Whereas leading actors generally need to keep their performances grounded in reality to make the film believable, supporting actors have more freedom to be excessive. In his portrayal of the silent film actor Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire (2000), Willem Dafoe's appearance and mannerisms are so grotesque that his character is at once fascinating and repulsive. In Cabaret (1972) Joel Gray is by turns flamboyant and intense as the Master of Ceremonies of a nightclub in pre-World War II Germany. In comedies, supporting actors are often more outrageously funny than the leads. Both Jean Hagen and Donald O'Connor deliver broad comedic performances in Singin' in the Rain (1952), Hagen as the silent film star whose shrill voice is poorly suited to talking pictures, and O'Connor as the leading man's best friend, who wins the most laughs with his almost impossibly flexible dances, pratfalls, and facial expressions. In Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Jennifer Tilly goes for a broad performance as a squeaky-voiced gangster's moll, and Dianne Wiest brings a touch of the absurd to the role of an aging actress. In both films the leading performances are much more restrained than the supporting roles.

The types of roles offered to supporting actors can often showcase their talents and lead to increased exposure and acclaim. Supporting actors who make bold choices, or find ways to stand out in their roles, can find themselves playing leading roles in later films. Because supporting roles frequently go to actors who are just starting out in the movies, there is tremendous potential for previously unknown actors to earn fame though their supporting performances. Kevin Spacey's performance in The Usual Suspects (1995) as the nervous con man Verbal Kint generated such attention that since then Spacey has primarily appeared in starring roles. Countless other actors primarily known as leading players began their career in supporting roles, including Cary Grant (She Done Him Wrong, 1933), Jean Harlow (Dinner at Eight, 1933), James Stewart (After the Thin Man, 1936), Glenn Close (The World According to Garp, 1982), and Denzel Washington (Glory 1989). Jodie Foster, who began as a child actor playing supporting roles in films such as Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976), went on to become a leading player as an adult, earning Best Actress Academy Awards® for her roles in The Accused (1988) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

Occasionally, supporting roles are played by performers who are known for their work in other fields, and as such are new to acting. The baseball player Babe Ruth played himself in supporting roles in a number of films, most notably The Pride of the Yankees (1942). Musicians often appear in supporting roles in films, sometimes as musical performers—for example, Queen Latifah in Chicago (2002)—but sometimes in roles having nothing to do with music—Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) and Frank Sinatra's Oscar®-winning turn in From Here to Eternity (1953). Other neophyte actors have appeared in supporting roles under a variety of circumstances. Harold Russell was cast in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) as a returning soldier who had lost both of his hands in the war because he had, in fact, lost both of his hands in the war. Russell was awarded two Oscars® for his work in the film, one for his supporting performance, and a second special award for "bringing hope and courage" to other veterans.

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


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McClure, Arthur F., Alfred E. Twomey, and Ken D. Jones. More Character People. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1984.

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

Steen, Mike. "The Character Player: Agnes Moorehead." Hollywood Speaks: An Oral History, 103-117. New York: Putnam, 1974.

Wiley, Mason, and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar®: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards®. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.

Zucker, Carole, ed. Making Visible the Invisible: An Anthology of Original Essays on Film Acting. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1990.

Kristen Anderson Wagner