Thursday, April 14, 2011

Top 11 Character Actors

(Why 11? Because sometimes 10 just isn't enough)

What is a Character Actor?
Definition : an actor who specializes in playing supporting roles.

Character actors are like the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. They populate just about every film out there and are the most resilient actors in the business. They are not in it for the money or the fame. They very rarely even get recognized in their own field of work when it comes time to hand out awards. But any person working in the film industry or just a fan like myself will tell you that they are the backbone of the acting community. Without them most of our favorite films probably wouldn't be as good as they are. Heck, most people don't know their names or can even recall where they have seen them before. They are the unsung heroes of the film industry (that's not to make light of all the people behind the camera mind you) and because they hardly ever get the recognition they deserve I thought I would throw this list together to help people either remember some of the films they have contributed to over the years or at the very least put a name to the face. If they don't seek fame and fortune like most Hollywood stars then I can at least try to get people to appreciate their work that normally wouldn't even give them a second thought. Make no mistake about it though, these are some of the hardest working actors in the business and I for one love each and every one of them for their contributions to the world of film.

Now, one of the many obstacles when tackling a subject like this are always going to be the ones who get picked and those who don't. I will state up front that these eleven actors are just the tip of the iceberg for me. And along with that they are some of MY favorite character actors out there. If I had the time I would make a list of them all but that would just be ridiculously insane. I am sure there will be some disagreements with my choices but just keep in mind that this list is not the end all be all of lists. If you have some favorites then list them in the comments section below, I would love to know other peoples favorites. Just as an example here are a few of the names that didn't make the cut but I still admire greatly, Tom Atkins, David Warner, Joan Cusack, Lance Henriksen, Siobhan Fallon, Matt Frewer, Miguel Ferrer, Peter Stormare and the late Pete Postlethwaite. If those names don't ring any bells then that there is the exact reason for this lists existence. There are tons more so let your voice be heard.

Before we get into the list I must give my criteria for it first, because not every character actor is regulated to supporting roles I had to focus more on actors that do a majority of film work. Some have made a film or television series where they did star or at least co-star (most of those are usually independent films though). Others might not have made very many films but had a greater impact while someone else has made hundreds but most of their works were for lack of a better term, lacking. Then you have the ones that had a much bigger career on television than they ever did in film. So here are my three criteria for the construction of this list.

No. 1 - The actor has made no more than two films where they either starred or co-starred with someone

No. 2 - The actor must have made at least three to four films that are easily recognized in the film community.

No. 3 - The majority of their acting career was in film with no more than half of their work done in television.

Lastly I would like to point out that while not every single actor listed here fits all three of those criteria that they all at least abide by two of the three. This list was tough enough to make without having to cut it down even further so please cut me some slack here. So without further ado here is my list of personal favorite character actors.



Started acting in 1977

First feature film: Hanky Panky (1982)

William Sadler is one of the busiest actors out there at the moment. Every single role he has ever played has  made an indistinguishable impression on me. While most of his popular recent work has been with director Frank Darabont, he is responsible for one of my favorite characters of all time. Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey is no where near the stupid fun that the original was but we did get to see Sadler steal the show from both Bill & Ted as the Grim Reaper. His comical nature in that film impressed even more when later in the very same year we got to see him take on Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2 as a tough as nails (and buck naked!) rogue Colonel. That juxtaposition from comedy to straight up badassery was what one me over back then and made me an instant fan of his.

He is one of the best actors I have ever seen when it comes to transforming himself into what a role requires of him. Beyond just those examples above you also get to see him as a simple minded farmer in The Green Mile, an inept prisoner in Shawshank Redemption, a firefighter looking for lost treasure in Trespass and an astronaut in RocketMan where he is the butt of every joke. He defines what a character actor is supposed to do, he goes in there, does his job and does it so well that you never give him a second thought. My only regret is that beyond his ventures with Mr. Darabont we haven't seen him very much on the big screen lately. One look at his upcoming projects though (with no less that 6 in post production and 2 completed) tells me he is gonna be adding his unique talents to films for a long time to come.

Number of titles appeared in: 113

Standout films:



Started acting in 1972

First feature film: Voyage of the Damned (1976)

I first became aware of Jonathan Pryce from two films of my childhood which also just so happened to be two of director Terry Gilliam's best films. Both Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen were among some of my favorite movies to watch in my younger years (I wore out the VHS tapes they were recorded on after a while). He wasn't that much of a major player in Munchausen but in Brazil he was the main attraction. Mr. Pryce of course went on to do a great many other well regarded features such as Glengarry Glen Ross, Ronin and even made it back to Terry Gilliam in The Brothers Grimm. Let's face it though, almost everyone out there knows him as Elizabeth Swan's father in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. It's funny to think with such a large body of work along with a couple features he starred in that most people would probably only ever recognize him in those pirate films.

What always stood out for me with him was his overly British pompous and dignified attitude that he brings to each of his characters. His talent for playing characters that love themselves but fear what others may to do them is unmatched. I know that his bond villain in Tomorrow Never Dies is considered to be nonthreatening and kind of a joke. But that is what Jonathan Pryce does so well, he portrays characters that are so full of themselves and think they are untouchable even though they are ultimately pathetic. Probably his most daring performance and the one standout for me despite the negative views the actual film received is in the Madonna musical Evita. If you are a Pirates fan and want to see why Jonathan Pryce has been in this business for so long then check that movie out.

Number of titles appeared in: 90

Standout films:



Started acting in 1980

First feature film: Inside Moves (1980)

Sadly I think most people out there associate David Morse with the supposed horrible ending to the film Contact (I loved that ending by the way) where he plays Jodie Foster's father. But even that association cannot detract from everything he has blessed with his acting talents. My first real introduction to the man was when I saw the Macaulay Culkin thriller The Good Son where he played a young Elijah Wood's father. Then it seemed like every other film after that he would pop up in another supporting role (he may have been the first actor that helped me realize what a character actor is come to think of it). It is kind of unfortunate that he is typecast as either someones father, a soldier, or a cop in just about everything he has played in. But I think he is typecast in those roles because he is just so dam good at them.

He gives off a warm presence on screen whenever he is the father figure and a commanding one whenever he is the authority figure. It is unfortunate that many of the roles he has played that strayed from those character types have either never been seen or forgotten. Probably in one of his finest performances as a guilt ridden man that was responsible for hitting and killing a child with his car was in the Jack Nicholson film The Crossing Guard where he showed much more range than most people give him credit for. He does try to veer off course from time to time still though with parts like a murdering psychopath in Disturbia or the imprisoned husband of Meg Ryan in Proof of Life. When called to duty though he comes in and does the job regardless if he has done it a dozen times before because like any good character actor, it is more about the film than the fame.

Number of titles appeared in: 83

Standout films:



Started acting in 1987

First feature film: Quiz Show (1994)

Whenever I see William Fichtner in anything anymore my mind always wonders back to his part in the Doug Liman film Go. His part in that film as an undercover cop trying to sell Amway to two of his suspects is just so dam off the wall. You don't know if he is gonna arrest the guys, let them go or try to seduce them. It's not that he tries to be the most memorable character in a film, he just is sometimes. The first film I remember him from was as one of the corrupt police officers in the extremely underrated Kathryn Bigelow film Strange Days. He is hardly in that film but both him and his crazed partner (played by another outstanding character actor Vincent D'Onofrio) still remain embedded in my memories to this day. He usually gets stuck playing unlikable or just plain weird characters most of the time but dam it if he ain't good at playing them.

What he brings to a character is not easily summed up like many of the others listed here. He has gone from playing completely despicable characters to sweet and warmhearted ones. He gives off a very earnest and confident vibe to each and every part he has played. I think the thing about him that has always stuck with me in regards to his characters is that I always liked them even if they are not meant to be likable. His most recent part in the sub par Nicolas Cage film Drive Angry had him playing an agent of Satan and I found him not only more relatable than Cage but also just a whole lot more fun as well. I cannot say enough good things about the man, he is a highlight for me in each and every film he has ever been in.

Number of titles appeared in: 56

Standout films:



Started acting in 1978

First feature film: The Boys in Company C (1978)

OK, let's face it, nobody will ever know R. Lee Ermey as anyone else besides the drill sergeant from Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. His transcending portrayal of a man in the armed services that could talk some serious shit to his trainees was one of those once in a lifetime defining roles that are usually reserved for actors that go on to be leads in future films. R. Lee's history in the military (he was an actual real life drill sergeant before he started acting) was what helped him get such a role but his staying power over the years is what proves that he had much more range than just reprising that same part over and over again. He has gone on to play in comedies, thrillers, slasher films, and even the odd drama from time to time. But hey, even in a kids film though he finds himself being cast in the role of a green toy soldier in Pixar's Toy Story.

For some reason though no matter who he is playing he always scares the crap out of me. His drill sergeant was one of the many reasons I decided to never go into the military (I'm just too darn fragile) and that fear has stuck with me over the years. He always seems like he is ready to pound someone into the ground even when he isn't all worked up. Hell, even in his comedic roles I find him so intimidating that half the time I am unsure if I should laugh or not. Beyond my personal feelings on the matter I think he is probably one of the most underrated character actors out there. Not so much in the praise he has been given but more or less the lack of praise he gets for tackling other roles that you normally wouldn't associate with the guy.

Number of titles appeared in: 117

Standout films:



Started acting in 1975

By this point of the list you may have noticed that most of these actors are usually typecast into certain roles which is the plight of many character actors. None so much as Brad Dourif though. Blame his facial features or those cold blue eyes of his but he is always playing some form of creep or criminal. I first came to know him as the weird eyebrow guy from David Lynch's Dune (hey, I was a kid and that was how I named people). And that wouldn't be the last time he worked on a film dealing with an adaptation to a revered piece of literature. But before he got to that point he had another pit stop that pretty much dominated most of his career through the 80's and 90's which was of course the Child's Play horror/slasher films. Even though he was only ever physically present in the first film he went on to do the voice of Chucky for every single sequel that came out. Strangely enough it was the Chucky movies that actually let him do a bit of comedy due to how ridiculous those films got. Which of course he a did fantastic job at even if it was nothing but his voice.

Then came the Lord of the Rings trilogy which helped him finally leave that dusty old "Good Guy" doll behind (although he did reprise that role one last time a couple years later). Now there is a whole legion of Tolkien fans out there that most likely see him only as Grima Wormtongue. It's funny how that works out sometimes, an entire body of work good or bad can be completely forgotten by a simple bit of luck with being attached to the right film at the right time. Even then he was still cast as another creepy guy which he must like doing because he shows no signs of letting up. He is the one actor on this list that I can count on for being there when I need a character to creep me out and he has yet to let me down.

Number of titles appeared in: 138

Standout films:



Started acting in 1977

First feature film: Short Eyes (1977)

The first film I ever remember Luis Guzman from was that old James Woods/ Michael J. Fox comedy The Hard Way from way back in the early nineties. Clearly he had been around way before that but that is when I first started keeping track of the man. While he has had quite the career playing gangsters or bad guys I have always been more prone to his comedic or dramatic roles for some reason. It wasn't until he hooked up with director P.T. Anderson for a trifecta of films with Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love that I believe he started getting more recognition. His career has been a series of steps with him starting out in bad guy roles, moving up the chain then to dramatic roles and finally ending up in a series of comedies.

I believe that he can play the gamut with so many different types of roles because he can be a special kind of sleazy where you can either love him, hate him, or despise him. Sleaze is a hard thing to get right so don't write him off on sticking to one character type, especially if he does it so well. His character from the Brian De Palma film Carlito's Way was your every day straight up sleaze with him just looking out for himself and screwing friends over whenever he could. In Boogie Nights he was more of a likable sleaze by trying to get into the porn business just to have sex with women and send the proof back to Mexico to his friends. My favorite sleaze of his though is his part in the comedy Waiting where he plays a chef at a low rent restaurant who tortures new employees by making them play the "penis game" and talking his girlfriend into having sex in the men's restroom. He is a lovable actor for sure that just so happens to be really good at letting the sleaze ooze.

Number of titles appeared in: 113

Standout films:



Started acting in 1968

1985, that was the year I discovered the brilliance of Tim Curry. That year saw two of my favorite films from childhood released and he was in both of them. The scary part of his talent for acting though was in just how darn different each film was. In Ridley Scott's Legend he played a character that for all intents and purposes was the devil in this rich fantasy world. Then you had his butler in the board game turned movie Clue where he played comedy just about as broad as you can get. If the juxtaposition of those two radically different roles in the same year isn't enough then just look at his other work. The legendary Rocky Horror Picture Show had him in full on drag as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the Muppet movie Muppet Treasure Island had him playing the famous pirate Long John Silver and he became one of the reasons people hate clowns as the evil monster from Stephen King's IT.

The one thing I have always loved about Tim Curry is that he has an indelible screen presence about him. He is always so proper even when he is playing a bad guy. In the trashy adventure film Congo he played a loathsome self-centered man that even when he was being talked down to he would always be respectful to those throwing the insults his way. That personality carried over to all his roles and even though he didn't always pick the best films to be in he was always in top form. But probably one of his biggest assets, just like another actor further below, is his voice. If you have a look at his acting credits you will see a large number of animated series and/or video games that he has lent his vocal talents to. The only thing that saddens me about his career as of late is that he hasn't been in very many films. But with a resume as long and as illustrious as his how can anyone say he hasn't earned a high spot on this list.

Number of titles appeared in: 210

Standout films:



Started acting in 1955

First feature film: China Gate (1957)

Look at the number of titles this man has been in. I mean it goes without saying that James Hong has had a significant impact on the film world regardless of any silly reasons I can give. He has no less than 6 projects currently in production (in the couple weeks it took me to make this list he actually has had 3 more added in that short time frame). But I still gotta give my two cents on the man. Considering that I wasn't even born until 20 years AFTER he started acting it should come as no surprise that the first film I remember seeing him in was the Ridley Scott masterpiece Blade Runner. I never realized it was him though until the day came that I saw one of my favorite films of all time from any genre. And that of course is John Carpenter's Big Trouble In Little China where he played the main role of the villain Lo Pan. It's funny to think that even with almost 400 titles under his belt that his role in that film is the one that has always stuck with me.

What he brought to that and every other role I have ever seen him in is a confidence and dignity even in the comedies he has appeared in. And maybe it's because I haven't seen all his films (who on Earth could?) but one thing that I noticed after all these years is that the man rarely if every cracks a smile let alone laugh at anything. In the interviews I have seen him in though he comes off as a genuinely warmhearted and intelligent fellow which is a direct contrast to most of the characters he has played (the warmhearted part that is). While it is unfortunate that there are many people out there that still refer to him as "hey, that's the Asian guy from that one movie", I guess in some twisted way that is part of the mark he has made on the world of film. After all it's not every actor that can represent an entire race now is it?

Number of titles appeared in: 356

Standout films:



Started acting in 1979

First feature film: The Thing (1982)

Keith David is a staple in my film-going life. I don't think it was an accident that his first film was also the very first horror film I had ever seen. John Carpenter's The Thing had a huge ensemble cast of mostly character actors with the lone exception of Kurt Russell. But Keith David always stood out to me the most with his character Childs being the second in command of their group. As the years went on I saw him in more and more films where he quickly started to etch his way into my mind as a permanent figure. His role in another John Carpenter film, They Live, was another good one but it was in the Emilio Estevez directed slacker comedy Men at Work where he finally gave me some words to live by, "There are several sacred things in this world that you don't ever mess with, one of them happens to be another man's fries".

While the last decade or so has seen in him quite a few films still he has mostly been putting that distinct gravelly and authoritative voice of his to work in both television (Spawn), film (Coraline) and video games (Mass Effect). The presence the man has in both physical and vocal form are palatable. He is a staple in the acting community and is probably one of the most well recognized character actors out there. When he is part of something it almost never goes unnoticed, I mean how could anyone forget the guy. Even in extremely small roles such as Armageddon or The Quick and the Dead he is a formidable actor whose mere presence is enough to elevate even the worst films (although he has had a fairly good run with films he has picked). I just love the guy to death and wish he were in every film I see. But as the saying goes, sometimes too much of a good thing is bad for ya.

Number of titles appeared in: 190

Standout films:



Started acting in 1974

First feature film: Road Movie (1974)

This may end up being the most controversial pick out of them all for many reasons. First of all no matter who I stuck here at the number 1 spot I was doomed. When you single someone out as the "best" in anything there are automatically people that take issue with it. The only thing I can say here is that this is my go to character actor when it comes to somebody I just can't get enough of. Joey Pants, as he is lovingly known as from his fellow actors, is amazing to me as an actor because he really never seems like he is ever trying. Even though he is committed 110% to his craft he always comes off as being totally natural. His personality comes across in every character he has ever played. It didn't matter if he was Guido the pimp in Risky Business, the toupee wearing Francis Fratelli in The Goonies, the shady bonds bailman in Midnight Run or the scheming gangster in Bound. Each and every one of those characters were infused with his personality through and through.

Many of the other character actors listed (or not listed) are tied to a certain character type. A role or part that they do so well that they usually get stuck in it. Joe Pantoliano has played the widest range of character types you could imagine. Sure I guess you could throw it out there that he has had an abundance of roles where he played the bad guy but he never once had a point in his career where he ever fell into a similar role over and over again. In a five year span you got to see him reprise his role as Deputy Marshal Cosmo in 1998's U.S. Marshals as a wisecracking officer, then we got to see him as the backstabbing villain Cypher in the first Matrix film from 1999, which he then followed up with his role as Teddy in 2000's Memento where he played a retired cop helping his friend find his wife's murderer and lastly he reprised yet another role as the rare police captain that actually doesn't yell at his officers in 2003's Bad Boys 2. Those of course are his major roles during those five years with many other smaller films or television shows scattered around in there as well.

I could go on and on about all the films he has appeared in but I want to spend a little more time on what it is that wins me over every time he is on screen. I am sure a lot of it has to do with child hood memories of him in so many movies I would watch repeatedly but there is something else beyond that. I love how he carries himself, when he plays the part of a good guy he always comes off as the type of guy you would want to hang out with. Even his more villainous turns show a lot of charisma, when he tried to sabotage everyone in The Matrix I empathised with the guy a bit. He never plays bad as black and white, there is always something else going on underneath that he adds which gives those extra layers of depth to even the most wafer thin of characters. His part in Midnight Run as Eddie Moscone was a bastard but he just had a way of making that character's frustrations into something you could identify with, not to mention the level of comedy he threw in as well.

That is another thing I love about the guy, he always ads a level of humor to even the most dire of situations for his parts. His character Caesar in the film Bound is a perfect example of this. Throughout the entire film he is under an extreme amount of pressure where his life hangs in the balance. He played every pressure inducing moment of that film as serious as one would expect but just when things go from bad to worse he finds a way to deliver a line of dialog where you just have to crack a smile. This goes back to the guys overabundance of charisma but I think it is much more than him just being a likable actor. It all comes back to how any particular actor works for you I guess, Joe Pantoliano is just one of those character actors that never fails me on top of which he is always a pleasure to watch as he does what he does best. His entire body of work has given me some great films and great characters over the past three decades that I cannot deny is probably the number one reason why he is at the top of this list. I simply can't imagine my life of movie watching where he isn't a part of the many memories I hold dearest. Joey Pants and everyone else listed or not listed here, on behalf of everyone out there that loves films I present this list to you in hopes that others may stand up and take notice of the enormous contribution you have all made to the world of film. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart and keep up the good work.

Number of titles appeared in: 129

Standout films:

Who are some of your favorite character actors?



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