"Usually there is a protagonist who the audience watches the movie THROUGH. But then you need that OTHER guy in the story." (Ned Beatty, from the documentary Warren Oates: Across The Border)
This season has seen the release of Ethan Hawke's love letter of sorts to Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and the world of film and stage from whence they came. I really feel this is a must see series, for many sorts of reasons, among them, the extraordinary archival footage, the words of personal correspondence from the Analog Era when letter writing was a thing, the many scenes from their films seeing the likes of Oscar Isaac, Laura Linney, Ethan Hawke and Karen Allen doing zoom calls during lockdown and much more.
Of course there are a great many actors that are known to the public who not only are adamantly not movie stars by any rational conception of stardom, but whose faces would nevertheless still be recognizable for their "bit" parts, while the names would be largely unknown except to certain film buffs.
Growing up in the 1970s I fell in love with such actors and got to become familiar with and devoted to their work. There really are so many in this category and you can consider this post a reflection on my love for them as well as what really perhaps interests most of all a philosophic mediation on representation and performance itself.
It was my father who first taught me to love the character actors and to remember and recognize the names of the supporting actors always reminding me that they were as good as the stars and had the most important parts to play in any dramatic art.
The word character in itself is worthy of volumes of scholarship.
Sometimes it is a high minded designation to denote the evaluation of an individual's conduct in real life, or more accurately, the inner causes of said conduct as in M L King's "the content of character".
Sometimes it is a synonym for goodness; as in a person being said to possess character at all. It is used casually to describe people that stand out in a crowd or cause compulsive interest from surrounding onlookers: people used to say that so and so was a real character. The meaning of this was always ambiguous.
I suspect it was a way for people to express genuine ambivalence about a person without resorting to outright vilifying them, a sort of begrudging acceptance. Many times in life people are rather inarticulate in terms of describing what the are experiencing.
This is connected to D. H. Lawrence's idea that human beings must struggle for verbal consciousness and this struggle is necessary for people to represent themselves in a better way, never mind the taks of being a novelist or short fiction stylist like Lawrence. Lawrence is addressing the work that everyday people ought to do (in his option) in becoming more, rather than less articulate.
But the kind of movie and television actors I have in mind - and I am talking about those two mediums above all, even while mindful of the fact that all of these folks had lives on the stage at one point or another - have a very particular job to do and that is to make the viewer believe in the type of role they are representing, often but not only connected to certain jobs in the social structure (sex worker, judge, accountant, seamstress, single mother, labor contractor etc.)
These character actors also are tasked with making believable two opposite extremes: ordinary, conventional and nondescripts types of people, as well as eccentric, curious, or distracting types of people.
These are people that are encountered incessantly in daily life but having the job of portraying them is a specific kind of job. In addition, what is really interesting is that human beings created this dramatic form of art where you have major or principle figures and then all of these various people surrounding these principles: people who by definition simply have less scenes and take up far less screen time.
This division is a reality in all of our lives because there are a very few people with whom we are initimately connected and then a great many people to whom we are essentially strangers. Visual dramatic art is interesting in that it addresses these social structures head one though they are rarely discussed in this way, as a form of sociological knowledge.
Like many character actors, J.T. Walsh was a master at playing villains or heavies of all types, from corrupt cops and politicians to insurance agents etc.
This in itself I think one of the greatest feats in of all performing art forms which is probably one reason I think Steve Railsback (Charlie Manson) and Powers Booth (Jim Jones) gave more fascinating performances to my mind than, say, Gary Oldman in The Darkest Hour (Winston Churchill) or Jeff Daniels as James Comey. (And lest you get too upset, I am not saying these latter two are bad performances mind you, just that they are simply more boring than the former two as well as the respective films in which they are featured).
Character acting in the way that I think of it is about above all being interesting or fascinating in some way. The person represented could be utterly ordinary and conventional or extremely eccentric and nonconformist.
Philosophically speaking the character actor in dramatic art is a celebration of the quotidian and the "terrible dailiness" and in real, daily life you will in fact meet unusually attractive and charismatic figures as well as figures who are unassuming. If you start, as I do, from the premise that all lives possess some kind of mysterious dignity that simply ins't definable or quantifiable and is basically unearned, you might be predisposed to pay attention to the bank teller who has two minutes of screen time.
There are many character actors about whom I could have written, possibly hundreds. Here are but a handful. The choices of exclusion or inclusion are in the interests of space and time and pretty much random, but for the qulaification that they are are terrific actors.
Alan Miller is an actor who has been in hundreds of productions over the past fifty odd years. Like a lot of the actors that fascinate me, he tends to portray dubious authority figures of one kind or another.
My one example of his work is his turn as an outrageous loan officer in the original Fun With Dick And Jane from 1977. His acting here is very broad, practically a lost art it seems these days. As he look over the financial records of the broke formerly upper middle class couple as played by Jane Fonda and George Segal he just respond to what he says with immense condescension and even glee, not uttering a word but chuckling and grimacing, for at least a minute beef the dialogue actually begins.
He also yells at the hapless couple "You're in hock up to your eyes! You have nothing for collateral!"
There are a couple of things I should mention about this moment in a now possibly anachronistic comedy from the late 1970s one of which is that this is a classically 1970s expression of raw feeling, where humiliation and shame are given comic expression and the directness of the social satire and its targets are everything. IN 70s movies in general characters are always most blunt as if such bluntness could in itself change the world or make it a better place.
There is a quite recent interview with Alan Miller on his career.
Among character actors, especially from the 1960s through the 80s, there were actresses who were known as sex symbols but were also excellent actors. Many had successful modeling careers in addition to acting.
Anitra Ford is one example.
She is perhaps more interesting than most because of her involvement in network t.v. action shows like Starsky And Hutch but also some iconic exploitation horror films, one of which, Messiah Of Evil is also a masterpiece of indie avant-garde filmmaking as well as impossible to categorize pictures like Invasion of The Bee Girls.
Anitra Ford is in many ways representative of so much of what our podcast is about: her embrace of multiple genres, glamor and beauty, as well as longstanding interest in spirituality, and is a poet.
Here is a delightful prose poem Anitra Ford is reciting herself reminiscing about the 1970s and the music and culture then.
William Daniels is an actor who seemed almost designed to play authority figures that pushed the buttons of a mass audience the most. In fact his range was most broad and I highly recommend his tour nin the original 1776, a musical, starring as no less than John Dams (with Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson, among others). His tone and diction were always impeccable for a figure of authority. Youtube has, perhaps temporarily, an episode of the show Family which demonstrate Daniels' skills most throughly.
Over his 40-year career as one of Hollywood's veteran character actors, Robert Webber always marked his spot by playing all types of roles and was not stereotyped into playing just one kind of character. Sometimes he even got to play a leading role (see Hysteria(1965)). Webber first started out in small stage shows and a few Broadway plays before he landed the role of Juror 12 in 12 Angry Men (1957). He was also known for numerous war films, playing Lee Marvin's general in The Dirty Dozen (1967) or as real-life Admiral Frank J. Fletcher in Midway (1976). Webber's other best known movies include The Great White Hope (1970), Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978), 10 (1979) (as composer Dudley Moore's lyricist partner), Private Benjamin (1980), Wild Geese II (1985) and co-starring with Richard Dreyfuss and Barbra Streisand as prosecutor Francis McMillian in Nuts(1987). In 1989 he died of Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) in Malibu, California, shortly after completing the 1988 TV production Something Is Out There(1988). He bore a resemblance to character actor Kevin McCarthy.
Robert Francis Vaughn (November 22, 1932 – November 11, 2016) was an American actor noted for his stage, film and television work. His television roles include the spy Napoleon Solo in the 1960s series The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; the detective Harry Rule in the 1970s series The Protectors; Morgan Wendell in the 1978–1979 miniseries Centennial; formidable General Hunt Stockwell in the fifth season of the 1980s series The A-Team; and grifter and card sharp Albert Stroller in the British television drama series Hustle (2004–2012), for all but one of its 48 episodes. He also appeared in the British soap opera Coronation Street as Milton Fanshaw from January until February 2012.
In film, he portrayed the gunman Lee in The Magnificent Seven with Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, Major Paul Krueger in The Bridge at Remagen with George Segal and Ben Gazzara, the voice of Proteus IV, the computer villain of Demon Seed, Walter Chalmers in Bullitt with Steve McQueen, Ross Webster in Superman III with Christopher Reeve, General Woodbridge in The Delta Force with Lee Marvin, and war veteran Chester A. Gwynn in The Young Philadelphians with Paul Newman, which earned him a 1959 Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
As this is in no way a list of even the top or best so-called character actors, I'd like to add one more: Nicholas Pryor.
Like Alan Miller, Pryor is one of those people who was very prolific as a working actor. His standout masterpiece of acting is in Michael Ritchie's move Smile, as a troubled alcoholic buddy to Bruce Dern. (I should add that Smile is a comedy and one of the best movies of the entire 1970s!)
Another wonderful turn is in the 1977 made for t.v. movie NIGHT TERROR (aka NIGHT DRIVE) with Valerie Harper. He expresses the sense of a pathetic man who is troubled but always with a sense of humanity present.
I'd like to thank Amanda Reyes for her excellent scholarship on this particular picture. (She can be heard doing a commentary track for the Blu Ray release)
Any work of art has a motley and modular character, though some disguise this fact better or more than others and we are far from thinking of them in this way, though I do. In a work of commercial television (and I include in this so-called quality television of our contemporary period as well as far far lower in public estimation form the past) or a studio film there are so many of these facts that go into making them, from set design and art direction to actors.
I'd like to think that from time to time in these posts I will celebrate these as without them, many things we take utterly for granted in culture would never get made.