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Top 10 Character Actors June 13, 2009

character-actorThese are the workhorses of the acting industry – the actors who work almost everyday of their lives. As an actor making a great living – this is where you want to be. You work constantly, rarely get bothered in your daily life by strangers when you walk to the shops and if the movie/TV show/play tanks, nobody blames you. Usually, these guys have many other strings to their bow – some are also stunt men, writers, directors, musicians but all possess a chameleon-like quality, making them utterly invaluable. They can hop from stage to film to television to adverts to voice work and it’s never frowned upon. Sure, you’re ‘That Guy From That Thing!’ to most people but quite a few on this list have cult followings, which is always WAY cooler than being common or garden famous. Your fans will seek you out in whatever your latest project is, and, in reality, your more well-known colleagues are normally jealous of your freedom. Also, if you have a opportunity to play a really juicy part, there’s every chance you’ll get nominated and since you’ve probably worked with everybody, you’ll have loads of mates that’ll vote for ya. This is why the ‘Supporting Actor’ Oscar so frequently goes to ‘That Guy From That Thing!’. You go with your practically-anonymous selves!

Clint Howard -A child actor, he started before younger brother Ron and then watched Ron zoom into roles like ‘Opie’ and ‘Richie Cunningham’ that brought Ron much fame. However, the Howard Family must be the nicest, most stable and loving family in the world because there’s no jealousy or bad vibes – only public displays of support and strong familial bonds. Now that Ron’s a big-time director, he puts Clint in practically every movie he does. Not that Clint needs the work, he’s a favourite of so many other directors but because they actually like and respect each other. When MTV began their Movie Awards show, the first recipient of the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ went to Godzilla. The 2nd went to Chewbacca. Clint collected the 3rd and the entire Howard clan, parents and kids and all, showed up in formal wear to cheer him on. Clint took his award so much to heart that MTV quit giving it out. Clint couldn’t be topped.


(Rock on, Clint!!! I’m not putting this here as a joke, I really, really like this. Hey, if Warners wants to go with an older ‘Joker’ sometime, I have my hand up for Clint in a ‘Yea’ sort of way.)


J.T. Walsh – Quite possibly the King of All Modern Character Actors, I almost didn’t include him because he’s pretty well-known but it’s HOW he’s well-known is what’s made him Character Actor King. Does that makes sense? Basically, J.T. Walsh forced himself on the psyche of movie-goers by working almost every single day in dramas, comedies and everything in-between. There’s something about his presence in a film or TV show that makes me relax and think this won’t be a waste of my time. Since his death, there’s a large hole in my movie-loving heart that won’t be filled easily, if at all. Le Roi est mort.



Dan Hedaya – I know absolutely NOTHING about Dan Hedaya and I like it that way. Because of technology and the fact that everyone is a paparazzo because of video cell phones, so much of the mystique  has gone from actors that it can be difficult to seperate an actor’s work from his media persona. Actors like Hedaya make it easier for us to believe in a story unfolding in front of us. Also, Hopkins and Langella be damned (although I do love those two), Hedaya is MY all-time favourite ‘Tricky’ Dick Nixon. A note-perfect performance and if it hadn’t been a comedy, Good Ol’ Danny would have gotten a nomination at the very least.


Alan Arkin – Alan Arkin makes every film he’s in 37% better – it’s a scientific fact*. You never expect to see him but he’s always a pleasant surprise when he shows up. Here’s a smattering of instances: In Edward Scissorhands,  he’s the oblivious Dad with a good heart and you love him for it. In So I Married An Axe Murderer, he’s the well-meaning, emotionally available Police Captain who indulges Myers’ best friend with cop clichés and you love him for it. In Little Miss Sunshine, he’s the slightly creepy but funny horndog Grandpa that teaches his granddaughter to do a stripper dance for her beauty pageant talent and you love him for it. He won an Oscar over that year’s favourite (and sore loser) Eddie Murphy and you love him for it. He’s on this list and you love him for it.

*I may have made that fact up. But it feels true.



Colm Meaney -I was in Tralee, Co. Kerry when Con Air came out and, passing the cinema, I saw a HUGE sign out front proclaiming – ‘COLM MEANEY IN CON AIR’. Not Nic Cage, not John Cusack, not John Malkovitch – Colm Meaney. There’s pride for the hometown boy made good. When I was paying the rent by slinging drinks in an Irish pub in Santa Monica, he’d frequent the place and always loved a chat. We’d tease him that there must be two of him, since he was in almost everything at the time and, with a few pints in him, he’d sing ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ ala his Commitments character when begged and bribed to do so. My ideal Warm ‘n’ Quirky Indie Movie Parents are Colm Meaney and Diane Wiest. I’d love to see them together in something. Actually, I want them to divorce whomever they’re with now, get married and adopt me for real. Is that selfish?


Fred Willard – All he needs to do is say the simplest of things with that look of gullible optimism on his face and I crack up. I never know if he’s ad-libbing or has learned a script word for word because everything that tumbles out of his mouth is so natural. The man is truely gifted. What I’d like to see is Willard and Will Farrell play Father-and-Son onscreen sometime. I don’t care if they read the ingredients off a soup can, it would be hilarious. Mr. Erik Tait, I am counting on you to see this humble dream come to pass!



Al Leong – Need a Ninja/Asian Biker/High-Kickin’ Tough Guy/ Sword-Wielding Warrior, ect. ect for your project? Al Leong is your man. As with most martial art masters, Leong sells his characters mostly though his movement, poise and facial expressions. This is no less a feat of acting because he hardly ever talks – it may be an even greater assessment of his talent that he rarely speaks on camera.  He’s been in such films as Lethal Weapon and Die Hard and TV shows like The A-Team and MacGyver. What he’s probably best known for though is his BRILLIANT portrayal of Genghis Khan in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The scene where he beats the crap out of a sporting goods mannequin with a baseball bat and eludes the mall cops on a skateboard is the stuff of legend.  He has a rabid fan base who hold him at Icon Status and along with his featured acting roles, he’s a much sought after and respected stunt man. He’s also an accomplished director. But even with all the great and wonderful things he’s done in his career – I can’t resist…Want a Twinkie, Genghis Khan?



Jim Broadbent -  Ahhh, Sir Broadbent! It’s one thing to say that an actor has charisma, it’s another thing to see them actually turn that charisma off. Broadbent seems to be able to do this with a snap of his fingers. From the wallflower Dad of a woman who writes in her diary to the electricy-mad, hyper-egomanicial showman Harold Zidler, he can swap auras in a single bound. Back when Phantom Menace was announced, I day-dreamed about who would be in it. I imagined all the Jedis would be sturdy, reliable English character actors like Brian Blessed (The loud, quick-tempered one with the big laugh), Richard E. Grant (The clever, sly one that you were never sure about) and Broadbent (The slighty absent-minded one that surprised you with his dexterity in battle). I was a bit off, I guess…



Vincent D’Onofrio -Speaking as a woman who would get very gigglily, blush-y and hair-twirly (Read: generally embarrassing) around Mr. D’Onofrio if I ever met him, more so than your Brad Pitts or George Clooneys, I was thrilled to find during my clip-search that I am not alone in my girlish crush. It wasn’t easy finding clips for some of these 10 actors but here’s a ton of ‘I Want Vincent To Do Naughty Things To Me’ YouTube tributes to this alluring, slightly dangerous, supremely talented actor. He runs the gamut from ‘Gomer’ in Full Metal Jacket, the ‘Thor-Like Mechanic’ from Adventures In Babysitting, the ‘Edgar-Suit Wearing Bug’ from Men In Black to his current role as the brainy, introspective ‘Det. Bobby Goran’ in L&O-Criminal Intent. In between, there’s too many to mention. There’s a Vincent for everyone. *SIGH* Come up and see me sometime, Vince. I’ve written a part just for you…(Down, girl! See? I like I said – embarrassing. Lucky thing he’ll never read this.)



J.K. Simmons – It took me awhile to piece together that Dr. Skoda from Law & Order, Juno McGuff’s Dad and J. Jonah Jameson were played by the same guy and I’m no slouch when it comes to recognizing actors. It’s not even that those characters look all that different but the spin that Simmons puts on his creations makes them all one hundred per cent removed from each other. In an industry where there are no small actors, J.K. Simmons is a giant.



Best Ensemble of Character Actors in a Major Motion Picture  – Back to the Future Trilogy – Robert Zemeckis is a woefully underrated film-maker because not only is he a technical wiz-kid, he is also an ‘actor’s director’; a rare combination. His films, mainstream as they are, tend to be a mite saltier and slightly more nitty-gritty than his closest counterparts, Lucas and Spielberg, who have always seemed to over-shadow him. (Marty’s Mum wants to get in his pants. How delicately do you have to handle that for it to still be a family comedy and not a Greek tragedy?) He’s also the one who has taken the most risks in casting throughout his career. Thinking back, the entire ‘BTTF’ franchise was hung on the shoulders of a TV actor who had only done 2 seasons of Family Ties. The cast was littered, not with stars, but with actors perfect for their roles. This is confidence on the part of a director that story will out and the benefit for the audience is that we get to really be immersed in the characters and not have our minds wander to the latest cover of the tabloids. Take a gander; Thomas F. Wilson, Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson, Elijah Wood, James Tolkan, Flea, Mary Steenbergen, Marc McClure, Huey Lewis, Billy Zane, David Fullilove, Elizabeth Shue and the magnificent, enigmatic, always-looks-like-Jim-from-Taxi-no-matter-what-the-makeup-department-does Christopher Lloyd. Look up any of the ‘BTTF’ cast and you’ll see almost all of them have lists of credits as long as your arm.



Best Actor That Doesn’t Quite Fit – Bruce Campbell – What can I say? He’s a legend and in my very humble opinion, the Greatest Leading Man That Never Was. But it suits him – not exactly a character actor, not exactly a star. He’s undefinable; the most talented ‘Reverse Actor’ ever known and in a league by himself. I’m happy that I’m getting a regular dose of Campbell on TV’s Burn Notice - well worth a look if you like spy-on-the-run stories where stuff blows up and lots of quipping. Good to have you around more often, Bruce honey. Here’s 3 clips of Campbell:


*Thank you to the people who make the videos.

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Howard June 14th, 2009

Character actors are like linemen in football. They rarely get credit for a success but as we know the total is the sum of it’s parts. Most of the time we don’t even know their names so it had to be difficult finding clips. Loved the article and your picks. I would have added….um….you know, the guy in those movies…you know the one.

Matthew June 14th, 2009

I LOVE that guy from those movies!!!

Great list Feeney – I had lots of fun reading and watching this one. And just when I thought I knew EVERYthing about Clint Howard. That song does rock.

There are so many unsung heroes that don’t get listed on the posters – I’m sure you’d be able to revisit this with a part II at some point. In the meantime thanks for reminding me of these 10!

Lily June 14th, 2009

it’s that guy, you know, from that movie!!
great list, erin…i too, am a big fan of character actors :)

Sasha June 15th, 2009

you have made MY day 37% better. that is a scientific fact. (:

Alvean June 15th, 2009

You said about Vincent D’Onofrio… ‘(Down, girl! See? I like I said – embarrassing. Lucky thing he’ll never read this.)’

Never say never! Who knows, he has already read this!!

Full of that Feeney style which I enjoy.


teresa June 17th, 2009

i love that you took the time to write about all these wonderful actors.
the ones who are acting for the right reasons -hopefully- because they love it, not because they just want to be famous.
it’s these kinds of strong character actors that keep me going to the movies.
i think that’s why steve buscemi is one of my favorite actors.
he totally could be included on the next list.

Sam Tweedle June 19th, 2009

I don’t think I mentioned to you that I have a shot at interviewing Bruce Campbell in August. It’s a slim shot…but its a shot all the same.

For the record, my favorite character actor is Elisha Cook Jr.

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