The roles they played correspond to what E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel calls "flat characters" in literature: "Flat characters [are] called 'humorous' . . . and are sometimes called types, and sometimes caricatures. In their purest form, they are constructed around a single idea or quality." Forster goes on to describe how "they are easily recognized when they come in . . . and easily remembered." Shakespeare's comedies and even some of the tragedies are rich in such characters—Falstaff, the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, the pompous Polonius in Hamlet, Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night—as are the works of Dickens. Mr. Micawber (David Copperfield), Miss Havisham (Great Expectations), Smallweed (Bleak House), Sairey Gamp (Martin Chuzzlewit)—the novels of Dickens are largely populated by flat characters. Similarly, the character actors of the classic American cinema also represent types with a single easily identifiable personality trait, and they too are easily recognized and easily remembered.
The great character actors were more often than not middle-aged or older. Occasionally starring actors would become character actors as they aged, but most often the great character actors started out as such and remained that way for their entire career. Their task was to lend support and, with their unambiguous and more colorful and oversized personalities—the kind of character that is most effective in small doses—supply contrast to the often younger and more attractive stars of the picture.
In recognition of their importance to the industry and their popularity with moviegoers, in 1936 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created two new award categories, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress. For the most part the people nominated in these categories were character actors performing in character roles. The list of nominees and winners from 1936 to 1960, roughly the end of the studio system, reads like a Who's Who of Hollywood's greatest character actors.
These performers were largely a product of the Hollywood studio system. Under contract to one studio, they often made several pictures a year. Typecasting was the rule for these performers. Once the studio's casting directors found a successful niche for the character actor, one that resonated with audiences, the character actor generally found himself or herself playing the same kind of role in the same movie genre in film after film. Why tamper with a successful formula? was the tenet that drove the career of the perennial studio character actor. Powerful directors like Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Preston Sturges assembled what amounted to their own repertory company of character actors and used them in one movie after another.
Because they were so closely linked with the Hollywood studio system, the end of the era of the career character actor coincided with the decline of the studios in the early 1960's. Too, the increase in sex and violence in the American movies of the 1960's, the blurring of the once clearly delineated boundaries between the traditional movie genres, and the desire of American filmmakers to emulate the more adult and overtly artistic films of Europe made the type of movie that required character actors seem old-fashioned and outdated. Their kind of movie no longer appealed to younger and hipper audiences.
This was especially true of the movie comedy, the genre that gave these performers the bulk of their work. Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959) and One, Two, Three (1961) and the Doris Day movies of the early 1960's were some of the last American movies that were out-and-out comedies untinged with melancholia or serious undertones, the kind of movie that the great character actors were best suited to. The old style of movie comedy seemed effete and anachronistic compared to the darker comic sensibility of films like Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Graduate (1967), or MASH (1970), with their trenchant social and political satire, frank approach to sex, and flippant black humor.
In the 1950's the great character actors who once populated the studio genre movies began to turn to television, where their type of role and acting style were still the norm. By the end of the 1960's the migration to television was nearly universal for those still working.
Taking their place in feature films was a new generation of supporting performers. These actors were comfortable in both supporting and lead roles and did not approach the two types of role differently. They applied the same serious and professional approach to both lead and supporting parts, made determined efforts to avoid typecasting, and attempted to give contours and depth to every role whether large or small.
What follows is a set of personal lists of my own favorite character actors and actresses, both classic and contemporary, along with a favorite role for each, indicated by a *.
CLASSIC CHARACTER ACTORS
- Walter Brennan. The quintessential character actor, he appeared in more than 200 feature films (many of his earliest performances uncredited) and worked with some of the major directors, including Howard Hawks (in six films), John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, Fritz Lang, and Jean Renoir. He even appeared in an Astaire-Rogers movie (The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, 1939). *The Westerner (1940), as the notorious Judge Roy Bean, successfully combining his usual cheerful folksiness with psychotic megalomania.
- Charles Coburn. He made a career of being irascible but lovable. Although he played many dramatic roles, it was in his comedy roles that he really shone. *The More the Merrier (1943), as the mischievous matchmaker Benjamin Dingle.
- George Sanders. He was typically unctuous and disreputable, the embodiment of the scurrilous scoundrel . *The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), in which he played a character clearly modeled on Oscar Wilde himself and spouted witticisms taken directly from The Importance of Being Earnest.
- Claude Rains. The most versatile of the lot and possibly the most gifted. *Notorious (1946), in which he was quietly menacing but ultimately pathetic.
- Frank Morgan. An MGM contract player, he got the part of The Wizard of Oz after W. C. Fields turned it down. *The Shop Around the Corner (1940), as the comically overwrought and suicidal owner of the store where James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan worked.
- Robert Ryan. He was one of the character actors who specialized in sinister roles, and his evil was most convincing. *The Naked Spur (1953), as James Stewart's nemesis.
- Arthur Kennedy. He could play victims or villains and was equally effective in both modes. *Champion (1949), as the devoted kid brother betrayed by the ruthlessly ambitious Kirk Douglas.
- William Demarest. An expert at expressing comic frustration and stubbornness, he made humorlessness seem funny. *The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944), the most memorable of his eight performances for Preston Sturges.
- Barry Fitzgerald. The master of Irish blarney, which in Going My Way (1944) reached its fullest expression and earned him an Oscar. *The Naked City (1949), the police procedural/film noir in which he gave one of the least typical performances of his career—and perhaps the most interesting—as the lead detective investigating a murder.
- Tony Randall. The poor man's Jack Lemmon, he became best known for assuming Lemmon's film role as the fussy Felix in the TV sitcom version of The Odd Couple. In feature films he was most memorable as Rock Hudson's foil in three Hudson-Doris Day movies. *Lover Come Back (1961), in which he played Hudson's scatter-brained boss.
- Dennis Hopper. More often nutty than normal, he could be one scary dude. *Blue Velvet (1986), in which he gave an unforgettable performance as the drug-sniffing, psychotic, mommie-obsessed criminal Frank Booth, a character over-the-top even for a David Lynch movie.
- Tommy Lee Jones. How can somebody so down-to-earth be such a great character actor? It must have something to do with his intensity and focus and with the feeling that the characters he plays conceal nothing: What you see is what you get. *No Country for Old Men (2007), as the stoical sheriff who just can't understand the sociopathic modern criminal.
- Tom Wilkinson. Another actor of great versatility. But like Tommy Lee Jones he's best at playing it sincere. *The Full Monty (1997), as the former factory manager who reluctantly becomes the head of a troupe of male strippers.
- Steve Buscemi. He can play a great range of types, but he puts his distinctive stamp on every role. *Ghost World (2000), as the lonely, record-collecting oddball Seymour.
- Morgan Freeman. Adept at playing characters of great sincerity, integrity, and gravitas. *Se7en (1996), as the no-nonsense police detective pursuing a psycho killer with Brad Pitt.
- Thelma Ritter. I once devoted an entire post to Thelma Ritter titled "The Greatest Character Actress. *Pickup on South Street (1953), one of her rare serious parts, as the fatalistic and doomed Moe, a small-time street peddler and police informant.
- Agnes Moorhead. She was as cold as the snow outside the window in her debut in Citizen Kane (1941) and on fire as the neurotic Aunt Fanny in her flamboyant follow-up role in Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). In the next 30 years she successfully played everything in between. *All That Heaven Allows (1955), as Jane Wyman's loyal friend and confidante.
- Eve Arden. The self-sufficient strength of her characters was masked by wry asides and arch wisecracks. And nobody cracked wise better than Eve Arden. *Mildred Pierce (1945), as the troubled Joan Crawford's steadfast friend Ida.
- Mary Astor. She could play good or bad, selfless or self-centered, erotic or maternal with equal conviction. *The Maltese Falcon (1941), as Brigid O'Shaughnessy, the archetypal femme fatale of film noir.
- Dame May Whitty. The embodiment of the genteel British dowager. *Night Must Fall (1937), as the rich, crotchety old lady manipulated by smooth-talking Robert Montgomery, a psycho killer who carried his victim's severed head around in a hatbox.
- Angela Lansbury. She was sassy and flirtatious as the teenaged maid in Gaslight (1944) and touchingly fragile singing "Yellow Bird" in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). By the late 1940's she was playing middle-aged women while still in her early 20's. *The Manchurian Candidate (1962), as the most unwholesomely possessive mother ever to appear on the screen.
- Elsa Lanchester. She was equally at ease playing normal or eccentric, but nobody did eccentric like Lanchester. *The Big Clock (1948)—one of a dozen movies in which she appeared with her husband, Charles Laughton—in which she made a big impression with very little screen time as a flighty, temperamental artist.
- Ethel Barrymore. The archetypal kind-hearted elderly lady. *The Farmer's Daughter (1947), as Joseph Cotten's rather regal mother who befriends and acts as mentor to Loretta Young, the family's Swedish American maid.
- Joan Blondell. She was a big star in the early 1930's but spent the rest of her 50-year long acting career in supporting parts. *Nightmare Alley (1947), a sizzling performance as the charlatan psychic and fortune teller in a circus sideshow.
- Gloria Grahame. The epitome of the good-bad girl. *The Big Heat (1954), as sadistic gangster Lee Marvin's moll. Who could forget those scenes with the coffee pot?
- Anjelica Huston. Her career seriously took off with her Oscar-winning turn in Prizzi's Honor (1985), which she followed up with several amazing supporting performances. *The Dead (1987), in which she played Greta Conroy in her father John Huston's last film, an adaptation of the great James Joyce short story from Dubliners. Her last scene in the movie is stunning and absolutely heartbreaking.
- Dianne Wiest. A favorite of Woody Allen, who brings out her funny side. *Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), in which she impersonates the ultimate flake.
- Maggie Smith. She won a Best Actress Oscar for 1969's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but her forte has always been smaller character roles. *A Room with a View (1985), as Helena Bonham Carter's strait-laced Aunt Charlotte, who ultimately reveals herself actually to be a repressed romantic.
- Frances McDormand. She also won a Best Actress Oscar (for Fargo, 1996) but like Maggie Smith is at heart a character actress at her best in supporting roles. *Almost Famous (2000), as the hilariously overbearing mother of a teenaged aspiring rock journalist.
- Patricia Clarkson. Her amazing range allows her to be equally effective as kooks, strong women, and vulnerable characters. *The Station Agent (2003), a subtle and very moving performance as an emotionally wounded woman yearning for friendship and connection.
Click here to read my follow-up post "More of Hollywood's Greatest Character Actors and Actresses."