Thursday, October 01, 2009

Character Actors

I am not sure "character actor" is the right phrase I want for this: I want to talk about those TV and movie actors who play very small roles but who I am always irrationally happy to see. I want to talk about that moment where you watch something and smile and say "Oh, THAT guy. I love that guy" and you say "that guy" because you probably don't even know his name -- you just know him as "the guy from that other show." I am also not sure what I want to say exactly, except that they bring this strange pleasure with them -- part of the reason I like to see these actors is that for some reason I am glad so see them continue to get work, and part of it is that they are so small that I can feel closer to them than the big star -- there is an odd sort of unconscious identification with them, in part because I know if I was an actor I would be one of these minor guest stars rather than a main player. There is no way I will be able to remember enough of these guys: they can be hard to think of out of context. You guys will help. Here are 10 to start you off.

Leslie Jordan is the 4'11" actor I know most from Will and Grace, where he played closeted millionaire Beverlie Leslie, and Reba where he also played a character who acted fay. David E Kelly is a big fan of his -- he appeared on Boston Public, Alley McBeal and Boston Legal.

Robert Patrick. Everybody knows Robert Patrick from Terminator 2, but I am happy to see him in anything: the gym teacher in The Faculty, the leader of The Unit, the voice of Hawkman and the voice of Sokka's sword-teacher on Avatar, the X-Files (I actually like the team up between him and Anabeth Gish), and the Sopranos.

Gerald McRaney. I grew up knowing Gerald McRaney as Major Dad and kind of always think of him that way. My parents knew him from Simon and Simon. Then I knew him as Delta Burke's husband, and I am having a bit of a Gerald McRaney renaissance now that he has played major roles on Jericho and the third season of Deadwood. Also: The West Wing,

Timothy Omundson. I watched more Judging Amy than is appropriate for someone in my demographic (I really like Tyne Daly on that show), which is where I got to know this actor from but he pops up in odd places: he has a regular role on Psych now, but has also played a terrorist on 24and kind of a psycho on Jericho, was a bit of an idiot in the first few episode of Deadwood.

John Larroquette. Night Court obviously, but I loved him on Boston Legal, West Wing, House, the Practice, and the voice of Mirror Master.

Jeff Fahey. When I was a kid Lawnmower man was perhaps my favorite movie -- I think because it was the first movie I ever saw where the bad guy WON. I was very happy to see him on LOST and Planet Terror. Also Psych apparently, but I am not sure I saw that one.

Keith David. When I saw Coraline I really recognized the voice of the cat, and it is Keith David. Looking at his imdb page I could not figure out where I knew him and his awesome voice from until I remembered all those "If your life was a book, would anybody want to read it" military ads. Dude is awesome. (this guy was also on Psych: this is a thing with me today). [Thanks Lucas]

Kathryn Joosten: Mrs Landingham on West Wing. Also: Desperate Housewives, Scrubs and about a million other shows.

Stephen Root. From Newsradio, mostly but he also does a ton of voices on King of the Hill, and was on Pushing Daises and Grounded for Life O Brother Where Art Thou, and Office Space, and I even saw him on Rosanne the other night.

Toby Huss does tons of voices on King of the Kill, including Kahn. Also on: Reno 911, the Venture Bros, Carnival, Newsradio, and the Adventures of Pete and Pete.

Obviously I could do this all day. What are your favorites? With a bigger list I feel like I could write better about why these guys matter to me so much.


Telosandcontext said...

Peter MacNicol - he's had some starring roles in Ally McBeal and is a featured player on Numb3rs, but he's also been "that guy" on 24, Chicago Hope and in a bunch of movies. To our generation, he should always be Janosh Pohah.

David Pasquesi - he was in Groundhog Day and Strangers With Candy; he's of interest to me personally because he's widely considered one of the best active improvisers in the country

speaking of Groundhog Day, STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY! The ultimate "THAT GUY!" Played Ned Ryerson in GD, was in Memento as Sammy Jenkis, on TV in Deadwood, Heroes, is on Glee... he might be our finest contemporary "OH THAT GUY" actor

Jeff said...

I second the Keith David love. And you didn't even mention the epic fight with Rowdy Roddy Piper in They Live.

James Remar - Pops up in supporting roles all over the place. Currently on Dexter as Dexter's stepdad. He's great in The Warriors and Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club.

Kevin Corrigan - Probably most recognizable as Donal Logue's brother on Grounded for Life. But I like him from his turns in Scorsese movies like The Departed (DiCaprio's screw-up cousin) and Goodfellas. Pretty good at playing pathetic low-lifes.

Jason said...

David Pasquesi's a great one! I always love seeing that guy.

One of my all-time faves is Dan Hedaya -- Carla's ex on "Cheers" who also was in (deep breath) the Addams Family movie, Clueless, Searching for Bobby Fischer, The Usual Suspects, ER, Monk (playing Monk's dad), Midnight Run, To Die For, the Strangers With Candy movie, Dick, and dozens of others.

Jill Duffy said...

I would love to play this game with you all, but I am so bad with actors, it's more like, "Who is that girl on Twin Peaks?"

"Uh, Heather Graham?"

Me: "Wasn't she in something else I know?"

It's miserable.

Grace said...

I don't think GERALD MCRANEY belongs on this list. He has been in at least five TV series: SIMON & SIMON, for 8 season, MAJOR DAD,
and NUMEROUS TV movies, along with the big screen AMERICAN JUSTICE, in which he was chilling. There is much more to this actor's resume as well.
I'm just saying that I think a lot of people know Mr. McRaney's name.
Oh, 4'11" was also in DESIGNING WOMEN and was a hoot in it as well.
I would pick him! :)

James said...

James Urbaniak was on the Best Show this week, and apparently voices Dr. Venture on the Venture Bros. But I know him as Robert Crumb in American Splendor and from one of my favourite scenes in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind - that is good enough for me. Apparently he's been doing a lot of creepy guys on crime shows of late.

Peter MacNicol is BOOOOSSSSS!

Keith David gets a lifetime pass for being the Arbiter in the Halo games, but I wasn't so keen on his Magical Meowgro in Coraline.

Clancy Brown is Lex Luthor Deluxe in the DC cartoons, also The Kurgan in Highlander, parts in Lost, ER, tons of stuff, and my childhood pick for Sabretooth in the imaginary X-Men movie.

Anyone in Deadwood also gets a lifetime pass, but I'll single out Powers Boothe. No, not for his incredible name, but for being the voice of Gorilla Grodd. Oh dang: how about a cartoon of Morrison's JLA Classified, only with animation that actually looks like McGuinness' art, as opposed to that new Superman/Batman thing.

Mikey said...

Third for Keith David. I would add Michael Biehn to this as well - Rodriguez knows, that's why he cast Biehn and Fahey as brothers.

I tried to get at some of my feelings for That Guys back in the series of Dark Knight posts and you're right - it does make me happy when they show up.

Maybe it's something about continuity, no? Like the idea of that guy from one movie showing up in another movie (as a different character) provides some kind of frisson below the surface.

In terms of others - posted a pretty good list of the 20 Best That Guys a while back. I disagree with their inclusion of JK Simmons, as he is not a "poor man's" anything.

They also include David Paymer, who was in Payback - a movie completely saturated with That Guys: Gregg Henry, the legendary Bill Duke, John Glover (Luthor's dad in Smallville who I saw this week on Murder, She Wrote playing a would-be East German defector and who was in Gremlins 2 opposite Robert Picardo - another That Guy). Payback was so full of That Guys the friggin end-of-level-bosses were William Devane, James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson! Also featured David Paymer who was just great in State and Main (interesting how certain directors like Mamet, Raimi, Tim Burton, Wes Anderson seem to have their own personal stock of That Guys that they cast over and over - the Coens used to have this, but have kind of consciously moved away from it in their most recent movies).

Christian said...

Garret Dillahunt on The 4400, Deadwood, Terminator, Life, No Country for Old Men and every single crime show ever is pretty much the go-to-guy for unpleasant, creepy authority figure. Or wimpy unpleasant authority figures.

There was always something that bothered me, when I saw him on Deadwood and could never tell what it was- He played both Jack McCall, the murderer of Wild Bill AND Fracis Wolcott.

Matt Jacobson (formerly Ultimate Matt) said...

I would count JK Simmons, but certainly not as a "poor mans" whatever. JK rules in everything he's in. I also heartily second James Remar (wasn't he in BSG during the second or third season as the second in command on that prison ship?)

pla said...

The now-deceased site Fametracker had a great "Hey! It's That Guy!" feature, each of which featured a different "That Guy." The site shut down about three years ago, but the archives are still here.

sara d. reiss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sara d. reiss said...

what's the difference between a character actor and a journeyman actor?

i'm coming late to this, but in the J.K. Simmons vein Dan Hedaya was in pretty much everything for awhile
also Joe Pantoliano

i notice the list is thin with character actresses. for the life of me, so i'd like to throw Harriet Sansom Harris, who played Bebe on "Frasier" and is/was on Desperate Housewives, as well as on Broadway.

scottmcdarmont said...

Who's the guy who played Moloch in Watchmen? Y'know, Max Headroom... I LOVE that guy!

Jason said...

Matt Frewer!!!

ba said...

Matt frewer is the shit - The Stand, Welcome Freshmen, and of course, the Generation X pilot from Fox many years back.

I'm gonna go with William Fichtner, if he hasn't been mentioned already, and Vincent Schiavelli.

Also, I was listening to the Patton Oswald album yesterday, when he talks about going to the Batman Begins premiere, and being too ashamed to eat anything because of all the beautiful skinny people there. Then Brian Dennehy walks up to him and yells "CHARACTER ACTORS, FUCK IT, WE CAN EAT WHAT WE WANT!" as he starts shoveling food down.

Put some french fries on those cupcakes!

ba said...

Wait, I immediately came up with two more: Ciaran Hinds and Zeljko Ivanek, who together play every foreign bad guy or weaselly mastermind.

sara d. reiss said...

btw: a VERY young matt frewer was in a monty python short (I only know it as accompanying "The Meaning of Life") about pirate accountants, "The Crimson Permanent Assurance." It was a Gilliam short.

and Eric Avari: is TOTALLY the go-to "foreign guy," at least in terms of "hey, we need: an Arab, a Greek, an Egyptian, an Indian" ethnicities

scottmcdarmont said...

Actually, the Star Trek franchise gave us a lot of these: TNG had Brent Spiner... who did a lot of character stuff before TNG... anybody remember when he used to play the recurring 'hardluck hillbilly' father on Night Court? They would always appear before the court with some unbeliveable story of the latest tragedy that had befllen them?

Then, there's Jeffrey Combs from DS9 who gave us the voice of The Question on Justice League Unlimited... who was basically just Rorschach... good stuff!


I would characterize a character actor as an actor who is known for playing different kinds of 'characters' whenever you see them... which is kind of all actors... but the best character actors are able to adopt a different appearance and demeanor to the point that it usually takes you a second to recognize them... you kind of think "Who is that? Oh, it's that guy! I love that guy!" Whereas the Journeyman actor are more instantly recognizable. This isn't to say that a character actor can't be famous in their own right: just look at Johnny Depp.

Actually, this is more up Jason's alley isn't it... what's your take Jason?

Jason said...

I tend to think of "Character actors" as the opposite, actually. They do not have a wide range of characters. They are a single character in everything. But never -- or rarely -- the romantic lead in something.

Like in THE MASK, you know there's that part where Jim Carrey comes home and gets harassed by his fat old landlady? Then he turns into the Mask and does something mean to that lady? I think of that as a character actor. That lady -- whoever she was -- plays some grumpy old lady in everything. You see her in the movie and you're like, "Oh, that lady again," even though you can't remember where you've seen her in.

Someone mentioned Robert Picardo from "Voyager." He was another one for me. I knew I had seen him before in some role where he was a slightly annoying, put-upon, often-irritated bald guy. Couldn't place it, but it was like, "Oh sure, that guy." (Later I realized, "Gremlins 2" and "The Wonder Years.")

Dan Hedaya has been in billions of movies, always as a gruff, weathered, vaguely cynical professional.

They've got their one character, which they've refined to perfection. They'll never be a romantic lead, but they'll always have work, because they're so perfect at playing "that guy."

scottmcdarmont said...


Yeah, I was going to say that would be the other way I'd heard the term applied... just the opposite of most actors who avoid type casting, character actors thrive on it. R. Lee Ermy, for example, he always plays the drill sergeant (or characters with a similiar demeanor)... his casting as the voice of Wildcat on Batman: Brave and the Bold was pure genius!

So maybe I was actually thinking of a Journeyman actor instead? What do you call the actors who shy away from straight up romantic leads and play all kinds of different characters and can virtually disapear into a role? Other than talented I mean...

Matthew J. Brady said...

Ah yes, I love "that guy" actors. There are tons that we could still name, I'm sure. Gary Cole is one; he's most famous for playing Lumburgh in Office Space, but he's in tons of other stuff. The Coen brothers do use a bunch of them, although they do seem to have lessened it in recent years. Some of my favorites are Jon Polito ("Always put one in the brain!") and Michael Badalucci (I think that's his name; he played Babyface Nelson). Oh! Peter Stormare! That guy is awesome. He's done lots of nutty stuff like the crazy eye surgeon in Minority Report, but my favorite might be the devil in Constantine; he was by far the best part of the movie, which was not very good at all.

And then there are the guys who have transcended "that guy" status, like Steve Buscemi or Paul Giamatti. That's a whole category in itself. I also like the distinction between "character" and "journeyman" actors; Jason's explanation is the best I've heard, in which some actors play variations on the same minor role, while others might play minor roles, but they're more unique depending on the film. Interesting; I would say that the journeymen have more of a chance to break out and become leads, although that's probably not always the case.