Friday, March 27, 2009

My Top 10 Favorite Character Actors

It's been a rough couple of weeks in the film world as we recently lost two very gifted and criminally under-appreciated actors. While the media's sensationalistic coverage of Natasha Richardson's death was largely misinformed and irresponsible, it was their reporting of Tony Award winning and Emmy nominated actor Ron Silver's passing that was downright shameful. Choosing to take cheap shots at his conservative political stance rather than celebrate his contributions as an actor is as disgraceful as it gets.

If you just mention Silver's name I'm betting most people wouldn't have a clue who he is, but show a clip from any of his television or film appearances and you're likely to be greeted with a "Hey...I know him! He's in EVERYTHING." He was often typecast as villains (Blue Steel), lawyers (Reversal of Fortune), politicos (The West Wing) or slick, greedy businessmen (Skin) but only because so few could play them as well. And if you saw him in anything you knew he was capable of making the jump to A-List headliner had he just been given better opportunities.

One of my favorite Silver performances came in 1996's underrated sci-fi thriller The Arrival, a surprisingly smart film made even smarter by his presence. Richardson got slightly more recognition but also flew further under the radar than she should have. In a perfect world both would have been household names because they certainly had the talent. But that's the double-edge sword of the "character actor." They're always finding steady work because of their ability to invisibly slip into any role but it's that very skill that causes us and the studios to overlook their work and take them for granted. Usually the backbone of any film in which they appear, they often have to sit back and applaud politely while the George Clooneys, Brad Pitts and Julia Roberts' reap all the accolades.

That's why Richard Jenkins' nomination this year meant so much. It was a victory for supporting film actors everywhere proving if they were given the ball they could run with it. Kevin Spacey, William H. Macy, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman are just a few of the fortunate ones who were able to break through. I've been meaning to do this list for a long time and recent events reminded me again just how overdue the actors below are for recognition. You've seen their faces and now it's time to get their names. There's no question any one of them could step up right now and take a leading role in a major studio release and the film would be all the better for it. Believe me there are MANY, MANY more I'm leaving out but here are my favorites:

10. James Rebhorn-The tall, lanky actor is often cast as a villain, appearing frequently as government agents, lawyers, politicians and doctors. Most probably remember him for his role in as the prosecuting attorney in the series finale of Seinfeld but I'll always associate him with the final heart pounding half hour of David Fincher's The Game. Only in retrospect do you realize just how important his seemingly smallish role in that was. Who REALLY had the tough job of selling that final twist? Has also appeared in comedies like Meet The Parents.

9. Wallace Shawn-This comic actor and part-time playwright has made a career out of playing weird, wacky goofs, most famously Vizzini in Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride. Was given his wackiest and darkest role to date as industrial tycoon Baron von Westphalen in Southland Tales. Maybe you hated the film, but show me anyone who didn't love his oddball performance in it. Recently showed up on Gossip Girl, of all places. Strangely, that kind of fits. We've learned to expect the unexpected from him.

8. Jane Lynch- Scene-stealing Second City alum has been popping up all over the place for the past decade in mostly comedic roles. Has shown up in the Christopher Guest mockumentaries Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. Had a brief but very memorable stint on Arrested Development but is best known as Andy's boss in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and for her hilarious turn as a counselor in Role Models, her biggest part to date. Hopefully it leads to even bigger things for her because she might be the funniest actress working today, supporting or otherwise. Brings a real natural, down-to-Earth charm to all her performances. Very curious to see her anchor a major comedy.

7. William Fichtner- A former soap star who's clocked in the miles on television dramas (Invasion, Prison Break), he's also gone on to carve a nice niche for himself as a supporting actor in big budget studio fare (Armageddon, Black Hawk Down). Argue all you want whether The Dark Knight actually met expectations, but the opening minutes definitely did. A huge reason why was his brief but pivotal turn as the doomed Gotham Bank manager who didn't back down to Ledger's Joker. Has a creepy, distinguishable look and demeanor that's translatable as either hero or villain.

6. David Morse-The St. Elsewhere vet is probably the most intense of the actors on this list, whether he's providing valuable support in a Stephen King adaptation (The Langoliers, Hearts in Atlantis, The Green Mile) or playing the neighbor from hell in Disturbia (during which he reportedly stayed in character on set). In his greatest performance, completely outshone Jack Nicholson (!) in Sean Penn's underrated The Crossing Guard. Completely fearless in the roles he chooses, as last year's Hounddog proves.

5. Bob Gunton-Who can ever forget his Bible thumping Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption? Since then the 63- year-old has literally been popping up everywhere in everything, often playing elderly statesmen and authority figures, like recently on 24. Whenever he shows up onscreen you can't help but smile because you just know no matter how small the role, he's gonna nail it.

4. Bruce McGill- After kicking his career off as "D-Day" opposite John Belushi in National Lampoon's Animal House he's gone to play shady characters in postions of power (Timecop, Matchstick Men) and political figures (Vantage Point). But my favorite role of his was his warmest, an unforgettable, Emmy-worthy guest starring turn as a kind but mysterious bartender in the final episode of Quantum Leap, helping that series go out on the highest note possible. Has continued his political trajectory by recently appearing as George Tenet in Oliver Stone's W. and co-starring in the HBO film Recount. Has the gift of making even the smallest part burst with meaning.

3. Ken Marino- A former member of MTV's The State with director David Wain, New York native Marino is probably the most underrated performer on the list. Co-starred in Wain's hilarious Wet Hot American Summer, The Ten (which he co-wrote) and most recently in Role Models. Turned in strong dramatic work in the underseen Diggers from a few years ago (which he also co-wrote with Wain) as well as providing some memorable guest starring arcs on major television shows like Dawson's Creek, where he memorably played Katie Holmes' college professor. That and his role as goofy private eye Vinnie Van Lowe on Veronica Mars should qualify him as a national hero rather than just a great character actor.

2. Noah Emmerich-Typecast as the "best friend" in The Truman Show and Frequency, he took that part to a whole new devastating level in 2006's Little Children, delivering HANDS DOWN the best performance in that film, physically and emotionally transforming himself to deliver one of the most overlooked supporting turns of the decade as "retired" cop Larry Hedges. Stole the show again recently opposite Ed Norton and Colin Farrell in Pride and Glory. Give this man a starring role already.

1. Christopher McDonald- When the job description calls for "sleaze" McDonald is the go-to guy which can be both a blessing and a curse. Casting directors seem reluctant to give him the opportunity to stretch beyond that even though there's very little doubt he could. Sure, you know him best as Shooter McGavin in Happy Gilmore but he never gets credit for how much range he shows in what on paper seem to be the slightest parts. Watch him as the slimy infomercial host in Darren Aronofsky's Requiem For A Dream or listen to his work in 1999's animated The Iron Giant.

Has also appeared in Quiz Show, The Rich Man's Wife, The Faculty, Nurse Betty, Broken Flowers, Rumor Has It, The Sopranos, Awake, Mad Money, Superhero Movie and The House Bunny. The list is never ending and more than a few of those films are terrible, which is exactly the point. No one has been as prolific, contributed so much to material far below him and has gotten as little credit. Like most character actors he's had to appear in a lot of garbage where he was literally the only good thing in it. I'm all for paying your dues (and the bills) but enough is enough already. This guy's proven time and again he's way too talented to be appearing in any junk. Here's hoping even at age 54 that he lands that big starring role because no one can say he hasn't earned it.


JD said...

I got to give you points for putting Bruce McGill on here. He is just so great. Ron Silver was also great in Enemies, A Love Story, but his chemistry with Jeremy Irons in Reversal Of Fortune was perfect. The Arrival was a lot of fun and without Silver it would have been just a paycheck to help Charlie Sheen pay for his hooker habit.
David Morse is another one I like a lot. I love The Crossing Guard and I like him. More kudos for mentioning St. Elsewhere.
Oh hell, I like all of these people.
Awesome list!!!

thebonebreaker said...

Great list Jeremy!

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