Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Character Actors

Our readers (that’d be you) responded pretty favorably to last week’s Roundtable topic on the subject of bad actors who should be forcibly retired from the acting profession. Now, let’s flip that around and try to focus on the positive. For this week’s topic, we’re calling out some of our favorite actors – but not the high-priced leading men and women whose names and faces dominate the theater marquees and poster art. No, we want to celebrate the hard-working character actors who provide invaluable support to movie after movie, and deserve just as much credit as the headlining stars.

Josh Zyber

The options here are virtually endless. I don’t want to bore you too much with a list of all my also-rans, but I will say that I was set on Chris Cooper for a while, until Mrs. Z tossed out the name Yaphet Kotto. Oh yeah, that’s a good one. Kotto brings a magnetic presence to anything he appears in, whether he’s hunting an alien on the Nostromo or maneuvering through the intricate political webs of the Baltimore police department. I recently spotted him in the original ‘Thomas Crown Affair’ (yes, I’ve finally watched my first Steve McQueen movie!), and he stands out even in a tiny bit part.

Most of all, I’ve got to give Kotto big props for being the only James Bond villain to drive a pimpmobile. That’s the stuff of cinema legend right there.

Luke Hickman

This is another easy topic for me. Richard Jenkins is one of Hollywood’s most under-appreciated actors. Honestly, the guy belongs in every film. He has over 90 acting credits on IMDb ranging from 1974 to present. Perhaps due to my young age or naiveté, I didn’t notice him until his hilarious character in the Farrelly brothers’ ‘There’s Something about Mary’.

It wasn’t until I saw Jenkins in ‘North Country’ that I realized he also had a flawless ability to play dramatic roles. (Mind you, he’d been in dramatic roles all along. I just hadn’t noticed yet.) Since then, no matter what he’s in, Jenkins is always one of the best parts of that movie. He can pop up in terrible films (like ‘Eat Pray Love’) and deliver Oscar-worthy supporting roles. He acts circles around the other so-called talent (like Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum in ‘Dear John’). It’s only occasionally that he appears in films that truly deserve him (like ‘Let Me In’, ‘Burn after Reading’ or ‘The Visitor’). If I’m attending the worst-looking movie of the year, but see his name show up in the opening credits, my entire pre-judgment of the film is erased and I eagerly look forward to his appearance. Knowing that Richard Jenkins is in a certain movie can really make it worth watching.

Aaron Peck

I think that this pick should go to someone who has made a lifelong career out of being a character actor. It should be someone who’s devoted an entire career to working as a solid co-star next to bigger names, yet is still able to make you remember his performances. I have to go with Alfred Molina here. The man rarely is mentioned in trailers or on movie posters, but his is usually the performance you come away remembering.

I didn’t go into ‘Spider-Man 2’ expecting Molina to be the best part of that movie, but indeed he was. He lights up every movie he’s in, no matter the genre. He’s one of the most versatile guys out there. From his role as a staunch religious fanatic in ‘Chocolat’ to the pushover father figure in ‘An Education’, Molina has made an indelible mark in just about every film he’s ever been in. He’s never the actor the studios use to market their films, but he’s almost always the reason to see them.

Wayne Rowe

I was going to say the late, great J.T. Walsh – who’s best known for, shit, EVERYTHING, but struck the biggest chord for me as Wayne in ‘Red Rock West’. However, the choice then came down to Bob Gunton (who I loved in ‘Demolition Man’ and, of course, ‘Shawshank’) or Charles Dance. (You know who Charles Dance is.) I’m gonna go with Father Numspa Benedict Macanudo Clemens.

M. Enois Duarte

Just as tricky as finding the worst actor is deciding on one character actor who consistently satisfies or delivers a memorable performance. Between the likes of James Cromwell, Brad Dourif, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the great Paul Giamatti, I think I’ll go with the always-awesome Gary Oldman.

It seems that nearly anything that man touches turns to gold, every role he undertakes is a surefire winner, and any portrayal from him makes even the most godawful garbage bearable. Whether he plays second fiddle to bigger, so-called stars (‘The Dark Knight’, ‘The Fifth Element’, ‘True Romance’, ‘Hannibal’) or is tasked with more prominent roles (‘Dracula’, ‘Immortal Beloved’, ‘Sid & Nancy’), Mr. Oldman is a remarkable talent who gives it his all, no matter the quality of the material. That means I’m willing to give terrible movies a chance simply because he’s a part of the cast.

Mrs. Z

When thinking about my favorite character actor, I keep coming back to the one who consistently makes me smile whenever he turns up on screen – the fabulous and prolific Fred Willard. Whether he’s playing Martin Mull’s partner on ‘Roseanne’, Buy n’ Large CEO Shelby Forthright in ‘WALL-E’, or Phil Dunphy’s dad on ‘Modern Family’, he always makes even the smallest roles memorable.

IMDb lists hundreds of film and TV credits dating back to the 1960s, but Willard is probably best known for his work in Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries including ‘Waiting for Guffman’, ‘A Mighty Wind’ and ‘For Your Consideration’. For my money, he’s at his absolute best as dog show commentator Buck Laughlin in ‘Best in Show’. No matter how many times I see it, the way he delivers the line “He went for her like she’s made outta ham” always sends me into fits of laughter.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

I figure that all of my favorite currently-working character actors have already been covered somewhere else on this list, so I’ll roll back the clock just a little for John Vernon. That deep, menacing, authoritarian voice of his made for some terrific performances: the prickly mayor in Dirty Harry’, Dean Wormer in ‘Animal House’, and – okay, memorable for me, at least – the sheriff in ‘Killer Klowns from Outer Space’. With a couple hundred credits to his name, Vernon’s wildly eclectic filmography spans everything from Hitchcock’s ‘Topaz’ all the way to ‘Herbie Goes Bananas’. Vernon was never one to fade into the background, always standing out as one of the most memorable things about every film he appeared in, no matter how small the role. His voice is still the one that echoes in my head whenever I read an aging gangster part in a comic book or novel.

Dick Ward

Picking a favorite character actor sounds like a daunting task, and it would be if Gary Oldman didn’t exist. Thankfully, he does. The man has brought us amazing characters like Mason Verger from ‘Hannibal’, Sirius Black from the ‘Harry Potter’ series, Dracula in ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, and I guess Commissioner Gordon. More importantly, he’s the man behind one of my favorite characters of all time: Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg. If his role in ‘The Fifth Element’ weren’t played so downright brilliantly, it could have made the whole movie fail to work. Luckily, Gary Oldman is Gary Oldman, and the character comes off amazingly well.

Oldman completely immerses himself in every character he plays and, unlike some others, he can even be hard to pick out in a movie. I sometimes wonder if it’s a Shakespeare thing where there are a group of actors that just call themselves Gary Oldman. It’s unlikely, but that would explain a lot.

[Ed.: I generally steer the staff away from picking the same names or titles as each other, but Gary Oldman is awesome enough to deserve mentioning twice. –JZ]

All right, now it’s your turn to honor some of your favorite character actors in the Comments. Give us some good ones!


      • Alex

        And if we’re talking about ‘Leon’, Jean Reno is pretty high on my list. I’m not sure if he quite qualifies as a character actor, but danged if he doesn’t improve everything he’s in.

        • BostonMA

          Gary Oldman for me as well. i think he’s one of he best actors ever. his talent is on par with Brando, DDL, and De Niro, yet he’s often overlooked due to his character actor-qualities (like the above has mentioned).

          hopefully he’ll get his FULL due some time in the future. the people on here give hope to that.

          • BostonMA

            funny though. people like my #1 Bale, my probable #2 Bogie, and Nicholson were originally character actors who transcended to A-List stardom. counting those types as well would surely make a decision such as this much more difficult to make.

  1. August Lehe

    I’m afraid most of mine are long gone…such as the Immortal Vladek Sheybal! (think From Russia With Love!) Lotte Lenya(also in From Russia…) AND THE MORE IMMORTAL Peter Lorre in ANYTHING…Then there’s the scene-stealer from Hell in Paths of Glory..George Macready. I better quit until later! I want others to have a chance, you know?…

  2. August Lehe

    And then there’s the character actor or actress who manages to work long enough to become a really BIG STAR! For example: Angela Lansbury. Study her performance in Frankenheimer’s MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and then try to imagine her equal in another character role! Impossible! Well, maybe Jack Palance in SHANE comes close…

    • Jane Morgan

      August broke the seal, but this list needs more naked ladies.

      Emily Blunt.
      Carla Gugino.
      Zooey Deschanel.
      Mary-Lousie Parker.
      Olivia Wilde.
      Eva Green.
      Marisa Tomei.

      • I like many of those actresses but I don’t know if I would call any of them character actresses.

        When I think of character actresses I tend to think of Frances McDormand.

        • Jane Morgan

          Almost all actresses are “character actresses,” as very few movies have female leads.

          Unless, by “character actress,” you mean “ugly.”

          • Emily Blunt, Eva Green, Marisa Tomei, and Zooey Deschanel have all been the star of or at least the female lead in many movies.

            I’ll give you Carla Gugino and Olivia Wilde even though Wilde won’t be a character much longer because she’s moving up in Hollywood fast.

            Mary-Lousie Parker’s work on Weeds as the star has been on long enough for me to say she’s no longer a character actress.

          • Jane Morgan

            Mary-Lousie Parker’s work on ‘The West Wing’ is so iconic that I will always thing of her as a character actress, regardless of the rest of her filmography.

  3. Alex

    My absolute favorite character actor is David Suchet. You may remember him as Hercule Poirot in the long-running series, but I got to see him on stage as Salieri in Amadeus. He was so good that at the end of the first act, after he had given a magnificent soliloquy as Salieri’s faith crumbles, the audience sat in stunned silence, and it took a full 10 seconds after the curtain came down for the theater to erupt in thunderous applause. Even though I always remember him from the stage, he’s been in a number of movies as well: Executive Decision, A Perfect Murder, and brings class and dignity to everything that he’s in.

    • Alex

      On that same note, I love, love, love Derek Jacobi. From his marvelous opening prologue in “Henry V”, to his reserved but intellectual senator in “Gladiator”, to his utterly hilarious guest appearance on “Frasier”, mocking his own Shakespearean roots, he is a delight every time he’s on screen.

  4. Alex

    Oh, and with all the praise we heap on Gary Oldman, let us not forget the great Alan Rickman as well.

  5. Alex

    One more, and I’m done. Yaphet Kotto reminded me of another character actor who’s remembered as perhaps the greatest Bond villain: Donald Pleasance. I still remember tearing up the first time I watched “The Great Escape” when he, the master forger, realized that his vision was disappearing.

  6. Great topic!!!!!

    My personal favorite is Chelcie Ross, who’s been in 78 movies and tv shows, often stealing the scenes. First really noticed him in Steven Segal’s first movie “Above the Law”, but he really stole the show as Eddie Harris in “Major League” with the immortal line “Up your butt, Jobu!” (and then he drinks the voodoo idol’s rum). Also known for making Bill & Ted to “infinity push-ups” in “B&T’s Bogus Journey”. I got to meet him in Savannah when he was making “The Gift”, and he was extremely pleasant!

    Second pick: the late Trey Wilson (“Bull Durham”, “Raising Arizona”)

  7. i have two one real old school. the first one is lance henriksen. i have been going on a b movie kick here lately and was watching him in two flicks last week. he made both the horror show and deadly intent better , also dont forget aliens. the second one is ben johnson. known as john waynes sidekick in many movie he held his own in other movies outside of wayne flicks like the wild bunch and bite the bullet and a third warren oates. great in in the heat of the night , the wild bunch , stripes ,and his last flim , blue thunder .

  8. I am not sure I completely understand the question. I always thought a “character actor” was a person who seemed to play just about the same role in every single movie. To me, that is actors such as Keanu Reeves, Ben Stiller, Tom Hanks, Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman. Even if the roles are different, the performance they give from movie to movie seems exactly the same. However, your description seems to suggest you are looking for supporting actors. So I think I am a bit confused by the topic.

    • Josh Zyber

      Character actors are supporting actors you’ll see in movie after movie, but are rarely featured as stars. Of those you list, Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman are character actors. Keanu, Stiller and Hanks are stars (of varying degrees of competence).

      If you’ve ever described an actor as “Oh yeah, that guy…,” it was probably a character actor.

      • Ah, okay, got it. Well then, I think I will stick with Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman. I love those two (was actually a fan of both before the Harry Potter movies)

      • EM

        My impression was that the traditional notion of a character actor is an actor who specializes in inhabiting roles with eccentricities (irrespective of whether the roles are written with eccentricities in mind); not all character parts would be supporting roles, though character parts tend to be supporting. Under this notion, actors who frequently play supporting parts but don’t tend to exhibit unusual characteristics would not qualify as character actors. (That said, I imagine that, among frequently working supporting players, character actors are often better remembered and better-liked than non-character actors.) A character actor might, as William suggested, tend to exhibit the same unusual quality or qualities from role to role, but not necessarily.

  9. Jon

    To me Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina, while excellent actors, have a bit too much name recognition to be true ‘haracter actors’. To me that the person whom you immediately recognize when they appear, but you might not know their name without checking their credits. I nominate William Fichtner and Karl Urban.

  10. Javier

    Gary Oldman is awesome but my favorite actor is Toshiro Mifune. My favorite actor character would be Michael Cera. He seems so natural in his character and doesn’t overdo it like most. Favorite character is easily Napoleon Dynamite.

  11. I don’t know if you can call Gary Oldman a character actor. He’s often times plays a leading man which I think precludes him from being listed as a character actor. With that said I would like to point out that he might be my favorite actor of all time so I might be a little bias.

    I think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Brian Cox or Jason Isaacs as contenders for best character actor.

  12. Jane Morgan

    James Hong has 359 acting credits.

    Is there anyone with his level of greatness with a higher number of credits?


      Seriously though, yeah… this guy has been in a lot of movies and portrayed his character more than most A-list actors would’ve been able to accomplish.

  13. Warwick Davis is one of my favorites, I’ve always loved this guy since I saw Willow as a kid, then going on to become the Leprechaun was fantastic, huge fan of those cheesy movies 🙂

    Then playing roles like Marvin in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, his movements and actions went great with Alan Rickmans voice.

    Then on to Harry Potter as many many rolls, his performance as the Goblin in Deathly Hallows Part 2 was awesome stuff, he’s always brought class and skill to all his roles, even Leprechaun, he runs around those movies with ease and you can tell he’s gotta be having a blast 🙂

    Karl Urban is another one that someone mentioned, this guy being in anything I’m there for, one of my current favorite action “heroes” along with Statham, when he’s in something I know I’m going to like it, he made Priest better than it should have been, he also made Doom a good time working well with the Rock….loved his jealous role in Chronicles of Riddick too, he’s always a good time and I cant WAIT to see Judge Dredd 🙂

  14. Lord Bowler

    I’d have to pick Sean Bean.

    He’s done some very memorable roles like Richard Sharpe, Boromir and Ned Starke in Game of Thrones.

    He’s done a lot of films and always makes a film better by his presence.

    He makes even smaller films worth watching like Don’t Say a Word and Black Death.

    He’s been in Patriot Games, National Treasure, Goldeneye, Ronin and many many more.

  15. Adam

    How about Ed Harris? I know he’s been a leading man in films like Pollock and Radio, but I love it any time I see him on screen in films like Apollo 13 and Absolute Power.

    Or, for another character guy from Absolute Power (and one of my all-time favorite films in The Hunt for Red October), how about Scott Glenn?

    I do have to second the Peter Lorre nomination, however. If you’re going to talk about non-star, supporting actors, the conversation might have to start with Lorre.

  16. Going by the definition that a character actor plays a specific character (personally, I wouldn’t call that a “character actor” so much as I would call that typecast) I nominate R. Lee Ermey. He only does one thing and he does it better than anyone else, even if it’s only his voice.