I collect supporting actors, character actors. I revere them. I “cast” them. I watch feature films just to see their ten minutes of brilliance. Part of this comes from my Dad.
Like anyone who has even remotely participated in our family’s gene pool, he at one point got the acting bug. Unfortunately, his screen career was limited to about 15 seconds as an extra in the 1949 film “Bad Boy,” when – sentenced along with Audie Murphy to a juvenile delinquency facility — he can be seen on camera rising up in anger and threatening the judge. (By the way, he was great!)
As I grew up, each re-run of “Bad Boy” would be an opportunity for a real family celebration. We would gather around the television, wait for the scene, watch his brief grimace, and cheer. And that is when I started watching these actors.
I don’t know why I feel funny using the term “character actor.” It has always seemed to demean the brilliance I would see in their performances, suggesting limitations rather than versatility. I know that some people use the term as high praise. I finally settled on “actor.”
My favorite recent example – out of hundreds — is the absolutely brilliant Ned Eisenberg. In the first fifteen minutes of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, Eisenberg – playing one of the Port Authority police officers heading toward the towers – arrives on the scene and simply looks up. But his reaction, so full of complexity and bewilderment and fear, and lasting no more than a brief moment, haunts the rest of the film. His character knows that he has been instantly thrust into the worst day of his life. And we know this because of one subtle, nuanced and masterfully delivered glance.
But I am a huge fan of these masters of their craft and wanted to share some absolutely random names. They could just as easily be followed by hundreds of others. Some occasionally made their way into starring roles, but their greatest moments were often glances, smirks, grimaces, or blank stares into the distance.
Thelma Ritter, Edward Arnold, Dabbs Greer, Robert Loggia, Ruby Dee, Andrew Robinson, Ward Bond, Robert Walker, Morris Ankrum, Charley Grapewin, Alfre Woodard, Ned Eisenberg, Paul Meurisse, Jane Withers, John Doman, Amanda Randolph, Margaret Dumont, Miriam Colon, Guy Kibbee, Barnard Hughes, Harry Dean Stanton, William Daniels, Bruno Kirby, H.B. Warner.
Who would you include? Full-blown, leading-role movie stars are ineligible.