Character actors just can’t get any love. Think about it: there are Academy Awards for Sound Mixing but nothing for these tireless actors who have hundreds of IMDB acting credits, are critical to the success of most films, yet we rarely even know their names. Most of the time, we don’t even know their character names, although sometimes they are given a name in the credits other than “waiter” or “cop #1”. Today we answer the question: “What are our top 3 character actors?”
This proved to be one of the toughest questions yet to answer. There are so many character actors that I love, and it can be hard to separate the really hard-working supporting actors that are in 20 movies/TV shows a year, from the true character actor. Two of the three I picked have crossed over to supporting roles at times but built their careers on being character actors.
Probably in the top 5 for character actor recognition, Hong built his career taking any and all roles for an “Asian man”, and with an astounding 417 acting credits on IMDB, there were a lot of these roles to take. Now 88, Hong got his start way back in the 1950s, and when you finally get to the bottom of this list of roles, you see the typical non-descript character actor credits of “Chinese soldier”, “bellboy”, and “priest”. His first few decades of work were mostly TV – everything from Perry Mason and Hawaii Five-O to the A-Team in the 80’s. He was memorable as the purveyor of android body parts in Blade Runner (1982), but probably his most notable movie role was that of a mystical villain in the cult classic Big Trouble in Little China (1986). As he approaches 90, Hong shows no sign of slowing down, with 13 acting or voice credits in 2016.
Bonus: DJ and I met Hong at a sci-fi expo about 20 years ago. We asked him about his notable role on Seinfeld as the maître-d at a NY Chinese restaurant, and he politely replied that they (the cast) were “very nice people.”
DJ: I love this guy, easily the most prolific of anyone on our list, I just recently saw him on an episode of The Blacklist. This guy doesn’t stop. He has been in almost everything and I love seeing when he shows up on something. He was very nice and said he would definitely work with the Seinfeld people again. UPDATE: after writing this I went up to bed, put on some King of Queens and there he is James Hong as owner of the Chinese Restaurant…this guy is in EVERYTHING!
He may have only half as many as James Hong, but Stephen Tobolowsky has racked up his 252 acting credits over a much shorter period of time. He’s the classic character actor that you’ve seen in a ton of TV shows and movies and never knew his name. Despite a rather benign appearance, he has often played unsympathetic and even creepy characters. His career took off in the mid-80’s, initially mostly with TV shows like Falcon Crest and Cagney and Lacey, then came several memorable turns in high-profile films. He showed his range going from silly comedic roles like “Captain of the Guard” in Spaceballs (1987) to darker dramatic roles like the scary KKK leader in Mississippi Burning (1988). My favorite role of his was as the amnesic husband Sammy Jankis in the excellent 2000 film Memento. The scene where he gives his wife a lethal second injection because he can’t remember he already gave her one minutes ago, is truly heartbreaking. More recently he’s had recurring roles on both the Goldbergs and HBO’s Silicon Valley. In addition, with his distinctive voice that he can make either goofy or menacing, he had picked up quite a few paychecks for voice-over work.
Bonus: Several times Tobolowsky has been cast in a film with only one day’s notice. Such was the case with his role in Basic Instinct (1992). It involved a substantial speech, and without any time to prepare he said he just tried to emulate Robert Duvall.
DJ: Yeah love him as the principal on The Goldbergs but for me he will always be Ned from Groundhog Day, the first movie I think of when I think of Tobolowsky. He is also a prolific blog writer and Twitterer.
Reg E. Cathey
If you’ve kept up with House of Cards, you will know Cathey as Freddy, the barbecue restaurateur turned White House gardener in the series (a small role that he made much bigger with his deceptive warmth and unexpected anger). After a brief start on 80’s TV, he quickly transitioned to film roles, albeit ones with generic titles like waiter, reporter, and cab driver. Even after 10 years of acting, he was still taking roles like “1st cop” in the Dana Carvey classic Clean Slate. He had brief but memorable spots in films like Se7en and American Psycho, as Christian Bale’s first victim (a speaking part, yet still credited as “Homeless Man”). His breakthrough was back on TV where he had recurring roles in HBO’s Oz, and then later a regular role in The Wire. He’s the only actor to have a recurring role in all 4 of David Simon’s Baltimore-set dramas (Homicide: Life on the Street, Homicide: The Movie, The Corner, and The Wire.)
Bonus: I found out that he was nominated in 2015 for an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for House of Cards. So, maybe the character actor days are behind him.
DJ: He deserved the nomination for House of Cards, very nuanced and emotional performance, he stands out amongst a very strong cast. Another actor on this list that has some form of Star Trek on their list of credits.
When I first found out we were doing our favorite character actors I was thinking big: 3-time Oscar winner Walter Brennan, John Ford stalwart Ward Bond, or, for someone newer – every film he was in was brilliant – tragic John Cazale. But I think the point was more of a famous by face but not always know their name actor, someone you have seen in movies, TV, many times over. I realized there was a lot of these and to narrow them down was tough. Honorable mentions go to William Fichtner and Edward Herrmann.
Like James Hong, we also met Clint Howard in person. Back in the mid 90’s when going to a video store to rent a movie was the norm, the movie that we never rented but always laughed about or commented on was Ice Cream Man. It had a great cover (Clint Howard as the Ice Cream Man with a waffle cone filled with ice cream, eyeballs, and a blood sauce) and a great tag line, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for the Ice Cream Man”. Then in 2000 we were visiting NYC and walking around Central Park when I spotted him and another man walking. When I randomly see celebrities I go into some zen-like trance and usually race to them and leave my friends in the dust, and this time was no different. Clint had a deer in the headlights look when I called out his name – he has a distinct look and is easy to recognize. All I could say before leaving him in peace was “Love your work” like John Malkovich to Steve Buscemi in Con-Air. It was a weird and funny moment and he was super nice. Clint has been acting since the 60’s in movies and TV (Gentle Ben, The Andy Griffith Show), first as a child actor, then following his more famous brother Ron in adult roles, getting some part in just about all of Ron’s films. Some of his classic films are Gung Ho!, Cinderella Man, Apollo 13, Splash, Nightshift, and my favorite as a deejay in That Thing You Do!
Bonus: In 2014 Clint backed a Kickstarter campaign for a sequel to Ice Cream Man called Ice Cream Man 2: Sundae Bloody Sundae but sadly the campaign did not succeed.
MG: Damn, they should have made ICM2, based on that title alone. U2 might have sued him, though. Your fan stalking of Clint in Central Park was a thing of macabre beauty.
While trying to decide on who to pick the other day I randomly started watching Beverly Hills Cop, somewhere in the middle, and there pops up Ronny Cox as Lt. Bogomil. I totally forget that Ronny could also play good guys, or should I say non-villains. I always think of him as Vilos Cohaagen (don’t be modest) in Total Recall or Dick Jones in RoboCop. A great villain actor but that is totally underselling Cox, as he has a big body of TV and movie work and is top notch in all of it. One of his earliest films was Deliverance. He was the fourth friend of Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, and Ned Beatty that get terrorized by a couple of mountain folk. He also participates in the notable “Dueling Banjos” scene. He thrived in the 80’s and 90’s getting tons of roles. He has slowed down a bit in his later years doing mostly TV work to concentrate on music, performing about 80 concerts a year. He once said “The fun for me is playing characters” and I have enjoyed his characters.
Bonus: Although he elevates all the vehicles he is in, which was worse: playing President Kimball in the disaster of 1990’s Captain America, or his participation in the giant 1990 ABC bomb Cop Rock?
MG: The first movie I remember seeing him in was in Taps in 1981. He played a National Guard Captain, which was one of the “non-villain” roles you mentioned, as he was the antagonist to the rebelling boys but he was also trying to keep them from getting shot. He was simply awesome in Robocop – every one of his lines is quotable: “I used to call the old man names – Iron Butt, Boner…once I even called him…Asshole. But there was always respect.”. By the way, that movie is a treasure trove of character actors: Ray Wise, Miguel Ferrer, Kurtwood Smith, Paul McCrane, etc.
Jon Polito is the only actor on this list that is sadly no longer with us, passing away in September of 2016. Jon was prolific, having over 200 credits to his name, doing both TV and film. I first remember seeing Polito in Miller’s Crossing saying the immortal “I’m talkin’ about ethics.” When I think of this film I think of him – he steals the show. The Coen brothers realized this as they kept asking him back for later films.You would know Jon by his raspy voice as he also did a lot of voice-over work in animated fare. He was a series regular on the TV shows Homicide and Crime Story and had memorable guest spots on Miami Vice, Roseanne, and as landlord Silvio in “The Reverse Peephole” episode of Seinfeld. His last prominent role was in Modern Family as Earl Chambers, Ed O’Neill’s Jay’s closet selling competitor nemesis. It was great seeing him in one of my favorite modern shows and he was as good in that as anything I had seen him in before.
Bonus: Jon has one more film still in production, he has a small part in the Adam Cushman film The Maestro scheduled for release in 2018.
MG: Polito was such a distinctive actor. His bread and butter was playing sleazebags, but he made them interesting and three dimensional. I knew he was a Cohen brothers staple, but I didn’t realize just how many other films and TV he had done. He deserved an Oscar nomination for supporting actor for Miller’s Crossing – “You givin’ me the high hat?!”