One of our first posts two years ago was about character actors, and we’ve been meaning to revisit this topic ever since. For this installment, we thought we would look at actors who worked hard in small roles for years, before finally breaking out into larger, if not leading, roles. Probably the best example of someone who did this was Bryan Cranston. We loved him as the converted-Jewish dentist Tim Whatley on Seinfeld in the 90’s, but before that (and after) he amassed 158 acting credits – often for tiny roles in TV and movies – sometimes credited only as “Police Detective” or “Paramedic #1”. Then in 2008, the role of Walter White found him, and Breaking Bad made him a household name. He started his acting career in 1985, so it was 23 years before he reached true stardom. Here we look at six other actors who have put their time in and finally hit it big with prominent/leading roles on high-profile TV series.
I’ve always loved character actors, especially those that you could tell had real talent, but just hadn’t been given or found the right roles to showcase their acting range. One of the great aspects of the explosion of cable/premium channel original series and the thousands of offerings from streaming services is that it has given so many opportunities for seasoned supporting actors to take on a larger role. It has diminished the focus on needing to have an A-list actor be “on the marquee” for the studio to recoup their investment. Now a great series depends more on a good story and a collection of good actors to create characters that engage us and make us want to binge the next episode. Here are three actors I’ve enjoyed seeing come up in the acting ranks over the years and are now getting big roles on TV.
If you haven’t watched Chernobyl on HBO, you should move it to the top of your list. It’s grim material, for sure, definitely not “summertime TV”, but’s it’s very tense and compelling, and Jared Harris’ career-high turn is a big part of that. He plays a nuclear physicist, tasked with the impossible burden of trying to figure out how to handle an unthinkable catastrophe while grappling with the entrenched bureaucracy of the Soviet government. He battles constantly against anger, frustration, and abject despair while trying to hold onto a thread of hope that the situation can be brought to some reasonable resolution. Harris got his acting start in the ’90s, playing a lot of nefarious characters, such as “British Lieutenant” in Last of the Mohicans in 1992 and other small roles in movies and TV you never heard of or have forgotten about. Being the son of acting royalty Richard Harris surely gave him a good start, but it took a while for him to get into high profile roles. He was great as the criminal mastermind in 2011’s Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows and had an interesting recurrent character in one of my last favorite broadcast network shows, Fringe, from 2008-2012. In the past few years, he finally hit it big with a trifecta of roles – starting with his role as King George VI in The Crown (2016), then co-headlining The Terror, on AMC in 2018, followed by this year’s Chernobyl. If he doesn’t get an Emmy nomination for this role, I’LL have a meltdown.
DJ: I first noticed him in Fringe and had no clue he was related to the great Richard Harris until fairly recently. He seems to be in everything lately. He was so good and tragic in The Crown. He is a solid one that I love watching.
In just over 20 years, Lance Reddick has piled up nearly a hundred acting credits on IMDB. He started off in small roles in one-off TV shows and TV movies (playing roles like “Stagehand” on The Nanny and “Foreman Trial 2” in a TV movie with the most generic title: Witness to the Mob in 1998. He was a “Soldier on Manhattan Bridge” in Godzilla (1998) and a “D.C. Police Officer” in an episode of The West Wing (I think you get the picture). He had a 12-episode role as a detective in HBO’s Oz, but it was a cop role on another gritty HBO series, The Wire, that truly made his career take off. He played Baltimore police detective Cedric Daniels, who over the course of 60 episodes (2002-2008) moves up the ranks from Lt. to Commander for Operations. The fact that Reddick grew up in Baltimore surely helped in creating a realistic character in this expansive series. He’s had a number of film roles, most recently/notably as the concierge to the assassins, Charon, in the three John Wick films, but his biggest roles have all been in TV series, and often as some form of law enforcement. If I may return us to the great Fox show Fringe, he played Homeland Security Agent-in-Charge Phillip Broyles (and the character’s counterpart in the alternate timeline, Colonel Broyles). Most recently, he reprised his role as Police Chief Irvin Irving in the five-season series Bosch on Amazon Prime. Yeah, you could knock him for always playing cops, but he does it so well, why not? Having said that, it would be fun to see him take on something different – not a rom-com or goofy comedy – just something out of his comfort zone.
DJ: I am a huge fan of Reddick, loved him in the great and underrated Fringe. He also gives a great performance in Bosch. He would proabably make a great Ronny Cox like villian, maybe in a John Wick like film.
As a character actor, I imagine you have to have a steely drive, deep patience, and the ability to persevere through years of spotty work in the blind quest/hope for starring roles. For Paula Malcolmson, two out of her first five roles were credited as “bartender”, and that was over a six-year span. Yet, despite the slow start, she kept going – getting cast in small movie roles and single-episode TV appearances for 12 years before her big break as the badass prostitute Trixie on HBO’s Deadwood. It was fun to see her back in the May 31st Deadwood movie, where ten years later her character was now the most profane in town since Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen had mellowed in his advanced age. Malcomson brought another hard edge to her role in Showtime’s Ray Donovan, which debuted in 2013. It’s a show that’s even more testosterone-heavy than Deadwood, but she more than held her own – trying to raise a “normal” family amidst the shady dealings of her “fixer” husband Ray, played by Liev Schreiber. I also liked her performance in the little-seen Caprica series, which was a prequel to the rebooted (and excellent) Battlestar Galactica series in the early ’00s. Caprica had a lot of promise, but unfortunately, it’s slow-burn plot did not hold enough viewers to make it past two seasons. With the plethora of edgy television being constantly developed on pay-cable and streaming platforms, I’m sure Malcomson will soon find another good series to showcase her talent.
DJ: This is awful but I don’t know her. If she is as good as you say, hopefully I will see her soon.
I love character actors too. They are the working men and women in the industry. They don’t get the notice even know they are noticed. So it’s great when they get meatier roles and get to come out of the shadows. They often get the most interesting roles too. Here are my three that have “broke big”.
Titus Welliver started his acting career playing “Redneck in Bar” in the movie Navy Seals with Charlie Sheen. Since then he has been all over the place making his TV debut on an episode of Matlock and then filling the screen with his unique presence. He basically started showing up on as many TV shows as he could, The Practice, L.A. Law, Murder One, etc…His first big role was on HBO’s Deadwood as Silas Adams, one show I just haven’t seen. But I watched all the other network shows he has been on and I knew his face but it wasn’t until he played The Man in Black on Lost that I really took notice. His character was so interesting and it was a great performance. He continued to drop in on weekly shows and got a recurring art in the Kiefer Sutherland vehicle Touch, although the show was just not well done, he stood out again. He does mostly TV work although he did show up in the film Argo. All of this work finally earned him a chance to star in his own show Bosch on Amazon Prime. It’s like a marriage of two perfect things, Michael Connelly’s great fictional detective and the actor that was born to play him. It’s a fantastic show that gets him the praise he has deserved. He handles this tricky character with such nuance. He also is an Executive Producer for the show. I expect to see him more and more show up in movies but he is made for the lead role in a TV series.
MG: I was excited when I heard Welliver was cast as Harry Bosch, and his embodiment of this character was even better than I expected – and I had big expectations as a reader of all of Connelly’s Bosch novels. I believe Ben Affleck has cast him in all his movies – and his role as Lionel Mccready in Gone Baby Gone was a standout and first made me take note of him as an actor. He always brings intensity to every role, and I’m glad he finally got to headline his own show.
Amy Acker is one of my favorite character actors working today, I watch everything I know she is in. That includes the awfully conceived and poorly written Fox mess The Gifted which is her first big lead role after years of work. I first noticed her in Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse and realized she has been in a ton of stuff. She can act and she has a fearlessness in her roles. Her first big break was in Angel, another show I just never watched, but she was showing up in shows I did watch, Agents of Shield, Human Target, No Ordinary Family and a prominent role in Alias. When she showed up in Person of Interest I was excited but it was sort of a small role and I don’t think CBS had an expectation she would continue but she did and she was awesome. Her character of Root was amazing, she was a badass that juggled the emotions of her past with the current situation and she played her character arc to a fitting conclusion. She can be menacing and caring all in one. She has been in some minor films but she needs a better showcase than the junior X-men show she just finished. I can’t wait for the next series she gets, wouldn’t mind her in a superhero film, Joss?
MG: She looks familiar, but after scrolling through her 52 credits on IMDB, the only thing I’ve seen that she’s been in is the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can.
Michael Chiklis has been around for years, remember him playing John Belushi in the TV film Wired? Neither do I. My first remembrance of him was the terrible next work show The Commish. Some of his other roles at the time were Jimmy Hoffs and Fat Nicky, good stuff. I do remember him in a Seinfeld episode but can’t remember if he is the Kevin Dunn episode or vice versa. He tried comedy an NBC show called Daddio, it was baddio…He was passable in the terrible Fantastic Four films which got him some notice but it wasn’t until he got the role of Vic Mackey on The Shield that he hit it big. I was resistant to the show getting burned on The Commish and Daddio but someone at work told me to watch it. What a show and Michael Chiklis can act when he gets the right material. He was awesome in it. Playing a good bad cop, balancing the double life of a rogue bad cop. His Emmy win was well deserved. I followed him to No Ordinary Family which I thought was decent but sadly it was canceled after one season. Last I saw him he was in Gotham with a pretty good role in a schlocky show. Like I said to my wife, “Michael Chiklis” makes everything better. I see he just signed on to a show on Paramount called Coyote, I may have to check it out. I also like the fact he is a local guy to us.
MG: You actually picked two actors from the New England area (Welliver is born in CT). I know you’ve been hounding me to watch The Shield for years, so I’ll make you a deal – when you watch Breaking Bad I’ll watch The Shield. I like what I’ve seen Chiklis in, and I thought he did a great job in American Horror Story in 2011 as the circus strongman, and thought it might lead to some more diverse roles for him. He was good on Gotham, but I hope to see him land another series or prominent movie role.