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10 Great Character Actors

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You may not know their names, but these masters of character acting make every TV show and movie they grace a whole lot better.

DELROY LINDO

What a pleasure it is to watch Mr. Lindo at work. He has charisma to burn, whether he’s playing a manipulative drug dealer (“Clockers”) or a noble family man (“Crooklyn”). People may know him lately for his TV turn as a corrupt alderman in “The Chicago Code,” but my favorite Lindo roles are his low-level gangster in “Malcolm X” and his brilliantly suave crook in “Get Shorty.”

LUIS GUZMAN

Pure, deadpan brilliance. He’s great in dramas, including “Traffic,” “Oz,” and “Boogie Nights,” but he’s sublime in comic roles, such as his inept criminal in “Out of Sight.” Actually, even most of his dramatic roles are marked by their comic edge.

AMY RYAN

I’m in awe of her incredible range. She was truly raw in “Gone Baby Gone,” wonderfully loopy as Steve Carell’s love interest in “The Office,” and intellectually agile as a therapist on “In Treatment.” In each case, she tempers or expands her characters with complex shades of thought and emotion.

STEPHEN ROOT

This gentleman is a virtuoso of weirdness, and I mean that with respect. All his best performances have a tinge of insanity: Jimmy James, the station owner on “NewsRadio”; Milton, the cubicle mutant from “Office Space”; and certainly the henpecked dude from “Dodgeball.” Count me as a big fan.

CCH POUNDER

She’s been in all sorts of good projects, from “Prizzi’s Honor,” and “L.A. Law,” to “ER” and “The West Wing.” She lends immediate intelligence to each part. Her best role has been as Capt. Claudette Wyms on “The Shield,” where she played with complex, shifting notions of morality amid violence and corruption.

KEN JEONG

As anyone who has seen “The Hangover” knows, Ken Jeong is fearless. Male frontal nudity, played for laughs? I’m just sayin’. He’s verbally dexterous, as well, specializing in teachers, doctors, Medieval role-playing gamers and other imperious types. He seems to be having a blast on TV’s “Community.”

DAVID MORSE

He’s sort of a modern Ward Bond – great at playing strong, quiet, wise characters who are unthreatened by being the loyal second-in-command. It was just the right vibe for “The Green Mile” and “The Rock.” Yet there are other sides to Morse that are equally cool, like his bad cop in “16 Blocks” and his turn as Hugh Laurie’s nemesis on “House.”

JOAN CUSACK

No matter how outrageous she is in her film roles, she always finds a vulnerability that makes it believable. She’s just rock-solid as an actress, from “Working Girl,” to “Broadcast News,” to “Cradle Will Rock,” to “Friends With Money.” She even played a terrific, evil schemer in “Addams Family Values” opposite the great Christopher Lloyd.

PHILIP BAKER HALL

Mr. Hall’s memorable appearance in the recent film “50/50” only hints at his greatness. With his raspy voice and those bags under his eyes, you never expect him to be so nimble. He was excellent in “The Loop,” a TV comedy no one saw a few years ago. And he was remarkable in the movie drama “Magnolia.” But my favorite of his roles is Lt. Bookman, who hounds Jerry about an overdue library book on “Seinfeld.”

RICHARD JENKINS

Anytime I see Jenkins appear on a movie or TV screen, it’s like seeing an old friend. Such heart and soul, and sad eyes. He takes small parts, such as the private eye in “Shall We Dance,” or the fitness club owner in “Burn After Reading,” and gives them a quiet, desperate humanity. His role as the ghost of Nathaniel Fisher on “Six Feet Under” is nothing short of incredible. And then you have his repressed widower from “The Visitor.” It’s like watching a dormant volcano finally erupt.

So that’s 10 for me. Who are some of your favorites?

5 Responses »

  1. Jimmy, here are two of my favorite character actors, both of whom, unfortunately, died early (being a character actor is a rough life).

    One was Trey Wilson. Played the furniture store mogul in “Raising Arizona,” the manager in “Bull Durham” and an FBI agent in “Married to the Mob,” where he got off one of my favorite lines of all time (see the :57 mark of the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xTC6UYgGSs). Had a cerebral hemorrhage in 1989, days shy of his 41st birthday.

    The other was J.T. Walsh. Died in 1998 (at 54) — like Trey Wilson, at the hottest time of his career. Made a successful career of playing the wormy, despicable heavy. (He looked like John Boehner before Boehner did.) I first remembered him as Robin Williams’ nemesis, Sgt. Major Dickerson, in “Good Morning Vietnam.” Did a ton of roles with the same charming personality (“A Few Good Men”), and notably was the sex offender who taunted Billy Bob Thornton in “Sling Blade.” (http://cinepad.com/jtwalsh.htm)

    A couple other favorites of mine: J.K. Simmons (always on cop shows, now in those insurance commercials), and yet another one who passed prematurely, Bruno Kirby (who had one of my favorite lines in “Good Morning Vietnam”: “Believe me, sir, I know funny.”) …

    Reply
    • Fran, these are all excellent, excellent actors. J.T. Walsh never struck a false note; Trey Wilson and Bull Durham have had a spot in our DVD rotation for years; Bruno Kirby in Godfather II and The Freshman was fantastic; and J.K. Simmons actually should have been on my list. He’s amazing.

      Reply
  2. Jimbo, Was Richard Jenkins the Warden in Shawshank Redemption or am I thinking of someone else who he resembles in the photo? Thanks.

    Reply
    • Hi Barbara. Actually, the warden in Shawshank was another fine actor named Bob Gunton. Here’s another film you might have seen Richard Jenkins in: He was in “Eat Pray Love” with Julia Roberts, as the guy from Texas.

      Reply
      • You are goood,Jimbo!I did see Eat Pray Love but I don’t remember the guy from Texas, so you know I am going to google him right now! Will follow up. Thanks!

        Reply

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