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Hollywood’s Best Fearful Heroes

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A healthy dose of fear can be a good thing, even for a movie hero. It adds just a hint of reality to what is often a preposterous situation, such as fending off aliens. The problem is, not many actors and actresses are able to do it well. They either play bravery well or play fear well, but not both. Consider this a salute to those movie heroes who aren’t afraid to be afraid.

JODIE FOSTER

There is no one who conveys pluck in the face of fear better than Jodie Foster. In “Silence of the Lambs,” “Panic Room” and even “Contact,” Foster has moments when her face is paralyzed with fear. Yet her characters soldier on, moving forward as best they can.

HARRISON FORD

Ford, for all his appeal, has a limited range as an actor. Something he does exceptionally well is show how a frightened man still has the nerve to do what needs to be done. Think of his endangered President in “Air Force One,” his beleaguered private eye of the future in “Blade Runner,” or his innocent man on the run in “The Fugitive.” He’s much more believable in those situations than when he’s attempting more subtle emotions.

GARY COOPER

Cooper makes The List for one great movie, “High Noon.” Here’s an old-school movie hero who takes on the role of a sheriff waiting for a gang of outlaws to come looking for him. His deputy and his fellow townspeople abandon him, but he chooses to stay and fight even though he’s scared out of his wits. It’s stunning to see an actor of so few words lose his cool. Amazing stuff.

DON KNOTTS

On the other end of the heroic spectrum, we have the star of such gems as “The Reluctant Astronaut” and “The Shakiest Gun in the West.” Knotts was a genius at nervous fright, giving his characters just enough good humor and spunk to win audiences over despite his twitchy tendencies.

SIGOURNEY WEAVER

Sigourney Weaver is one of the greatest movie action heroes of all time. Her work as Ripley in the “Alien” films shows an incredible range of bravery, anger, bitterness, resourcefulness, ambiguity and white-knuckle fear. Take this moment from “Alien3,” for instance.

JIMMY STEWART

They all, to a degree, owe a debt to Jimmy Stewart, whose career is filled with roles requiring him to be scared. Scared of heights (“Vertigo”). Scared of personal ruin (“It’s A Wonderful Life”). Scared of being gunned down in the street (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”). And he had a certain physical awkwardness, to boot. Yet we all trust his characters and believe they’ll do the right thing. That’s what made him a movie star.

So who did I leave out? Add your fearful heroes to The List!

The Masters of Meek

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You’ve got to admire the meek and mighty. It’s easy for a pretty boy or a musclebound nincompoop to carry a movie or TV show – especially if  there are explosions and sexy co-stars to help. But a successful shy guy needs something else, a certain undercurrent of humanity that carries the day. Here are some classic Masters of Meek.

JOHN FIEDLER

Here we have an absolute titan of timidity. Mr. Fiedler’s diminuitive appearance and whisper of a voice made him indispensable in movies, sitcoms and cartoons for decades. He was Mr. Peterson in “The Bob Newhart Show,” Juror No. ??? in “12 Angry Men,” Attorney Daggett in John Wayne’s “True Grit,” and, best of all, the voice of Piglet in the Winnie the Pooh films.

BOB NEWHART

Speaking of  Newhart, he took a stage stammer, great comic timing and a buttoned-down brilliance and melded them into one of the best comedy careers ever. Hi, Bob! (That’s for all the former “Newhart” college drinking game participants out there.)

WOODY ALLEN

Before he was a  neurotic movie directing legend, before he was a  neurotic tabloid topic, Allen was a neurotic nebbish. People have been copying his nervous gestures, facial expressions and speech patterns for a couple of generations now.

MILLHOUSE

Would Bart Simpson’s antics seem anywhere near as dangerous if we didn’t have Millhouse around to react to them? I think not.

WALLY COX

I suspect the public’s awareness of Wally is waning, and it’s too bad. He was terrific in his deadpan, mild-mannered delivery. Fans will remember him as “Mr. Peepers,” the voice of “Underdog,” and a regular part of “Hollywood Squares.”

PERCY DOVETONSILS

Again with the glasses! But this time, the specs were essential to the character. Percy was the creation of that great TV comedy innovator, Ernie Kovacs.

MAX WRIGHT

He wasn’t a household name, but I’ll bet you recognize him, don’t you? He was the exasperated dad on “ALF” and the exasperated boss on “Buffalo Bill,” among other roles.

WALTER MITTY

The great James Thurber thought up Mitty, a henpecked husband who daydreams his life away with fantasies of grandeur.

DAVID HYDE PIERCE

This guy occupies a special place in meekdom, because his characters are so quick-witted. His years as Niles Crane on “Frasier” neatly coincide with the first big wave of nerd superstars.

TODD LOUISO

If you’ve seen “High Fidelity,” you know why he’s on this list. Mr. Louiso plays many other kinds of roles, as well. Still, he’s awesome as a timid, record store guy.

BASHFUL

Grumpy, Dopey and Doc got all the attention, but you know you loved this dude, too.

JON CRYER

Cryer is a rock of prissy consistency. He endured hideous 1980s fashions and hideous Charlie Sheen headlines with equal aplomb. Some might paint him as a 21st century Tony Randall, but I see him more as a modern…

DON KNOTTS

His bug-eyes and nervous tics made him a superstar of shyness. Imagine – he took the secondary character of Barney Fife and made it one of the enduring bits of TV history. Then he went on to a highly successful movie career, starring in a series of comedy films, such as “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” and “The Shakiest Gun in the West.” Meek and mighty, indeed.

So who did I forget?