Sunday, April 19, 2015

Character actors

My heart goes out to character actors.

When you read casting breakdowns there are a lot more productions seeking, “Male, 30’s, handsome, charming” than “Overweight, 50’s, Italian/Russian mix, unibrow”.

And the few character actors that are successful enough that they don’t have to be service managers at Jiffy Lube ultimately get trapped by their own success. Producers will glance at their headshots or see them read and say, “Him again? Jesus. This guy’s been on a million shows. Can’t we find any new overweight Italian/Russians? “

When you walk into a room and the producers go, “Hey, it’s the ‘can you hear me’ guy!” or “I’ve seen that big white head before. Aren’t you Jack from Jack in the Box?” you’re dead.

Or if a production is to be filmed on location in say, Houston. They’ll cast from the local pool there. Yes, that Nazi soldier might speak with a drawl but it’s cheaper to over-dub him than fly a real Nazi halfway across the country.

And time is never a friend. They get too old to play the cute waitress, the ballplayer, or Julia Roberts’ best friend (although Julia Roberts miraculously never ages herself).

If a character actor isn’t hot agents often lose interest. There’s always some Chihuahua who’s easier to book.

The most heartbreaking casting session I ever held was on MASH. We had a USO subplot in an episode and needed an accordion player. One by one, ten accordion players came in to audition. They all looked right, they all could play “Lady of Spain”. We had to choose one, which we did. But I felt so terrible for the others. How many calls do they get from their agent saying “MASH needs an accordion player”? How many of them kissed their wives goodbye on the way to the casting session saying, “I know I haven’t worked in six years but I’ve got this one!”

So the next time you’re in Jiffy Lube or Wal-Mart or Staples be nice to the clerk. He may be one hell of an accordion player.

This is a re-post from four years ago, but really, do you remember it? 

26 comments:

Frank Kuchno said...

Just started exploring your archives yesterday. Give me another 72 hours.
By the way......your forte is 30 minute situation comedies.....ever give any thought to trying a 60 minute "drama".....like House for example? A drama in the conventional television sense.....but with more than its share of humor.
Any interest? Something you believe you could do well??

Oat Willie said...

I know a lot of character actors from "my" time: Ted Cassidy the Villain, utility blonde Joan Van Ark, heavy duty ditz Arlene Golonka, Bald Lawyer George Wiener...what a (yawn)world! Seriously I was always happy to see those people, like a repertory theater you know and love.

Frank Kuchno said...

One of my favorites.....from The Rocketeer and The West Wing AND Wings: James Handy

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dp0ffKQgiRo

Jeff said...

http://rotationandbalance.blogspot.com/2012/01/that-guy.html?m=1

Hamid said...

I remember how surprised I was when I saw Grant Heslov's name as co-writer and producer on Good Night and Good Luck. Before that he was a character actor who was always typecast as the comic relief sidekick in movies like True Lies, Congo, Dante's Peak and The Scorpion King. And now he's got an Oscar for co-producing Argo.

Frank Kuchno said...

@Hamid

Bob Nelson spent a decade as a character actor/writer on ALMOST LIVE.....a local comedy tv show here in Seattle. In 2014 he is nominated for the OSCAR for writing NEBRASKA.
Where did I put my IBM Selectric????

Canda said...

Yes, nine accordion players were rejected, but ONE accordion player who probably never dreamed he'd be on one of the best sitcoms of all time, and seen for many years thereafter in syndication, DID get the job.

And he (if still alive) and his family, relatives and friends are still talking about it.

That's the way to look at it.

Kenny said...

I love character actors, much more then the stars most of the time. And my favorites go way back: Guy Kibbee, Frank Morgan (a real fav), Thomas Mitchell, Charles Coburn, Thelma Ritter, Virginia O'Brien, Elisha Cook, Jr., Strother Martin, Eli Wallach (the best), and so many more. Like I've said: If a movie has M. Emmet Walsh in it, it can't be all bad!

VP81955 said...

Kenny, let's not forget Walter Connolly and the great (and still with us) William Schallert.

BTW, a character actor threw out the first pitch at Dodger Stadium last night (and introduced the Dodgers lineup) -- J.K. Simmons, this year's Academy Award winner for best supporting actor. So there is hope.

Kenny said...

@VP81955 Yeah, Connolly was a great one. Should have mentioned JK Simmons myself, I've always loved that guy! So gratifying to see him take home an Oscar. Schallert will always be Patty (Duke) Lane's Dad in my mind! Though of course he always fine in any part.

Kenny said...

* 'IS' fine in any part. (Sorry Mr. Schallert!)

Diane D. said...

This post surprised me. I would have thought good character actors got enough work and were paid enough to keep them out of Jiffy Lube.
There is another class of actor that I wonder about. They're not character actors because they're beautiful (male or female) and they're really good, but they never become stars. I got hooked on a cable show called IN PLAIN SIGHT a few years ago. They had (mostly unknown) guest stars every week, some stayed for several shows, and some of them were really terrific as well as gorgeous, but I never saw them before or after. A few of them showed up on BREAKING BAD---I assume because they were both shot near Albuquerque, NM. I always wonder what happens to those people. Surely not Jiffy Lube.

Diane D. said...

BTW, VP81955, IN PLAIN SIGHT is another title I loved. It's what made me watch that show the first time. It was about the Witness Protection Program, which obviously hides people in plain sight.

Dodgerdog said...

A dear friend, character actor, said the WORST was when the casting call was for "a (his famous name here) type" and then he'd try out and NOT get the part. I guess this happens to other well-known "types" as well.

Anonymous said...

William Schallert: before he was Patty's dad, he was Leander Pomfritt, the only teacher named after the french fry.

Cap'n Bob said...

In the olden days character actors had conracts with the studios and turned up in scores of movies. I knew I was going to enjoy a movie that had an Edward Everett Horton or Iron Mike Mazurky in it.

BTW, Jiffy Lube is a ripoff. Go elsewhere.

Diane D. said...

So is PepBoys--NEVER go there!

LouOCNY said...

The discussion about all the sub-digital channels such as MeTV, Antenna, etc, the other day, brings up the point that you can watch any of these channels for a few days, and see a lot of these character actors/bit player over and over.

Not only the ones Oat Willie mentioned, but:

Need a nebbish/mama's boy? Call Steve Franken.

Peppery REAL old man- Burt Mustin

Need a kind of loud lawyer/teacher (as opposed to Wyner's kind of nebbish)? - Leonard Stone

Guys like Ed Peck or William Boyett played cops so often, they should have gotten a pension.

I would still love to know if BARNEY MILLER got to the point where they would write scripts so they could have people like Stone, Phil Leeds, Ralph Manza show up once a year. (and outside the regular neighborhood people like the grocer Mr Kotterman, he gay couple of Marty and Darryl, etc.

Ben said...

Russell Johnson, who played the Professor on Gilligan's Island, touched on the problems of character actors in an interview once. He said he had done a lot of television in the 1950s and early '60s, and avoided a series because he was doing too well doing "one shot" parts. Then at the point that he could see himself reaching the point of having trouble landing parts due to overexposure, he began looking for series work, because a successful series would benefit him, financially, in the long run. He said it was all about timing.

Oat Willie said...

Not to mention James Gregory, who was on every single freakin TV western in the 60s, then a regular on "Barney Miller".

VP81955 said...

How about Una Merkel, best friend to the likes of Jean Harlow ("Red-Headed Woman," "Bombshell," "Saratoga"), Loretta Young ("Midnight Mary"), the lady in my avatar ("True Confession") and so many more -- not to mention serving as one of the chorines in "42ns Street." After her passing in 1986, an ad in one of the classic Hollywood magazines still in operation asked for contributions for a headstone in her native Kentucky, so I sent $5 -- and now she has one.

McAlvie said...

Well, it's ironic that they'd turn down someone who was too familiar, because I think viewers get a kick out of spotting familiar faces. Character actors become near and dear over time, and sometimes I'll watch an old movie or show just because I know they are in it. Of course, Hollywood doesn't appreciate character actors these days. Everyone has to be tall and pretty. Bogart could never be a leading man today. If they want a quirky character today, they look for ethnic actors. There's no 'Brooklyn' or 'southern' characters. It's a shame that the U.S. has such a wide variety of homegrown accents and cultures, but the rest of the world only sees 'interchangeable large city'.

DrBOP said...

Burgess Meredith

Tom Quigley said...

Another memorable character actor from the 70's who still occasionally pops up is Kenneth Tygar, who played the unforgettable role in a BARNEY MILLER episode of Mr. Kopechne, the man who thought he was turning into a werewolf. I ran into him at a show one time, told him I remembered him playing the part -- and then couldn't remember the character's name. Very slowly, he stretched out the words "Mr. Ko-PECH-ne!" and then with a smile told me "You've got a good memory!"

Ellen said...

*raises hand*

I remember it, Ken!

Justin Russo said...

This was one of the strengths of the Studio System. Though it hindered stars from having much input into their own films and choices, it provided longevity and sustainability for some wonderful actors (many listed above). Most of these contract players were older vaudevillians and were grateful to be continue their careers. Lucky for us, many were also part of an auteur's posse and used in several pictures.