Sunday, September 06, 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.


Bill Avena said...

Might be a repost of a repost (from earlier this year)?
How about a Sunday sermon/rant about commercial breaks? I recently dvr'd an hour long basic cable program and found that by pushing the 5-minute jump button on my control I was still not done with the ad breaks. Means a 60 minute show had 25 minutes of ads.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Everybody says that accordion player in the "Showtime" episode of M*A*S*H is really a young (and unknown and uncredited) Joe Pesci. Has anyone ever been able to confirm this? I'll admit he does look remarkably a lot like Pesci . . . he just looks too happy to be him.

Canda said...

Yes, 9 actors didn't get the job, BUT one DID. You made his day and maybe his life. The other 9 probably make decent livings playing accordion at ethnic weddings, social halls, and many other places. Or at lease they did back when MASH was on.

Your casting call made them realize they have a talent people are interested in, in case they thought otherwise.

DwWashburn said...

Ah, but your accordion player was Amanda McBroom who has a very successful career as singer/songwriter/actress.

The actors I always wonder about are the "character actors" who become the spokespersons for individual products. I'm sure they get typecast and have to depend on the money they received from the advertisers while they were the face of the product. Someone like Flo on the Progressive ads or Jan on the Toyota ads I'm sure are making good money now but their future acting might be in jeopardy. And the poor actors who are associated with private or embarrassing products such as Phillips laxatives may have a tough time getting any more on-camera work. Although Dick Wilson did get occasional bit roles while he was squeezing Charmin.

MikeN said...

Julia Roberts aged quite a bit; she just insists on lines in her movies about how super gorgeous she is. Matt Damon'This is the best part of my day."

darms said...

Accordion to who?

Andy Rose said...

Nancy Walker still managed to get plenty of work as an actress and director even while she was "Rosie the Waitress" for Bounty.

Cap'n Bob said...

As I probably said four years ago, avoid Jiffy-Lube. They're a burn.

fred nerk said...

DwWashburn, I think there were two accordion players on mash, I remember a rather content looking guy playing as part of a band.

ScottyB said...

Ah, but those character actors, especially the best ones, have some good things going for them: They're hardly ever *not* working — and isn't that kinda the idea when you're an actor? Yeah, we've all seen them a zillion times, but it's always a joy to see them work. Plus, you don't have the pressure on you to carry a film or TV show like the star does. A lot of times, I like watching those "you're that guy" even more than the stars, especially when they're great at playing the kind of guys they always end up playing. Dennis Farina, for example, was always a delight to watch every single time. And J.K. Simmons, altho it might be debatable whether he's a "character actor" in the strictest terms, elevates the art of of playing a certain *kind* of role, no?

So no, I don't necessarily agree with Ken's assertion that character actors are to be pitied.

Craig L. said...

It must be noted that Jack in the Box has changed ad agencies for the first time in umpteen years. The old agency was essentially created to do Jack in the Box commercials and its founder HAS BEEN the guy in the big plastic head all these years. His voice, his body, he did it all. And now he won't be doing that anymore. Now, how do you follow up on THAT character when you're not allowed to play that character anywhere? Also, it will be interesting to see the next new JitB commercials... will Jack look/sound different, or will the new agency go looking for a whole new 'thing'?

ScottyB said...

@CraigL: Imagine the worse problems than that which accomplished American actor Robert Englund must have had to deal with, all these decades, since he first stepped into the role of Freddie Krueger. Or no, even worse than that: The dude in the Chewbacca suit.

OTOH, everytime I see Justin Long in a film, I think, "Oh yeah, the Apple guy." He seems to have risen above that quite well, tho.

ScottyB said...

Yes, but couldn't an argument be made that altho he's not by definition a "character actor", someone as undeniably talented as Alan Alda has a history of being the same type of character? Thanks to MASH, he was cemented in our heads as Hawkeye Pierce. But if you look at his body of film work before and afterward (even if you never saw MASH, ever), he's the exact same Hawkeye Alda — at least (to me anyway) until he stepped into Senator Vinick on 'West Wing'. Now that was a wonderful dimension out of "character."

The same kind of thing might be said for an actor like Kevin Tighe, who later on his his career busted "character" while still fitting the same Johnny Bravo "character type" suit of his 'Emergency' days and everyone discovered he's totally convincing as a conniving fuck-bastard.

OTOH, you have people like Helen Hunt, who can't seem to play anything other than Helen Hunt. And all her roles seem to fit into a definable "character type,' even to this day. But yet, you have character actors who have been/were around for decades that, even tho playing the same "type" of people, their performances from project to project were always somehow different? Doris Roberts (who has been *everyone's* mother on every TV show since the 1970s, ages before she became famous as Raymond's) comes first to mind. Louis Zorich and even guys like Alex Rocco and Paul Sorvino come to mind as well. They were "Yeah, you're that guy" for a long, long time. Yeesh, how many years did William Shatner toil as the same "kind" of character? And today, he still gets cast as the same "kind" of character,albeit a different kind. Yeah, go ahead: Try to buy Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, or Danny Trejo (or for good measure, Harvey Keitel if you want to add creepy into it) a tender romantic, which would totally play against the "character" that we've actually grown to appreciate, but yet exactly what has provided them with very comfortable incomes and ongoing work all these years.

I imagine LA is full of fat and wheezy balding guys in their 50s for cop shows to cherry pick. However, there's only one Dennis Franz, who managed to elevate that kind of ordinary into something pretty fucking special. It's not the clothes you wear; it's how you wear them.

Dana King said...

I'm a fan of character actors, maybe even more than the stars. I think they're a key reason why the new limited-run cable shows are often so good. to pick one quick example, to see an actor from DEADWOOD play a completely different part on JUSTIFIED--say, Ray McKinnon play Reverend Smith and a hit man--is an enormous tribute to their talent and work ethic.

My favorite character quote came from Jack Elam, who said a character actor has four phases to his or her career:
1. Who's Jack Elam?
2. Get me Jack Elam.
3. Get me a Jack Elam type.
4. Who's Jack Elam?

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

Cheers used two of my favorite character actors, the great Frances Sternhagen and Pat Hingle. The return of Gus is one of my favorite episodes of the later years. "You must be Coach's boy!" "Have they stopped making lipstick? Am I that old?" IIRC that episode aired around the same time as The Grifters came out, where he made your blood run cold as Bobo Justice.

MikeN said...
Julia Roberts aged quite a bit; she just insists on lines in her movies about how super gorgeous she is. Matt Damon'This is the best part of my day."

Wow. JR is the big screen Fran Drescher? I remember as a kid watching reruns of the Lucy Show, the ones when she was a widow, and every once in a while there was a reference to how gorgeous she was. I would think, "huh, she looks like one of my mom's friends from church."