Monday, February 22, 2016

Hire the villain

It's pilot casting season!  Looking to cast an actor who can play comedy? Hire a villain.

It’s been my experience that actors who can play interesting compelling bad guys generally can also get laughs. Not sure why. Maybe they just have to work harder to take an unlikable or clich├ęd character and breathe some fresh new life into them. I dunno. This is my own half-baked theory based on nothing but my own observations.

Ed Asner always played thugs and evil doers, and look how great he was as Lou Grant on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.

Nick Colasanto was a mob guy in RAGING BULL before becoming the Coach on CHEERS. He shot a lot of gunsels in his early acting days.

How many scary dudes did Anthony Anderson portray before spreading mirth in BLACKISH?

Gene Hackman: Oscar winning bad guy in UNFORGIVEN, very amusing bad guy as Lex Luthor in SUPERMAN (the good one with Christopher Reeve; not the last dreadful dirge).

The late Alan Rickman was a spectacular villain in DIE HARD. I saw him on Broadway doing PRIVATE LIVES and he killed. He got laughs from straight lines.

Christoph Waltz was both terrifying and hilarious in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.

When I first saw ROBOCOP, which at the time (1987) was a little underground hit, I was entranced by an actor I had never seen before – Kurtwood Smith. He played Clarence and was so deliciously evil I made a vow that someday I wanted to work with him.

Sure enough, six years later we were casting BIG WAVE DAVE’S for CBS and needed an ex-pat who was mysterious, larger-than-life, and funny. We asked for Kurtwood Smith. The network was a little hesitant because he primarily was known for drama. He had also played the strict father in DEAD POETS’ SOCIETY by that point. But no one could deny he scored in his reading and he got the part. I was thrilled.

And he exceeded our wildest expectations. Unfortunately, our show was short-lived, but Kurtwood went on to play the dad in THAT 70s SHOW.

So I tip my cap to the screen villains. Sure you murder and destroy lives and property. Sure, if you had your way you’d rule the world after blowing half of it up. But all is forgiven if you can get solid laughs. And many of you do. 

41 comments:

Aaron Sheckley said...

Dashiell Hammett would crack up if he saw the way gunsel was used now, as opposed to how he meant it when he wrote the Maltese Falcon.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Both Cagney and E.G. Robinson always got laughs.
Pesci is brilliant at being a bad guy, being scary and getting the laugh. In Goodfellas he does both.

Dennis Hopper could do it all.
Arnold could scare you in Terminator, and make us laugh in other fare.

And let's not forget a TV sitcom person that become the most hated person in America.
LARRY HAGMAN.

Peter said...

Kurtwood Smith is the man! To this day Clarence Boddicker is one of the all time great movie villains. His line "Bitches leave" has become an internet meme. And he was equally brilliant in Dead Poets. I got so used to seeing him play bad guys, it was with a sense of relief to see him play a nice guy in Big Wave Dave's.

B.A. said...

It seemed Dabney Coleman was the villain everyone loved and he got traded around a lot but he
s not in the landscape today. Eddie Albert was my favorite villain (THE LONGEST YARD) and GREEN ACRES is a fine show when you understand Eddie's the villain of the piece.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

That stalwart of comedy Walter Natthau played villains until he emerged as a good everyman in THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1,2,3.

Although: Basil Rathbone also played villains before Sherlock Holmes took over his life. Maybe he'd have been funny if he'd had the chance.

wg

Jim McKee said...

Your theory works in reverse, too. Bryan Cranston's TV work was mostly in comedy before Breaking Bad.

Michael said...

We also saw Rickman in Private Lives, but after seeing Kevin Costner's destruction of Robin Hood, we knew that Rickman could get a bagel to laugh.

Ken, you might have mentioned someone else who often played bad guys before being cast in a comedy: Larry Linville. Or, for that matter, the Airplane movies. Those of us who had watched MASH, and seen the episode with a nutty colonel, knew that Leslie Nielsen could be hilarious. Granted, some of the longtime actors in it hadn't really been villains. But none of them was noted for comedy, and when you think of how brilliant they were in their roles ....

Anonymous said...

> but Kurtwood went on to play the dad in THAT 70s SHOW.

You could have just said the guy you think is Ed Harris but isn't.

Rashad Khan said...

Another great example: David Clennon. How the dude who portrayed Miles Dentrell on "thirtysomething" could turn around and be the scene-stealing supporting player that he was on "Almost Perfect" amazes me to this day.

Kirk said...

Vincent Price was a villain with a flair for comedy. Watch A Comedy of Terrors sometimes, or even Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. He's hilarious in both.

Stephen Robinson said...

And let's not forget a TV sitcom person that become the most hated person in America.
LARRY HAGMAN.

***

Hagman had such a "wink" in his eye as J.R. that you couldn't help loving him. As I like to say, jerks can easily play saints, but it takes a nice guy at heart to make us love a villain.

Earl Boebert said...

Another two who made the transition were DeForest Kelley, who was both charming and funny as Bones on Star Trek, and William Talman, who transitioned from a classic psychopath in The Hitch-Hiker to one of the world's classic whiners as Hamilton Burger in Perry Mason. Peter Lorre went from a make-your-flesh-crawl pedophile in M to an object of fun in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Raven. Great observation, Ken.

blinky said...

How about the guy that played the mean boss in Dinosaurs? http://www.dvdizzy.com/images/d-f/dinos12-04.jpg

Anonymous said...

Michael Keaton
Pacific Heights/Multiplicity

Stephen Marks said...

Mr. Kahn mentioned David Clennon, excellent example. I used to tape ThirtySomething then fast forward over the suspenders and baby scenes just to get to Miles Drentrell. Clennon was a wonderful actor. Well to balance the scales I should add some women to the list; Anges Moorehead in Bewitched, every woman not named Joan Van Ark in Knot's Landing and my ex-mother-in-law in a production of "My Daughter Married A Bum!"

Chris said...

@Aaron Sheckley: I was wondering if anyone else would pick up on the (possible) misuse of gunsel. I learned the proper meaning of the word when doing a documentary for A & E several years ago. It made watching "The Maltese Falcon" that much more interesting.

ScottyB said...

@KenLevine: Another topic might be the opposite: actors first/best known for great comedic roles who did 180s into strictly-dramatic TV roles, and quite nicely. Enrico Colantoni ('Just Shoot Me!' into 'Flashpoint') is usually the first off the top of my head. (He also made a great alien in the film 'Galaxy Quest'.)

ScottyB said...

While it wasn't comedy, Dabbs Greer was my favorite bad guy/good guy. Going from playing the snakiest, vile creatures on TV Westerns to being Rev. Alden on 'Little House on the Prairie' was pretty amazing to see. It was even cooler to see his little flashes of temper as the Rev that could remind you of his TV days as a soulless varmint.

Mitchell McLean said...

I first remember Kurtwood Smith as the villain in Flashpoint(1984).

Earl Boebert said...

Re: the gunsel thread on the Maltese Falcon: A great trivia question is to name the character in the book they left out of the movie (for obvious reasons).

Aaron Sheckley said...

@Chris: It's one of those words like "decimate"; it doesn't mean what people think it means, but it gets used so often in a different way that eventually it assumes that meaning. Like you, though, I laugh when I hear it used in an old gangster movie as an interchangeable word with "gunman".

Charles H. Bryan said...

And Kurtwood Smith is back to playing a villain in AGENT CARTER. Doing it rather well, too.

Diane D. said...

THE JANUARY MAN wasn't a comedy, but the role Alan Rickman played in it was so hilarious, it's one of the reasons that is one of my all time favorite movies.

McAlvie said...

I think a really good villain and a really good comedian have quite a bit in common. Both have a way of relating with the audience. And a really good villain must be a lot more fun to play than the average good guy. Maybe that sense of fun is what gives those actors such versatility?

My favorite Rickman evil villain was The Sherriff of Nottingham in the 1991 Costner version of Robin Hood. It was a fun movie with a great cast (yes, I know it has critics; I said fun, not "Great Art"), but Rickman stole every scene he was in.

Kosmo13 said...

>>>Re: the gunsel thread on the Maltese Falcon: A great trivia question is to name the character in the book they left out of the movie (for obvious reasons). <<<<

Gutman's daughter?

J Lee said...

Sheldon Leonard was probably the prototype for transitioning from straight dramatic bad guy to source of television comedy -- even before he began doing comedy guest star bits on TV, the writers for The Jack Benny Program cast Sheldon as the race track tout who'd give Jack tips on everything except for horse races.

Pat Reeder said...

To J Lee:

Hey, bub... Funny you should mention Sheldon Leonard, since today is his boithday. He was born Feb. 22, 1907.

Incidentally, it's a sign that you have too much trivia taking up brain cells when you know Sheldon Leonard's birthday off the top of your head.

Michael said...

Scottyb mentioned Dabbs Greer. Also on "Little House on the Prairie," Kevin Hagen played kindly Doc Baker. On one episode of MASH, he played a colonel who didn't care how many of his men died retrieving dead bodies, and another where he's sent to chew out Hawkeye but turns out to be a sweetheart. And he pulled it off beautifully.

Liggie said...

@ScottyB: Colantoni also played the private-eye father in "Veronica Mars".

VP81955 said...

In the silent era, William Powell was best known for playing villains. It wasn't until talkies, when audiences first heard his rich, urbane voice, that Powell was cast as a good guy, and perhaps Cary Grant's only rival in romantic comedy.

Cap'n Bob said...

There were two phrases in The Maltese Falcon that were misunderstood, especially by the censors. As noted, the first was gunsel. The other was "the gooseberry lay." To be on the gooseberry lay means to hide in the bushes waiting to steal clothing from a clothesline. The censors thought it meant something dirty and made them remove it from the movie. But gunsel, which meant a young homosexual killer, was allowed to stay in.

Barry Traylor said...

I also enjoyed Gene Hackman in THE BIRDCAGE and thought him funny in that.

Aaron Sheckley said...

Gunsel would have been intended by Hammett as an even more inflammatory insult in 1929 that just "young homosexual killer". Basically, it's a young male kept as a sexual companion by an older man. Hammett's insult doesn't even acknowledge that Cook is dangerous; only that he's the passive plaything of his boss.

Earl Boebert said...

"Kosmo13 said...
>>>Re: the gunsel thread on the Maltese Falcon: A great trivia question is to name the character in the book they left out of the movie (for obvious reasons). <<<<

Gutman's daughter?"

Yup. If there were such a thing as Maltese Falcon Fan Fiction, the tale of Rhea Gutman would make a cool topic.

A lot of people think she was a loose end in the plot. Hammett wasn't a loose end kind of writer, so I think he was hinting at something else. We're not dealing with a Raymond Chandler, who didn't know who killed the chauffeur :-)

Gary West said...

How about Leslie Nielsen? Early on, he was always cast as a heavy/villain in TV shows. He's a terrific example.

Mike Doran said...

The villain-comic traffic runs both ways.

Over the years, the various Law & Order series have often employed funny people to play their bad guys.

Among others:

Chevy Chase

Martin Short

Carol Burnett

Larry Miller

Chris Elliott

Jane Krakowski

Lewis Black

Stephen Colbert

Christopher Lloyd

Bob Saget

Joan Cusack

Anne Meara

... several others I mentioned the first time I tried to post this ...

Robert Forman said...

I immediately thought Abe Vigoda. I remember reading an interview with him where he said after The Godfather he would be walking down the street and get stopped by police officers. They would recognize him as a "criminal" but didn't immediately register that he was a bad guy in a movie. He had no hard feelings about it and they would be apologetic after realizing their mistake. But he did like it better after he was on Barney Miller because when the cops saw him on the street the would call out to him "Fish!"

bSneijder90 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gerry said...

I believe the other half of this equation is the fact that comedians *always* make the scariest villains, as @Mike Doran was hinting at above. Robin Williams, Bill Irwin, Martin Short...creeeeeeepy!!

Carolyn said...

Jack Elam. Anything pre-Support Your Local Sheriff was villainous, pretty much anything after was comedic.

Greg Ehrbar said...

• Gene Hackman was excellent as the blind man in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.

• William Conrad was always serious, yet he mocked this seriousness as the narrator of ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE, plus had fun being silly on variety shows like SONNY AND CHER.

• Speaking of Basil Rathbone and Jack Benny, Rathbone and other dramatic actors loved being on the Benny radio show because they could do comedy. Rathbone, playing himself, couldn't resist stepping into wet cement in Jack's front yard because he felt he was denied footprints at Grauman's Chinese Theater.

• On the other hand, Hugh Laurie usually played a clueless boob in mostly British films and TV shows (he was also a comic villain in 101 DALMATIANS) but he's known primarily in the U.S. as a heavy or a curmudgeon or both.