Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Live Long and Prosper - Ten Character Actors Who Did.

No, this post doesn't have anything to do with the famed Star Trek Vulcan salutation - but I commandeered the sentiment for my post because it is so damned apt. So if you were hoping for Star Trek stuff, I apologize.

Over my many years of movie and television watching (and believe me, I was there at the beginning - TV, that is) I've noticed something rather intriguing: Character Actors live long and prosper. The good ones that is. The one with interesting faces. The ones who are a perfect 'type'. And, oh by the way, the ones who would age in a manner that makes them even more interesting to look at as the years go by. They should also be durable.

These were actors who would never be stars, whose names may not even be known by much of the public, who would always play second or third bananas - but - these were actors who filled out a cast and made movie-watching so much fun in the good old days. Character actors today, for whatever reason, are just not as much fun to watch. (Maybe we're too politically correct to cast for type.) Plus, movie faces nowadays are just not as interesting. "We had faces then,"  is not just a movie line.

Of course you can't make yourself a 'perfect type,' you have to be born that way. THEN as you grow up you have to have the luck and the genes to fit the current stereotype. Then there's the little matter of talent. Yeah, you have to have acting talent as well.

It's not an easy fit, but for some blessed few, it meant a lifetime of work and a good steady income. It was awfully hard to narrow the list to just 10 of my favorites. But I did my best.


Who were/are these blessed (and long-lived) few?

The King of Crankiness.

1) Charles Lane (1905 - 2007) was the granddaddy of them all. He lived to be 102 and I wager he probably worked for most of those years. Certainly he was in every movie ever made. Well, I exaggerate, but he was in hundreds of films over his long, prolific career. In the 30's, 40's, 50's, 60's, 70's and even later, he was everywhere. And he always played the same cranky type. His face and voice personified crankiness. He had an attitude that personified it as well. He was wonderful. My eyes always lit up when I spotted Lane among the cast. He was a pro who always delivered.

Far as I'm concerned, Charles Lane is/was a National Treasure. I loved the man.

To read more about Charles Lane life and see a list of the movies and shows he worked on, please use this link to his Internet Movie Database page.

King of adorable goofiness.

2) Edward Everett Horton (1886 - 1970) was another prolific chap who seemed to appear in every movie made in the 30's and 40's - usually as the main lead's friend, cohort, uncle, father or lawyer. He was especially delightful working opposite Fred Astaire. But wherever or whenever Horton's funny, old-maiden-ish face appeared, you couldn't help but smile. If Charles Lane was the crank, then Edward Everett Horton was the silly, inept, goof of a friend or relative who you couldn't help but love.

To read more about Edward Everett Horton's life and film credits, please use this link to Horton's Wikipedia page.

King of the gangsters.

3) Marc Lawrence (1910 - 2005) was the kind of scary looking dude usually called upon to play hard-nosed mobsters..The sort who delighted in evil doings. Though he did occasionally play a cop - against type - he mostly specialized in toughs, gang leaders, henchmen, killers and generally bad sorts who seemed born without hearts. He had an evil cold-eyed look that made you shiver. In type, Lawrence personified the all-around gangster type and played them to the hilt.

To learn more about Marc Lawrence and his many roles, please go to his Wikipedia page here.

King of the Brash and Fast-Talking.

4) Douglas Fowley (1911 -- 1998) was born to play the fast-talking, brash reporter and often did in the many films he worked on. He was of a more general type though, and could play a gangster, a reporter, a crime-fighter, and even, in SINGING IN THE RAIN, a hysterical film director. He appeared in over 240 films and like the actors mentioned above, extended his career by working in television for years.

Fowley was a bit unusual in type as early in his career, he sometimes played the B-movie love interest. As he got older, his features softened and late in life, he could get away with playing a genial old geezer usually up to some mischief.

To learn more about Douglas Fowley, please go here to his Wikipedia page.

King of the Suave Brits.

5) Alan Napier (1903 - 1988) was an aristocratic looking Englishman who could play butlers par excellence and often did. He is remembered for the part of Alfred in the Batman shows, but I remember him best as Dr. Scott, the second romantic lead in one of my favorite films of the 40's, THE UNINVITED.  He regularly played not only butlers, but noblemen and now and then, a villain or two.

Napier worked steadily from the 30's on and his tall, distinguished presence graced many a movie and later, many a television show.

To learn more about Alan Napier, his life and career, please go to his Wikipedia page.

King of the sympathetic Chinese characters.

6) Keye Luke (1904 - 1991) is probably best remembered for two roles, that of Charlie Chan's number one son, Lee Chan in the Warner Oland Charlie Chan films AND, years later, for his wise tutor, Master Po, to David Carradine in the popular 70's television show, KUNG FU.

There was a warmth that Keye Luke generated on screen and his very likability made him the obvious choice whenever a Chinese character needed to be cast.

To learn more about Keye Luke, his films and career, please go to his IMDB page.

Queen of the bit-players.

7) Ellen Corby (1911 - 1999) is remembered best, I suppose, for her Grandma Walton role in the popular television program, but she'd worked prolifically in movies for many years before that. She was mostly a bit player to begin with, more than a character actress, but her face was a natural for any sort of sympathetic every-woman part. In the above pix, she's playing a waitress in SUSAN SLEPT HERE, the 1954 Debbie Reynolds and Dick Powell movie.

Extremely versatile in looks, she could also play a gossipy, snippy natured woman or a cold sort lacking in warmth when the part called for it. Later as Grandma Walton, where she gained a modicum of fame, she looked like the universal sort of grandma we'd all like to have.

To learn more about Ellen Corby, please go to her Wkipedia page.

Queen of the Every-woman.

8) Kathleen Freeman (1919  - 2001) was another every-woman character actress who filled any role calling for a waitress,  a teacher, a secretary, a cook,  a clerk, or nosey neighbor. For many years, in many, many films and/or television, she was that ubiquitous face you couldn't quite name, but you'd always remember.

To learn more about Kathleen Freeman, please go to her Wikipedia page.

King of the Cranky Square-heads.

9) John Hoyt (1905 - 1991) had, as my friend Jacqueline Lynch once stated on her blog, ANOTHER OLD MOVIE BLOG, the '...squarest face in movies.' Or words to that effect. I definitely concur. There was nothing soft or rounded about John Hoyt's hawkish face.

So, he always played hard-edged characters who were very often cranky. Though Hoyt's crankiness was different in character from Charles Lane's. Hoyt's was more ominous, his annoyance had a deadlier edge. I remember him best as the odiously selfish millionaire in WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE.  Hoyt could play cold and odious better than most.

To learn more about John Hoyt, please go to his IMDB page. For a partial list of his movies, you'll need to go to his Wikipedia page.

Queen of the loony-toonys.

10) Charlotte Rae (1925 - present) is a loony-toony character actress and, to my mind, one of the funniest women to ever walk the earth. In over sixty years in television, she made any episode of any show she ever appeared in, that much funnier. Primarily remembered for the inane comedy series, THE FACTS OF LIFE. She was capable of SO MUCH MORE. But hey, I won't quibble. It was a steady gig for a few years. More power to her. She made the show better than it was.

There's just something about Charlotte Rae's persona that makes me think she's always a few seconds away from flying off the handle. Just thinking about her makes me smile.

I remember Rae best as Sylvia Schnauser, in CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU? But any show she ever appeared in, I knew right away I was in for some laughs.

To learn more about Charlotte Rae, please go to this link.

So, what is it, do you suppose that made character actors of the past so long-lived? Maybe it was the steady work and income? Maybe it was their acceptance of their place in the acting eco-system?
I'm not sure.

Opinions, welcomed.


  1. You did manage to get Star Trek in there! I recognize that shot. It's from "The Cage" (or the "The Menagerie" as it was incorporated into the regular show). :-)

  2. Didn't even realize it until I was proof-editing which sometimes seems to go on and on with me. I am an editor at heart. GAK!

    Oh well, a little Star Trek never hurts. But don't you think the title is perfect?

  3. Your topic today brought to mind one of my favorite movie characters -- Ellen Corby as the lovelorn Aunt Trina in I Remember Mama. She was perfect!

  4. A great collection of the best. So glad you led off with Charles Lane, who's tops in my book. I don't remember the John Hoyt remark, but someone should slap me if I try to be pithy.

    Always got a huge kick seeing Ellen Corby in anything, and Kathleen Freeman just made my day. She was appearing on Broadway in "The Full Monty" while battling lung cancer. She was nominated for a Tony for this role, and quit only when she became too ill. She died five days later. That's dropping in the harness, something most of these veterans have in common. Thank God for them.

  5. I like the women you chose but I would include Mary Wickes over Charlotte Rae. Wickes' career was far longer and in her final years she softened and showed a hidden warmth in movies like SISTER ACT and POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE. Some other unsung women: Thelma Ritter, Queenie Smith (most of her speaking roles were uncredited, but you'd know her if you saw her. And that voice!), Joan Blondell, Reta Shaw (tended to do the same kind of role but I thought she was remarkable any time I saw her), and the brilliant Jeannette Nolan. Started out as a striking and impressive Shakespearean actress and was Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles' movie then went on to play harebrained spinsters, conniving villainesses and crazy old women well into the 1970s. Her distinctive cackling "old lady voice" was used for the dubbed dialog of Mrs. Bates in PSYCHO.

    Where are all the great Western character actors? You should've had at least one: Audie Murphy, Ward Bond, Woody Strode, Milburn Stone, etc., etc. I guess there are way too many to list. ;^)

  6. Anonymous: Ellen Corby was a really wonderful actress with a great deal of feeling in her expressions and in her speaking cadence.

  7. Jacqueline: I'm glad we're the two top members of the Charles Lane Fan Club. He was wwonderful.

    Kathleen Freeman, expecially, was everywhere in the days when I watched television religiously. She was terrific. A trouper till the end.

    Yes, Jacqueline, I agree, Thank God for these wonderful actors.

  8. John: I'll do another list at some point soon. I promise. There were so MANY western types that I might require a separate list for them altogether.

    Walter Brennan would be at the head of any Western list.

    Maybe next week sometime. I know I left off plenty of wonderful character actors, but I couldn't list more than ten or it would have gotten unwieldy.

    Charlotte Rae's career has spanned over sixty years. I think that qualifies her to be listed.

    Also I love her.

  9. They were(are)all wonderful actors and actresses! I think their endearing qaulities were that they were good at their craft, were probably dependable, did not ask for or expect top billing and probably worked for scale pay. They had the type of face or personality that fit many roles, such as the ones you pointed out.

  10. I remember Keye Luke from the Charlie Chan films of course, Yvette. But I also remember seeing him on stage as one of the featured original cast members of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song," on Broadway, towards the end of the 1950s. He certainly was a good actor, whether on stage or in the movies.

  11. Yvette, what a fabulous article! I have always thought the wonderful character actors practically make the movies in which they appear. Your choices are so good I don't think I can pick a favorite. But I have always had a special place in my heart for cranky Charles lane, goofy Edward Everett Horton (loved him in Lost Horizon), suave Alan Napier (this is weird timing, but I have the Uninvited taped to watch-I thought he was so masculine and handsome in that), and dear Charlotte Rae. Oh heck, I like them all.

    Wonderful article, Yvette, and very well done!

  12. Found your blog thanks to Laura.

    I pretty much concur with your choices, but I have a favorite character actress that I think few people would recognize by name - Doro Merande (the strung-up postmistress in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming) - a unique and priceless comedienne.

    Pictures of her are not easy to find but I have a few.

  13. This is a great post and list.

    Other than Edward Everett Horton, I didn't know the names of the male actors who I saw in so many movies -- and helped make them classics.

    I remember Kathleen Freeman, who was a great force, Ellen Corby and Charlotte Rae. All of them excellent.

    Maybe a reason we remember them is that they were in movies for decades. Those who couldn't do it or passed away at a younger age weren't in as many movies spanning decades.

  14. Novel post and a wonderful star cast too! In spite of the adversities of the period, these character actors lived long which tells you something, doesn't it? But what is it? Broadly speaking, a simple and active lifestyle, focused career, a happy family, fewer distractions so more time on hand, and a determined will to live in the moment and make the most of it... Let's not forget these actors were in their prime well before the information-marketing-technology age which has both simplified (inbox scores over postbox) and complicated (facebook everyday, family every Sunday) our lives.

    You can look at so many things in so many different ways, particularly in the entertainment world. Little known trivia about films and film stars that's quite fascinating. Recently, I went to IMDb and did a random check on the heights of some of the popular actors of the day and, by god, they are all freakin' tall. However, Daniel Craig, I discovered, is only 5"10!

  15. The Golden Age of movies and television gave us so many wonderful character actors that you could run this series for weeks and never run out of folks!

    My dad had one rule when watching movies with his four daughters. We were never to refer to any character performer as "whatshisname". It added respect to the affection we had for the players.

  16. Pat: You got it. They were pros and could be counted on to deliver. Plain and simple. :)

    Plus, they were NOT prima donnas.
    If they were, they wouldn't have lasted as long.

  17. Les: Keye Luke was another real pro who knew the score (not just FLOWER DRUM SONG) and adapted. He did everything with an innate and gentle dignity that endeared him to audiences.

  18. Thanks you, Becky. This was one done with a lot of love. I know there were many more wonderful character actors who deserve mentioon, as John reminds me. :)

    I'll do another post in a few days.

    These people sometimes made a bad movie bearable. They were/are such pros.

    Who doesn't love Charles Lane? ;)

  19. Mel: Welcome, I'm glad you dropped by.

    Of course I remember Doro - she practically stole the movie out from under the noses of Carl Reiner and the rest of that cast of loonies. :)

    These were such special people.

  20. Exactly, Kathy. We saw them all the time and got to know them as old friends even if we didn't know their names at the time.

    There were many others,like Donald MacBride - born to play a cop and did so in almost every picture he ever made. But he wasn't as long-lived so I didn't include him in my post.

    That was part of my qualification for posting, that they be long-lived.

  21. Prashant: Yes, I think you've hit the nail on the head. The common denominator: these people were focused and lived in the moment. Their reality was accepted and they mostly took home a steady paycheck working in a career they must have loved.

    I love IMDB - you can find out so many things relevant to movie and television.

  22. Caftan Woman: Sometimes I knew their names and sometimes I didn't. I mostly tried to pay attention. When I saw an actor appear more than a few times in films or TV, I learned the name or tried to.

    This was truly a Golden Age. I will definitely do more posts. :)

  23. What a trip down Memory Lane! If I'd had a career in acting, I would've wanted to be a character actor, not a big star. More fun to be one of these folks!

  24. Love Charlotte Rae and Douglas Fowley!

    Another actress, a little more well know, who I don't think ever got the recognition she deserved was Agnes Moorehead.

  25. Cathy: Me too! I would have loved being a character. Ha! Nothing beats a steady paycheck.

  26. Ryan: Yes, good choice. Though she was much better known than most character actors. I'm doing a western character actor list next week. By request of John. :)

  27. Mark: Not sure what that means, kiddo. I'm not up on all the latest shortcuts. :)

  28. My comment just disappeared. If it shows up, feel free to delete. :<) All I said was that you are brilliant. You know SO much. I recognize a few of them. My favorite EEH movie is Holiday, and he and his wife, played by Binnie Barnes are my favorite married couple in the movies. (I feel like I may have told you that before?)

  29. Here's your comment, Nan, and I'm glad you stopped by.

    Thank you for the kind words. :)

    I don't rermember you ever telling me about HOLIDAY and EEH and Binnie Barnes before. I have HOLIDAY on my Netflix queue. Been meaning to watch.

    Didn't realize EEH was in it. I am definitely watching it now.


  30. It is not only one of my favorite 'holiday' movies, but one of my favorites, period. Lew Ayres is such a sad character in it. And I think it is quite K. Hepburn's best and maybe Cary Grant's too. Horton and Barnes aren't in it a lot, but when they are, they just epitomize the best kind of love in marriage.

  31. Nan: I simply do not remember having seen this at all. How that happened, I just don't know.

    Obviously, I will rectify this outrage soon. :)

  32. Your blog could be the eggplant that ate my life...I could just sidle over here and never go back to South Pasadena. CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU? What fun seeing your mention of Charlotte Rae and her affiliation with that show, to which song I remember the lyrics though I, daily, forget most other things that matter. What a great post, homage to familiar faces and true talents.

  33. Marylinn: First time my blog's been called an eggplant. Though given my shape...HA! Love it.

    Thanks so much. I'm glad you're enjoying hanging around here. :)

    We're MAJOR Charlotte Rae and CAR 54 fans in this part of the world too.

    "There's a hold-up in the Bronx, Brooklyn's broken out in fights....lalalalalalalalal!

  34. Fantastic choices for the character actors!

  35. Yvette, as I've surely mentioned here and/or TotED and other blogs, I'm a sucker for memorable character actors. You picked a fine array of them, including the all-but-indestructible Charles Lane, Charlotte Rae, and Team B. favorite Kathleen Freeman, who we first saw as strict yet helpful nun "The Penguin" in THE BLUES BROTHERS! It was great to see Ellen Corby on your list, too; I'd first seen her on THE WALTONS, but when I got into Alfred Hitchcock movies, I was delighted to see her as the dithery landlady in VERTIGO.

    Now I'm heading for your new character actor post! See you shortly, my friend! :-)

  36. Dorian, the truth is that in many movies, the character actors are the only ones worth their salt. :)

    I'm so happy to see you around these parts, kiddo. You're always welcome. :)

  37. Yvette, I'm always happy to spend quality time here at " so many words"! Sorry I've been scarce lately; between deadlines and migraines, I haven't been spending as much time reading and writing and blogging as I'd ideally like. Thanks for always making me feel welcome; you're a sweetie! (And have I mentioned that your photos of your granddaughter and your dog always make me smile?)


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