Thursday, November 10, 2011

Casting Call: 10 More Character Actors We've Known and Loved. (At least in films.)

Movie faces all come from a heavenly organization - run by the gods of fate - known as Central Casting. All of the following actors were - by some twist of fate - born with faces and talents that could reliably, year after year, be inserted into a film in support of stars who were usually better known and better looking. But not always.

These actors all have one thing in common: they all fulfilled a certain 'look,' a certain type.

You want a maid for such and such a picture, get so and so. You want a cop? Get so and so. You want a henchman? Get so and so.  You want a gangster? You want a ditzy housewife? You want a crazed murderer? You want a goofy professor? Get so and so and so and so...and so on and so on.

Those were the days.

I've already written a post regaling the work of ten of the best character actors ever. You can read it here, at this link.  (In case you were wondering where Charles Lane and Edward Everett Horton are, they're in this first post.)


Ten more superb Golden Age character actors:

1) Lionel Atwill (1885 - 1946).

I love the English actor, Lionel Atwill in his Charlie Chan pictures. Whenever he shows up on screen, you immediately suspect something nefarious is up. Yet, on the rare occasions when he played a good guy - he was able to do that with heart. Most especially as the local police magistrate, Inspector Krogh - he of the missing arm - in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. It was an iconic performance.

Maybe about to announce the end of the world?

2) Roscoe Karns (1891- 1970).

If you were making a picture and wanted a wise-cracking henchman, cop, reporter, or just general weisenheimer, American actor Roscoe Karns was your man. He had the perfect craggy face, voice and delivery and the best know-it-all, world weary look.

 Karns starred in his own TV show in the fifties, playing private detective Rocky King.

Roscoe Karns and Clark Gable, probably in It Happened One Night (1934).

3) Erik Rhodes (1906 - 1990)

Erik Rhodes majored in empty headed gigolos. He always gave off a very continental air, though he was born in Oklahoma. In THE GAY DIVORCEE he played the feckless Italian divorce correspondent, Rudolfo Tonetti, hired to compromise Ginger Rogers - to hasten her divorce from as unlikely a husband as a Ginger Rogers character ever had.

In TOP HAT, Rhodes played Alberto Beddini, a clueless fashion designer who wants to marry his model, Ginger Rogers. My favorite line in the film is sung by Beddini as he gazes into a mirror: "Oh Beddini, I'm so glad you're not skinny." Ha! Everything Rhodes did was funny. He just had that sort of persona.

Three 'greats': Erik Rhodes, Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore.

4) Una O'Connor (1880 - 1959)

Once seen, never forgotten. The Irish actress, Una O'Connor, solidified her screen presence in The Invisible Man, as the finicky, dithery, screechy and very frightened pub owner's wife.

But she was also quite wonderful as Maid Marian's (Olivia de Havilland) lady-in-waiting in The Adventures Of  Robin Hood, and wore some gorgeous costumes to boot.

Olivia de Havilland and Una O'Connor in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

5) Ian Hunter (1900 - 1975)

Though born in South Africa, Ian Hunter, personified for me, the typical stalwart Englishman. He could play the lawyer, the doctor, the professor, the soldier, the best friend or the conniving blackmailer with just the slightest twitch of his photogenic face.

Though not as well-known as many other character actors working at this time, he will always and forever be in my heart as Richard the Lionheart alongside Errol Flynn in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. He appears in my favorite scene in the movie, as a king just back from the Crusades, stealthily meeting up with Robin and his band of merry men in Sherwood Forest. From that moment on (for me) all kings in films were measured against Hunter's calm, confident, aristocratic and utterly gorgeous monarch.

Ian Hunter as King Richard in The Adventures of Robin Hood.

6) Jack Elam (1920 - 2003)

If you wanted sleazy, most especially if you wanted ugly, sinister, cruel and sleazy, then Jack Elam was your man. For many years, this actor's face meant uh-oh, whenever he showed up on screen, usually in westerns but occasionally in noir crime flicks.

He'd lost an eye in an accident when he was a boy, and this loss gave his face a kind of lop-sided unevenness which only added to his almost comically sinister appearance. No good could come of a situation once Jack Elam entered the scene. His grin alone made me shiver. We always whooped it up whenever he got his comeuppance in a movie.

That unforgettable sinister stare.

7) Walter Brennan (1894 - 1974)

Walter Brennan was another ubiquitous character actor who seemed to show up in every movie ever made, kind of like Charles Lane, but more well known. Brennan's roles were usually bigger than Lane's, both working around the same time. Brennan was a type - the old (even when he was young) geezer with or without his dentures - the grandfather, the sidekick, the homesteader, the prospector, the wrangler, the old sea salt or, in some cases, the grizzly bad guy. Without his teeth, he often looked vulnerable and much older than he actually was.

Walter Brennan was the recipient of three Academy Awards - all for Best Supporting Actor.

8) Mary Wickes (1910 - 1995)

Another memorable face. She played a great nurse and did it often. She was also a great housewife neighbor, a busy-body gossip, a long suffering secretary, a teacher or better yet, a principal...well, you name it, Mary Wickes could handle it. I remember her best from her first role as a nurse in The Man Who Came To Dinner.

Among the many films, Wickes worked on, I also remember her with Abbott and Costello in Who Done It? Later, on television, she worked with good friend Lucille Ball on several of her shows plus many others.

Such a look. Such bedside manner.

9) Jerome Cowan (1897 - 1972)

The poor man's aristocrat. He could play the conniving second lead as well as anyone. He could also play it straight and had a nice comedic touch. As Miles Archer in the film classic, The Maltese Falcon, he was Sam Spade's (Humphrey Bogart) sleazy, murdered partner.

He played snobby publishers and literary types very well. He had that look about him that said he knew about books and might occasionally, even read one. When I thought eastern literati, Jerome Cowan sprang to mind. There was an aura of weakness in his face that I think, kept him from making the leap to leading man. But boy could he deliver a funny, sparkling line.

Cowan always looked relaxed in black tie.

10) James Gleason (1882 - 1959)

Another actor seemingly born to play New York cops with short fuses. He was always the grumbly sort who apparently never appeared without a hat. Gleason co-wrote an Academy Award winning film, The Broadway Melody, before he evolved into a busy character actor. He co-starred in six Hildegarde Withers films beginning with The Penguin Pool Murders.

A disbelieving cop in Arsenic and Old Lace.


  1. Such greats, I love them all, especially Wickes, Cowan, and weisenheimer Roscoe Karns. And Gleason. And Rhodes - Beddini's line is also my favorite from that movie. I wonder if any of them minded being branded with a trademark, or if they felt lucky to have some quality or quirk for which they were known?

  2. I think these sorts of actors were happy to be employed. I think they knew they were not leading man or woman material.

    I have a feeling that for these actors, being branded, was a good thing. It meant employment. The fact that they were very talented was to be expected. They delivered when called upon.

  3. Yvette, once again you've come up with a wonderful array of character actors! I always remember Jerome Cowan as THE MALTESE FALCON's Miles Archer, but he's been in a number of comedic roles, too, including THIN MAN-style comedy-mysteries and at least a couple of CRIME DOCTOR movies. And I'm especially delighted that you cited one of our favorite Oscar-winners, Walter Brennan ("Wuz you ever bit by a dead bee?..."). I'm also glad you gave James Gleason a tip of the hat, too; love those Hildegard Withers movies, and I had no idea Gleason was an Oscar-nominated screenwriter as well as supporting actor for HERE COMES MR. JORDAN! And who doesn't love Mary Wickes? Yvette, my friend, thanks to you, my character actor cup runneth over! Great post!

  4. Thanks, Dorian. So glad you enjoyed my post. I'm thinking of doing a character actor post possibly once a month. I love these actors. I mean, who couldn't?

    Oh Cowan easily fit into that rarified, Thin Man world. No doubt.

    Hey, DOrian did you spot my movie post featuring one of my favorite Robert Donat films, THE ADVENTURES OF TARTU? A much underappreciated film.

  5. *D-OH!* How could I forget Una O'Connor, who utterly stole her scenes not only in THE INVISIBLE MAN, but also in one of Team Bartilucci's favorite movies of all time, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, as ornery but loyal-to-her-mistress Janet MacKenzie, who was "antag'nistic" to Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole?

    I'm heading on over to your post about THE ADVENTURES OF TARTU as we speak! :-)

  6. Wasn't she wonderful? My eyes lit up whenever I spotted her in a film.

    The main reason I re-watch The Invisible Man now and then is for Una. :)

  7. 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?)

  8. Not ten minutes ago my husband, who is reading James Garner's book (birthday present), turned to me to relate that Garner says Jack Elam was a great guy! I'm also planning to watch one of his "Gunsmoke" guest appearances in "P.S. Murry Christmas" to kick start my holiday viewing.

    Once again, you've filled a post with character greats I'd love to have at a party. A wonderful spotlight, Yvette. Simply wonderful.

  9. Thanks, Dorian. Kind words are always appreciated around here. :)

    I really do hope you'll feel better soon. Migraines can be a bitch. I used to get them years ago, my mom too.

    Take care of yourself, kiddo. Well, of course you're always welcome at my place. Jeez.

    We're the 'in crowd' in case you didn't know. :)

  10. Thanks, C.W.! I always knew Jack Elam couldn't be as mean as he looked. :) Nice to know that Garner had praise for him.

    I love these older character actors. Their like will never see the light of day again.

    Thank goodness we have the films.

  11. This was a lot of fun to read, Yvette, as seeing these faces brought back so mnay memories. They were all wonderful character actors of their time. It's hard to think of modern actors filling such roles!

  12. Yvette - My particular favorites among your picks are Lionel Atwill, I'm thinking of his wonderful co-starring role with Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's "The Devil is a Woman"...Erik Rhodes of "The Gay Divorcee" ('chance is the fool's name for fate') and "Top Hat"...and James Gleason, who was sublime in every film I've seen him in, from "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" to "The Bishop's Wife" to "The Night of the Hunter." Great post!

  13. Exactly, Pat. Remember what Norma Desmond says in SUNSET BOULEVARD?

    "We had faces, then."

  14. Eve: None of these actors ever gave a bad performance, at least that I can remember.

    Gleason was a marvel, for sure.

    Erik Rhodes: "Chance is the fool's name for fate." HA! Remember how he mangled it? Too funny. You know, he practically steals the film away from Astaire and Rogers. Not quite, but almost. Of course Edward Everett Horton is in the cast as well. A scene stealer from way back. :)

  15. Love all of them -- but, oh, Una O'Connor as Mrs. Wilson in Cluny Brown!

  16. Annaed: She was a pip. I don't think I ever saw Cluny Brown, but I've loved every performance of Una's that I've seen.


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