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Not for $50 million and a room full of Les Pauls could I tell you how it came to me, but yesterday I found myself thinking about Brion James.

The veteran character actor was ninety-eight shades of awesome. During the 80s, he seemed to be in every other film, always playing a deliciously rough-edged thug or unrefined clod, epitomized in his role as the boorish Detective Kehoe in 48 Hrs. With his sunken eyes, hound dog cheeks and a hanging lower lip, he forged an enduring career with one of the least-attractive faces in Hollywood. Barking in a hoarse drawl with an unremarkable build, he was everything the leading men were not; yet there he was, going toe-to-toe with all of them.

It was his ability to play “the asshole” that earned my admiration. My favorite characters have always been assholes; not necessarily the villains, just the assholes. It’s easy to relate to assholes because those are the people you might actually run into during the course of your day. I count a number of spectacular assholes among my closest friends and I derive great comfort from that.

James could do comedy as well as drama. His turn as Big Teddy in Cabin Boy was brilliant–an utterly silly role in an utterly silly film.

When the IMDB launched, the first person I looked up was Brion James, and I was gutted to find that he had died young. He remains my favorite character actor of all time.

Here are ten more of my favorite character actors:

 

Mike Starr

Seeing “Frenchy” show up in a movie automatically bumps it up one full point in a ten-point rating system. With his thick New York accent and porcupine face, he is the ultimate heavy. His turn in Goodfellas was legendary, and the scene of his lifeless body pouring out of a dump truck remains one of the film’s emotional low points. Starr’s role in Dumb and Dumber, like James’ in Cabin Boy, showed off his fine comedic timing and ability to play it straight amid some of the most inane dialogue to ever issue from the mouths of humans. Of course, Starr was also in Cabin Boy, so perhaps James taught him a thing or two.

 

 

M. Emmett Walsh

The first of two classic Walshes, Emmett can play it straight, but his strength is taking on quirky or clueless foils for the leads. While he’s been in scores of movies you’ve already seen, he has also appeared in an astonishing number of movies that you never knew existed. I have to guess that his seeming indifference to the gravitas of a role is one of the secret ingredients in his career. It is safe to say that if you were hosting a sock puppet show for your cats, you could probably cast him as a wacky doctor fairly cheaply. His best role is the guy in the machine shop who won’t stop talking to Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona.

 

 

J. T. Walsh

Walsh number two, and another guy who died prematurely. I worked in a law firm in Boston one summer and the secretary came in one Monday morning looking like she had combed her hair in the low branches and reeking of booze. She advised that the prior evening, there had been a grand gathering of alumni from her alma mater, the University of Rhode Island, which gathering included none other than J.T. Walsh. Apparently J.T. was in her class and by her estimation, a down-to-earth, approachable guy who was more than happy to regale his New England classmates with tales of Hollywood and the the silver screen. His best character is “the prick,” which he played to perfection in Red Rock West. His turn in A Few Good Men was surprisingly potent–surprising in that they gave such a big role to him instead of a more mainstream actor. I for one, am glad. Walsh’s performance in that movie remains way better than anything Tom Cruise has ever put together in anything he has ever done.

 

Billy Drago

Here’s a guy who is arguably one of the worst actors in the world, spitting out dialogue with the eloquence of a man watching his family being held at gunpoint. Most famous for his role as hit man Frank Nitti in The Untouchables, Drago has a thin, angular face that looks like the old pictures of Satan that monks drew in Bibles back in the medieval ages.  Those malevolent looks have attracted him acres of work as a movie villain, and his appearance in any scene spells bad news for one of the other characters. When you see Drago enter a scene, there might as well be pink neon closed captioning that reads, “SHIT IS ABOUT TO GO STRAIGHT DOWNHILL FOR THE PROTAGONIST.” Still, watching him stumble through his lines in The Untouchables leaves you wondering just what kind of dirt he must have dug up on Brian DePalma to get the part.

 

Peter Stormare

His Buscemi-chopping villain in Fargo is his best performance to date, even though you could write all of his dialogue from that movie on a grain of rice. Twice. While “gruff foreigner” is his bread and butter, this versatile Swede is generally cast in roles requiring ambiguous European accents, and like any character actor worth his SAG card, he can do comedy as well. His part as one of the nihilists in The Big Lebowski, and in particular the dream sequence, remains a crowning jewel of the Coen brothers’ body of work.

 

Murray Hamilton

Hamilton was unrivaled in playing haughty politicians and inflexible authority figures. His role as the unconscionable mayor of Amity in Jaws is my personal favorite, as he imposes single-minded dedication to promoting summer tourism while aggressively ignoring the fact that a gigantic shark is eating half of his town. Ultimately, it is his suit coat emblazoned with tiny anchors that is the star of that movie. Among my circle of friends, there is no greater sartorial dig than loudly asking someone wearing a suit jacket at a party how things are in the town of Amity. Hamilton’s amoral mayor was memorable enough to land him a return role in Jaws 2 and ironically, he later appeared as a priest in The Amityville Horror.

 

Ronny Cox

What? Come on, not all great character actors have to specialize in villains. Cox is one of those feel-good faces who play the characters that ground and support manic leads, such as his role as Eddie Murphy’s long-suffering chief in Beverly Hills Cop or his turn as the National Guard colonel in Taps, who takes Timothy Hutton’s Occupy Bunker Hill Military Academy movement and shoves it right up his ass (after being as grounding and supportive as circumstances allow). The only role of his that I didn’t enjoy was the villain Vilos Cohaagen in Total Recall. They should have given that to J. T. Walsh.

 

 

Ed O’Ross

I’ll just say this: I don’t trust any man or woman who doesn’t love Ed O’Ross. It’s one of the questions I ask my trusted professionals–my accountant, my dentist, my doctors and my plumber. Don’t know who Ed O’Ross is? Then you’re gone. You’re out there like fuckin’ Pluto, man. And if you don’t get that reference, stop everything you’re doing and get yourself in front of Lethal Weapon, stat. With a face like his, gangster roles abound but he has real acting chops that go far beyond simply eating up scenery with snarls and menacing looks. Hell, he dropped a cameo into Doogie Howser, M.D. I also think it’s funny as shit that his name is “O’Ross” when he looks as Irish as Ricardo Montalban.

 

 

Danny Trejo

The ultimate bad-ass. When you need an intimidating Mexican, he’s your go-to guy. Trejo is such a good character actor that director Robert Rodriguez did the unthinkable–he wrote a feature film around him (Machete). Does this remove him from standing as a great character actor? Hell no. With a face that only a serial killer could love and a collection of fearsome tattoos that make Tommy Lee’s look like henna shit he had done at Earth Day, Trejo is straight-up legit. After running with LA gangs and doing time in prison, he got his break in films as a prison movie extra, later teaching actors how to box and fight for the cameras. My dream casting would be to feature him as the lead in a rom com, where Hugh Grant is his wacky roommate and Anne Hathaway the love interest.

 

 

Slim Pickens

His lines in movies like Blazing Saddles and Dr. Strangelove are so iconic that Naked Raygun recorded a b-side single called “Slim,” with a driving, countrified twang rolling under a catalog of his greatest quotes. In fact, enjoy.

 

 

 

 

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Joe Daly JOE DALY writes for a number of publications, including the UK's Metal Hammer and Classic Rock magazines, Outburn, Bass Guitar Magazine and several other print and online outlets. He is the music and cultural observer for Chuck Palahniuk's LitReactor site and his works have been published in several languages. When he is not drafting wild-eyed manifestos, Joe enjoys life in San Diego's groovy North County, teaching music journalism, doing yoga, running, playing guitar and spending tireless hours in deep and meaningful conversations with his beloved dogs, Cabo and Lola. You can check out his rants at http://joedaly.net and follow him on Twitter: @JoeD_SanDiego

52 responses to “The Ten Greatest Character Actors of All Time”

  1. Joe this was awesome. What a great list. Don’t forget M. Emmet Walsh’s roles in Blood Simple and Blade Runner (where I also first saw Brion James). I remember an interview with James where he said that he was so immersed in the Blade Runner role that he had difficulty getting out of it and people avoiding him in the grocery store because of the bad vibes. I know the work of all these guys. Drago in Untouchables was totally freakshow. Walsh, Stormare, and Hamilton are cagey additions also. Peace.

    • Joe Daly says:

      Thanks, Peter! Great insight into James’ post-Blade Runner experience. And yeah, Drago in The Untouchables made perfect sense until he opened his mouth.

  2. Don Mitchell says:

    Showing my age, but Slim Pickens had a sweet role in One Eyed Jacks, too.

    • Joe Daly says:

      Don- can’t say I’ve ever seen that one. Any good?

      • Don Mitchell says:

        Yeah, pretty good. It’s the film in which Brando utters what for my crowd was a much-admired and much-imitated line: “You scum-sucking pig.”

        Pickens was a completely despicable deputy sheriff.

  3. Quenby Moone says:

    WHERE ARE THE WOMEN, JOE?

    • Richard Cox says:

      Joe’s obviously a Republican.

    • Joe Daly says:

      Q$-

      I was wondering when someone was going to call me out on that. I couldn’t think of any that I liked more than these guys. Def a number of great ones–Edie McClurg and Roma Maffia come to mind–but I couldn’t think of any that I liked better than my top ten.

      What changes/substitutions would you make?

      • Quenby Moone says:

        I’m just screwin’ with you. I don’t actually care. But I love ol’ what’zerbucket in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

        And then there was that other one.

        • Quenby Moone says:

          I will say that it’s interesting how many more male character actors come to mind than women. I don’t believe this incriminates anyone but the script writers who aren’t writing interesting supporting and/or ensemble roles for female character actors.

          Where is the Peter Lorre of women? How about Claude Rains of the female persuasion?!

        • Joe Daly says:

          It’s a great point tho! Is it a scripting issue, a casting issue or something else?

          And yeah, Nurse Ratchet was iconic.

  4. Richard Cox says:

    This is a great list, Joe, with Ronny Cox being a personal favorite (even without the last name). I loved him in Total Recall. Only a pundit wouldn’t.

    I know the comments will be chock full of “How could you leave such and such off the list???”, but speaking of Total Recall, what about Michael Ironside? Talk about your prototypical asshole.

    And you should be shot for not including John C. Reilly.

    • Joe Daly says:

      Coxy,

      Anyone who thinks of JCR as anything but a leading man has never seen Hard Eight, let alone Step Brothers. Good God, man, do they have movie theaters in Tulsa?

      Michael Ironside is a GREAT call. That flick had a few good character actors in it.

      If they don’t re-cast Ronny Cox in the remake, they might as well put $20 million in the middle of the desert and set it on fire.

  5. M.J. Fievre says:

    Great list. Ashamed to say that I only know Peter Stormare. Loved Prison Break.

  6. Neil McCrea says:

    Excellent list. I have no argument for any of them. Slim Pickens death scene in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid surely ranks as one of the great death scenes of all time. Hell, Dylan wrote Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door FOR that scene.
    My favorite that didn’t make your cut has got to be Warren Oates.

    • Joe Daly says:

      Neil,

      Warren Oates is a great call. Honorable Mention for sure, although there’s a strong case for a swap with Billy Drago.

      Great trivia, too about Dylan. In many ways, we all live in Slim Pickens’ shadow…

  7. Did you know Harry Dean Stanton is in every American film ever made? True*

    *not true

    • Irene Zion says:

      Joe, I really did not put twenty spaces between all my words up there. I don’t understand the way it appeared.

    • Joe Daly says:

      Irene, you just hit a grand slam. Robert LoSardo is the ultimate character actor. Totally recognizable with all his tattoos and his piercing glare, he shows up all over television and movies and until you just mentioned him, I had no idea who you were talking about.

      He’s awesome. I’d love to see an action movie starring him, Danny Trejo and Michael Rooker as good guys, and Tom Hanks and Dennis Quaid as the baddies.

      • Irene Zion says:

        Robert Lasardo never fails to give me the willies every time I see him act.

        • Dana says:

          Excellent call, Irene. Lasardo IS wonderful in a totally creepy way. He was on General Hospital. Hah. As a murderous priest and his twin brother as I recall. What? It’s a soap opera for heavens sake!

          • Irene Zion says:

            Dana, how in the world could Lasardo play a priest? Were the tattoos hidden when he was the evil priest brother and evident when he was the other brother? What kind of man was the other brother supposed to be, given the priest one was evil? I have to start buying DVDs of soaps; they sound like a lot of fun.

  8. Love this list, JD.

    There are quite a few that I don’t know on here, I’m looking forward to checking them out. I think my favorite character actor is Harry Dean Stanton. Love that dirty old man.

    • Joe Daly says:

      MMD-

      You’re so right about that filthy rogue, Harry. I’ve never seen his live show, but it’s apparently pretty entertaining. If you enjoy boozed up old-timers stumbling through blues tunes, then yeah, it’s probably a blast and a half. Which I pretty much do.

  9. It’s interesting the way these character actors’ faces are more recognizable in some ways than those of the leading stars, because of their quirk or exaggeration.

    John C. Reilly, for me, is still better in an ensemble than as lead. And another one with the same tendency and from the P.T. Anderson group is Alfred Molina, a great character actor and a good lead, but he seems to really sink his teeth into the smaller parts.

    And yeah, the women! Mercedes Ruehl, Stockard Channing and Julie Hagerty should be considered.

    This could be a very fun list to generate.

    • Joe Daly says:

      Nat,

      Once I saw Molina in Not Without My Daughter, I was sold. He’s money. Great depth, lots of meaty roles and the appearance of the guy who changes your oil. Well-played.

      Mercedes Ruehl! Nice.

  10. James D. Irwin says:

    I feel kind of uncool for barely recognizing any of these names. Except Trejo and Stormare… and even though I have seen most of the films they’re in…

    Am I right in thinking that it’s Trejo’s arm that gets ripped off in Con Air?

  11. […] Runner who gets kind of nervous when he takes tests.  This led to Daly’s stellar list of the ten greatest character actors of all time, which led me to add five of my own in commentary – including Chris Cooper, John Hawkes, Mark […]

  12. […] Runner who gets kind of nervous when he takes tests.  This led to Daly’s stellar list of the ten greatest character actors of all time, which led me to add five of my own in commentary – including Chris Cooper, John Hawkes, Mark […]

  13. Sean Beaudoin says:

    This is an exceptionally good list and I have no beefs with any of the ten. Of course, I might swing a bit older and go with Maxie Rosenbloom and Elisha Cook Jr. and Alan Hale Sr. and any number of others, which is neither here nor there. You could argue, in a seventies sense, that Bruce Dern or Lee Marvin or John Cazale has standing. In fact, you could make an overwhelming argument for John Cazale. But I have to say that Warren Oates is the best character actor of all time. Hands down. Wanna arm wrestle? Warren Oates.

  14. ml heath says:

    What about Chris Cooper and Sterling Hayden, ya mook?

  15. Joe Daly says:

    Man, Chris Cooper is a fantastic call. Probably should have been in this list, as he’s pretty much great in everything. Sterling Hayden is a great call, too–his turn in The Godfather was perfectly loathsome. I still can’t get enough of that performance.

    If you haven’t done so yet, make sure you weigh in on the companion piece that breaks down the ten best character actresses. I’m still smarting over the omission of Judy Greer.

  16. Scott Voisin says:

    Nice article!

    For anyone who’s interested in reading about even more great actors, check out the book “Character Kings: Hollywood’s Familiar Faces Discuss the Art & Business of Acting.” Ronny Cox is interviewed, as is William Sanderson, Paul Gleason, Bob Gunton, Robert Forster, Clancy Brown, Keith David, James Karen, Martin Kove, Art LaFleur and many others.

  17. […] I then posted a piece on my site here about my ten favorite character actors. I posted a link on Facebook, thinking a few friends might want to chime in, only to field a request from Emperor Listi to move it to TNB where it could enjoy greater scrutiny from movie lovers far more informed than I. After a bit more editing, that piece ended up here. […]

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