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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.