Parts Is Parts: Small Roles and Character Actors

Parts Is Parts: Small Roles and Character Actors

You’ve seen it a thousand times. The camera swoops in, holding on the yellow tape preventing gawkers from getting in the way. Week after week big name actors gather at the crime scene, kicking clues aside, generally bumbling their way toward a plot. They look down, or up, or under, pull the sheet off the mangled, strangled occasionally dangled corpse, and my mind always turns toward the actor playing Mr. Body; imagine the excitement with which the actor got the phone call:

Hey, Good News! You got a part. Bad News! You’ll be portraying a lifeless body which has been:

a.) dropped from a great height.

b) left in a dumpster.

c) riddled with bullets.

d) poisoned.

e) strangled.

f) run over.

g) splayed on the hood/roof of a car. And so on.

I guess it’s a better gig if:

a) the body has not been beheaded.

b) the body is face up.

c) the face is recognizable.

d) a grieving friend/relative/lover weeps, allowing a lingering last look at the dearly departed.

Still, that’s it? You tell your mom you’re going to be on NCIS, she tunes in, the music swells, and you’re found in the conservatory bludgeoned with a candlestick? There’s some art to lying lifeless, I’m certain -no blinking, no breathing, no moaning — which makes me think that playing the comatose, bandaged victim of said bludgeoning might be a real step up in terms of acting chops. No blinking still holds, as you are coma bound, but moaning is probably optional.

Assuming that dead/almost dead limits acting artistry, a call from a casting director offering a role as terminally … well, terminally anything, really, is pretty good news. At least you’re alive … for a while. You get to summon phlegm, cough wetly, thrash, drool. Maybe still not worth a call home, but a definite improvement. Perform it well, and by well, I mean convincingly moribund, and your resume jumps to the top of the “Wanted: a believable victim of-terminal injury” list. Wrapped in sheets or bandages, the only line you are likely to get, assuming you’ve been hospitalized in a dark comedy, arrives as a catheter is removed abruptly. “Wow”, you are obliged to squeal as the actor playing the physician looks at you with the contempt you so obviously deserve. And merriment ensues.

Were I an actor struggling to make a living, my dream of stardom now a moist wisp of memory, I would not respond well when chided, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” I’m not sure what that expression can actually mean, unless the presumption is that small actors are so lacking in talent and ambition that they ought to be grateful to be ugly guy on the subway or slightly bucktoothed girl in the elevator. Small minded, we presume, rather than small persons.

There are, in fact, very small parts, bit parts, different from the cameo appearance of celebrities in that a celebrity’s appearance has contained meaning or association; the bit player, nada. Bit players have been described as “spear carriers”, “animated furniture”, and “human props”, and even though we have had a lifetime in which to learn that looks aren’t everything, for the bit actor, looks are everything. Type casting is one thing — Want a lanky grizzled cow poke with a seven-foot moustache? Call Sam Elliott. How about a spit flecked gonzo rapacious female side kick? Helena Bonham Carter may be available — but being cast as the guy who looks are slightly off, odd enough to be menacing or just odd, or the woman who looks rode hard and put up dripping wet really isn’t asking much in terms of acting. “Stand next to the bar and look skanky.” Not much room here for a conference with the director,

“What’s my motivation? What am I feeling as I come through the door? What do I really want? What part of myself am I keeping hidden? Where am I vulnerable?”

Yeah, it doesn’t matter. You are on the set to be thrown down a staircase; your motivation is gravity.

I’m sure that any aspiring actor will take virtually any role offered in the early days of a career; it’s certainly no worse to play a body than to be that guy who can’t fix the toilet in a commercial for Draino. “Parts is parts”, as they say at the meat-packing plant.

So, year after year, part after lousy part, an actor works, maybe does get a break, starts to build up a resume, begins to appear with some regularity as the sidekick, the wing-man, the hot chick’s best friend, the sister who helps the lead actress ride out the divorce, the concerned parent, the high school teacher or principal. And, once in a while, the designated also-ran moves up to lead roles. They have long been talented enough so that back when they were supporting characters, we “knew” them, and by “knew” I mean caused us to say, “Hey, isn’t that the guy/gal who was the other guy/gal in that other film?” And some of the time it was.

But I’m interested in the character actors who don’t take the lead. What holds them back? Are they prone to type casting? All this comes about because I happened upon a photo of an actor I must have seen twenty times or more, and I could not remember his name. A quick search identified him as Jack Elam, and I had seen him in at least twenty films or tv shows.

If you don’t recognize his name, you are in good company. Elam, a character actor with a filmography that represents constant employment from 1949, when he played the role of “Henchman” in The Devil’s Weed until his final appearance in the Lonesome Dove: The Series, was celebrated in Hollywood as the sort of anonymous actor who could add texture to any film or show, no matter how small his part. He did have the lead in several productions and acted with many luminaries, playing sidekicks and villains, intermittently villainous and comedic. His biggest films were westerns, including High Noon, Once Upon a Time in the Old West, and recurring roles in the Support Your Local Sheriff and Cannonball Run franchises. My guess is a constant filmgoer will recognize Elam’s face immediately; his wandering eye was the sort of trademark that got him roles and cast him as a type.

Actor Hugh O’Brian (Don’t remember him? Wyatt Earp?) used Elam as an example of the speed with which careers teeter from obscurity to something like fame and back to obscurity. In a documentary on Hollywood, O’Brian put the casting game this way:

Stage 1: “Who is Jack Elam?”

Stage 2: “Get me Jack Elam.”

Stage 3: “I want a Jack Elam type.”

Stage 4: “I want a younger Jack Elam.”

Stage 5: “Who is Jack Elam?”

I will place Elam’s photograph at the top of this article; if you are of a certain age, he will certainly be familiar. Jack Elam had a solid career, lived well, and happily played the parts he was given, as did Elisha Wood, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Thomas Mitchell in the golden days of studio films, and as do the current crop of actors who are familiar but uncelebrated. It interests me that as somewhat independent filmmakers have had more opportunity to make theatrical release films, some character actors actually have names that are recognized. Philip Seymour Hoffman rose quickly to lead roles as did Paul Giamatti, Gary Oldman, and J.K. Simmons, but Luis Guzman, John C. Reilly, John Turturro, Joe Pantoliano, Dan Hedeya, Danny Trejo, and Ed Lauter get a lot of work without much recognition. Versatile Margo Martindale and Allison Janney are emerging from character roles to supporting actress, and Viola Davis now plays leading roles. The imitable Christopher Walken is essentially sui generis, an absolute original; now that’s an actor who brings texture to any film.

My hope is that there are aspiring young actors currently being autopsied or scraped off sidewalks who can get the right bit part that brings the right character role, that brings a shot at stardom. After all, for many years, Kevin Costner was best known as the corpse not shown in The Big Chill. Just take those phone calls, actors; who knows who the next famous unidentified corpse might be.












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