My 5 favorite character actors in movie history:
Coming in at number five is the reason I made this list. After hearing about the passing of Yaphet Kotto last week, I started thinking about the films and shows he was so good in and the idea of this list was born. Kotto came to prominence as Mr. Big, the James Bond villain in Live and Let Die, and spent the 70s creating unforgettable characters in blacksploitation classics and TV movies, ultimately landing his most memorable role as Parker in Ridley Scott’s Alien. In the 90s, he retired from film and worked in television only, eventually creating his finest character in the criminally underrated Homicide: Life on the Street. He made everything better.
At number four on my list of favorites is someone who also made his mark in the Alien franchise. Lance Henriksen was illiterate until his early 30s, when the painter and set designer landed his first acting role, and the acting world has been all the better for it. From playing Bishop, the android in Aliens, to Charles Bishop Weyland in Alien vs Predator, the vampire Jesse Hooker in Near Dark, numerous gunslingers and western archetypes, FBI agents, biker gang leaders, artists, and activists. He has appeared in Spielberg films, B-movie horror offerings, and was the first choice of James Cameron to play the Terminator, a role that went to Arnold Shwarzenegger instead. His talent, that gravelly voice, and his amazing intensity allow him to make everything he is in better.
If you ever want a good laugh, just find a video clip of M Emmett Walsh laughing. It’ll do it every time.
My number three choice has been in over 200 films and television series, and he has made every one of them better by simply appearing. Best known for his award-winning role in the Coen Brothers’ first film, Blood Simple, Walsh has had great parts in everything from The Jerk to Ordinary People, from Blade Runner to Fletch, Back to School and Raising Arizona - whether he had a starring role or a small cameo, he was memorable and wonderful. My favorite character of his was Mack, the leader of the old pier crew opposite Nick Nolte in Cannery Row. M Emmet Walsh makes me smile every time he steps into frame.
At number two on the list is John Goodman, a man who has had his share of starring roles, but is much better suited to play secondary characters. He has immense range, playing characters as diverse as the bumbling Gale in Raising Arizona, the fearsome Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink, the wonderful Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, and Big Dan Teague in O Brother, Where Art Thou? And those are just the Coen Brothers films. He’s played Babe Ruth and King Ralph, a Blues Brother and a Monster, cops and crooks, coaches and players, and can reel you in as a sweet, fatherly type, a bureaucrat or dreamer, or a dark, violent crime lord. He is phenomenal, and he makes everything he touches better.
Number one is a tie, because it had to be.
My favorite character actors of all time are Charles Durning and Harry Dean Stanton, two giants of the genre who are beloved and revered, yet still don’t get the respect and admiration they deserve.
Stanton was an artist’s artist, a fine singer and songwriter and a true believer in the art itself. He made his name in independent movies, mostly, but also held his own against cinema’s greats in blockbuster movies like Cool Hand Luke, Kelly’s Heroes, The Green Mile, Pretty in Pink, Alien, and The Rose. He was most at home in those indies, though - he took movies like Repo Man, Paris, Texas, Escape from New York, and Lucky and crafted characters who will never be forgotten or bested. A WW2 veteran from Kentucky, he could play tough characters as vulnerable and broken, and add layers to roles that would have disappeared in a lesser actor’s hands. He was, simply said, an understated, under-appreciated genius.
Charles Durning, on the other hand, had the ability to create larger-than-life characters from almost nothing, and could turn good lines into great scenes. His ability to completely change a scene’s mood with a simple glance or groan made him the best at what he did - at least in my opinion.
Durning could make you fall in love with him, as he did in Tootsie, or he could make you hate him, as he did in The Sting or Stick, and he could make you laugh and dance, as he did in Sharky’s Machine, The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. He played beloved characters on both stage and screen, as he joined his friend Burt Reynolds on TV with Evening Shade and won awards for his work in LA’s theater scene. Another WW2 veteran, he brought gravitas to roles that needed it and joy to the ones that didn’t. He was an actor’s actor and a true gentleman both on- and off-screen. He won a Golden Globe and was nominated for Oscars and Emmys, and he was my favorite non-muppet character in the original Muppet Movie.