You probably recognize William Sadler, but it may take you a few minutes to figure out where you know him from. Perhaps it's his well-nuanced supporting turn in The Shawshank Redemption. No? Well, maybe it's his hilariously neurotic take on the grim reaper in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. Or his work as one of the lone adult figures in the teen-centric cult favorite Roswell. Or one of his more recent parts, such as the unnervingly composed pedophile in Kinsey. Or….
No doubt about it: Sadler has one of the most recognizable mugs in Hollywood. Still, the actor doesn't mind being "one of those faces." "In my opinion the actors I admire the most are also character actors—the Dustin Hoffmans and the Robert De Niros," he says. "You look at them from film to film, and there's clearly more going on than just the repeat of the same persona over and over again. They find characters, and they submerge themselves. I think good acting is always character acting."
If "character acting" is what he does, then we couldn't agree more. His expressive, lived-in face and piercing blue eyes are at once familiar and striking, and he uses them to convey a variety of personas, from sweetly paternal father figure to rage-filled psychopath. Whatever role he's playing, he always makes an indelible impression. His scene in Kinsey, for example, is only about five minutes long, and yet it's one of the most charged moments in the film, and it stays with us long after the credits have rolled.
The desire to create characters and stories took root in him at an early age. Born in Buffalo, N.Y., the actor grew up on a farm and spent much of his childhood playtime inventing various outlandish plotlines. "I spent a tremendous amount of time running around the barn creating scenarios, making up stories and acting out whole long, involved stories with my BB gun and my friend from down the road," he says. "It's sort of like I've been rehearsing for this career since I was 8."
Still, his immediate inclination wasn't to go into acting. He thought maybe he'd head to Buffalo State and eventually become a shop teacher. Music was also in the picture. Sadler's father taught him how to play the ukulele, and, in high school, Sadler took on the persona of "Banjo Bill" Sadler, performing a mix of songs and standup. One fateful day the head of the English department asked Sadler if he might be interested in trying out for the school play. "They were doing a production of Harvey," Sadler remembers. "I came in and read for it and got the role of Elwood. And the writing was so much better than the jokes I was telling. The whole idea of taking on a character—it became real for me. It was very exciting."
After high school he enrolled in the drama program at State University College in Geneseo, N.Y.; then he earned an MFA at Cornell University. After taking on theatre roles in Florida and Boston, he finally worked up the nerve to head for the big time: New York City. He did Off-Off Broadway and regional theatre and eventually landed on Broadway opposite Matthew Broderick in Biloxi Blues. "I made no money, I was broke the entire time, until Broadway, because most of those jobs just didn't pay well at all," he says. "But in terms of what you learn, what those audiences teach you, and what you learn as an actor from taking apart these characters, figuring out the scenes and the staging and the motivation, was, I found, invaluable. That was my training." All in all, the actor did about 75 productions in the span of 12 years.
Sadler's transition into the world of movies was opposite Blues co-star Broderick in the film Project X. Once again Sadler honed much of his craft on the job. "There's a lot of it that translated over [from theatre], but a tremendous amount of the technical stuff—I had to keep asking questions of the directors," he remembers. "'Why do you have to do it the same every time? What do you mean you have to match the master? Why can't I keep doing it differently?'"
Since then, he has become one of the most familiar faces in television and movies, developing an ardently devoted fan base along the way. And every Sadler fan has a favorite performance. "[Some] people quote all the lines I said in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey and think that was the best thing I did, and then the next person talks about The Green Mile, and the next person I scared the shit out of in Die Hard 2," he says.
Like many working actors, he has noticed changes in the industry in recent years—changes that often mean actors must work harder and take on more projects to make a decent living. "One of the biggest problems we have in this industry right now is the policy of hiring an enormous star and paying them vast sums of money for a film and taking that money out of what, a few years ago, would have been spread across the entire casting process," he says. "[And] not just the casting process: Everyone behind the camera as well has taken a hit because of that. It's this stance by the studios, this new style of making movies: 'We have our big name; it doesn't really matter whether we hire this character actor or that character actor, this cameraman, this grip or dolly.' So everybody else on the film gets hit, takes a cut."
This new trend, he says, means that a film such as The Shawshank Redemption probably wouldn't get made today. "I think that's a dangerous trend in the business," he says. "And I also think it's foolish, because the films that I've been involved in that have been the most successful, the most satisfying, and some of the best work I've ever done have been things like The Shawshank Redemption. There wasn't one single gigantic box-office star on which the entire project depended; it was an ensemble."
Despite his familiar face, Sadler still finds himself auditioning, but over the years he has come to appreciate the process. "It used to annoy and frustrate me to have to come in and audition," he says. "I would say to my agents, 'Haven't they seen this film and this film and this film? They know what I look like…They must.' Until I directed an episode of Roswell. And all of a sudden I realized why that was such an important thing. As a director, it became important to hear that specific role read by that specific actor, and you hear the chemistry, or you don't hear the chemistry. So I'm not so bothered by the audition process anymore; in fact I use it. It's a time for the actor to actually get to the know the director and the producers a little bit, too."
One thing that's most impressive about Sadler is his deep commitment to his projects. He genuinely seems to enjoy interacting with fans on the Internet: During the all-too-brief run of his series Wonderfalls, the actor could be found posting on message boards dedicated to the show. He says he first realized how important fans were when he was starring in Roswell. "There were a couple of years there where it was [fans'] involvement that kept [Roswell] on the air," he says. "They kept that show from being cancelled by sending bottles of Tabasco sauce to the producers and the network, saying, 'For God's sake, please keep this show around.'
"It seemed important to me to acknowledge that—that they play a role in all of this stuff," he adds. "They make it possible for us to do this thing that I enjoy and make my living at. The least you can do, it seems to me, is acknowledge them once in a while and recognize that they're there. You do it in the theatre every night. They've schlepped through the traffic and paid all this money and plopped themselves down to see you. At the end they clap and say thank you, and you come out and bow and say thank you. In film and television that just doesn't happen, and I think we lose sight of the fact that there is an audience and they are clapping."
The actor will once again have the opportunity to hear a live audience applaud when he takes on the title role in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar this spring on Broadway opposite Denzel Washington. It's the first time the actor will grace the Broadway stage since Biloxi Blues: In some ways he's coming full circle. "I'm finding that I enjoy acting more now than I ever have," he says. "Maybe I don't take myself quite as seriously as I used to, but the work has gotten better and more interesting, and I'm just having more fun. It's getting more and more fun with each role."
And though he may be known to different people for different things, he doesn't seem to have any regrets about his diverse career. "I think all this might have been easier if I had been more recognizable from role to role," he says, a smile creeping into his voice. "But I don't think I would have had as much fun."