R. Lee Ermey may not be a recognizable name to some of you, but to most film and television audiences his face is well known, as are his memorable characters: the tough-as-nails Gunnery Sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, the angry father of a murder victim in Dead Man Walking, the homicidal Coach Norton in the comedy Saving Silverman. Ermey doesn't mind if most viewers don't know his name, as long as they remember his performance.
"The gravity of the role is what I go for," explained Ermey, who came to acting late in life after a career in the military. "With every role I do the thought in the back of my mind is, I want people to remember that character. If I can accomplish that mission, then I'm successful. If I'm that colorful, if I'm that entertaining, people will remember that character."
Without supporting actors such as Ermey, where would we be? Great characters actors are more than just the mortar that holds up the metaphoric building of a film, TV, or stage production. These actors are often the most interesting adornments on the façade. Actors like Ermey take the ultimate satisfaction in putting their stamp on a character—claiming the role as their own, no matter its size.
Said veteran actor Ed O'Ross, currently enjoying success on HBO's Six Feet Under, "Character actors to me are the backbone of a film. I believe that every time someone comes up to you and says, 'Oh, you're that guy,' it is a compliment. Character acting is something I take a lot of pride in."
O'Ross also understands that part of his duty as an actor is to make the leading actors look better. "I really believe that it is the job and the responsibility of a character actor to make the star look good, because if it weren't for him, we wouldn't work."
"'Character actor' has one very particular meaning: If the movie tanks, it's not your fault, and if it does really, really well, it doesn't really affect you very much either," quipped Bob Balaban, who most recently appeared in Gosford Park (which he also co-produced). More seriously, he added, "It's kind of nice to think that it doesn't matter if you get older, it doesn't matter if you get fat. You could lose weight, you could lose your hair—it's all fine. It's kind of a relief."
While some actors might find the term "character actor" limiting—it was once equated with an actor being cast repeatedly as a certain "type," be it the cop, the crusty newspaper editor, or the nosey neighbor—today's best supporting players are better known for their range and reliability in bringing something interesting to a role that might otherwise be a stock character.
Casting directors such as John Papsidera are the first to tout the value of such versatile actors. "The lifeblood of what I do is dealing with actors who are as brilliant as they are, who really flesh out a canvas and enable you to support who's starring in a film," said Papsidera, who has had the pleasure of helping to cast such respected talent as Stephen Tobolowsky, Joe Pantoliano, Harriet Harris (featured in this issue), James Rebhorn (also featured in this issue), Robert Loggia, Dan Lauria, Allison Janney, Mindy Sterling, Giovanni Ribisi, Nicky Katt, and Ron Rifkin.
These talented actors are known and repeatedly hired for bringing their "essence," as Papsidera put it, to a project. Papsidera also noted that these kinds of performers often possess an element of "realism." He said, "It's really important when you're working on a project that people feel and look like they are from that world. Harriet Harris, Joey Pants [Pantoliano], and Stephen Tobolowsky look like real people. They look like people you'd pass on the street, and that's a great quality."
Such actors may not be the most conventionally attractive people, but they are certainly some of the busiest, most hardworking people in show business. As Ermey told Back Stage West, "I think that's probably one of the great things about being a character actor—if you're a good, solid character actor and one who has proven to deliver the goods, you work all the time. I do four, five, sometimes six shows a year, and I don't know of any stars who do that."
Actor Bob Clendenin, another familiar face, is perfectly content being outside the spotlight but inside the Rolodex of casting directors. "I'm not going to open movies. I'm not going to have tabloid stories written about me, and I wouldn't want that," acknowledged Clendenin, who frequently books guest-starring roles on TV series, including The Practice, Ally McBeal, That '70s Show, Felicity, and Scrubs, as well as supporting film parts. "To be continually working and doing interesting things and working with fun people is all I really want."
Clendenin is often cast in roles that are typically "freaks and weirdos," as he described them, and he's perfectly happy with that, too. "I find that the roles I tend to go in for are far more interesting [than leading-man roles]. They're layered and there's so much to play with as an actor. I'm at a loss when I'm trying to be likeable. I flounder. But when there are those levels and those edges that you can play and tics that you can find as a character actor, to me that is far more rewarding."
Of his latest character in the upcoming remake of the horror movie Willard, Ermey said. "He's the ultimate bad guy. The character has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It is the most interesting character I have done since I did Full Metal Jacket."
Steady work or not, supporting actors are feeling the pinch as studios approve ever higher star salaries. Said Papsidera, "Studios are much more inclined to say, 'OK. We've got our star. We've got a go on the movie. Everybody else gets scale plus 10,' and it's made a casting director's job much harder because nobody wants to spend money on a $15,000- to $20,000-a-week actor, who has worked in some cases 20 or 30 years to obtain that level of quote. I think it has really displaced the successful supporting actor in the marketplace."
For this year's "Actors We Love," an annual issue Back Stage West devotes to its favorite actors, the editorial staff decided to pay its respects exclusively to the kinds of actors who bring pride, dedication to their craft, and vivid life to their supporting work. In the following pages we profile some of the great character actors—the ones who work tirelessly to elevate a project and don't mind not getting top billing.
Above all, these actors have found and embraced their uniqueness and their work—regardless of the fame it may or may not bring. We, in turn, embrace them. BSW