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The 30 Greatest Character Actors in Hollywood History

03 October 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by James Davidson

Steve Buscemi

They may not be flashy, but any filmmaker will tell you that they can’t make a movie without good character actors. They are the best friends, the reliable sergeants, trusted deputies and essential confidants. Character actors are usually anonymous ‘types’ who can play a variety of characters, or idiosyncratic individuals who fit a certain mold due to physical characteristics or persona.

For the sake of this list, we didn’t include actors such as Robert Duvall or Harvey Keitel, who began as character actors, but graduated to bigger parts and leading roles. I have also focused on actors who appear more in films than on TV.

These then are the greatest 30 character actors in Hollywood history with a huge nod to deserving runners ups such as: Charles Coburn, William Demerest, Sydney Greenstreet, J.T. Walsh, Oliver Platt, Tom Sizemore, Bruno Kirby and many others too numerous to mention…as well as the entire cast of 12 Angry Men, save for the ones mentioned below!

 

30. William Fichtner

William Fichtner

Beginning in the 1990’s in movies like The Perfect Storm, then moving into the 2000’s in Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down, Fichtner’s pleasant face and amiable attitude made him the perfect friend, cohort and wing man.

In 2005 he went somewhat against type to play Captain Knauer, leader of the guards in the remake of The Longest Yard (played in the original by another great character actor, Ed Lauter, also deserving ‘honorary mention’) and in 2008 was the bank manager in the massive hit The Dark Knight. He has done a number of TV shows as well, including Prison Break and more recently Entourage.

 

29. James Hong

James Hong

A reliable ‘go-to’ Asian-American actor, Hong was seen frequently in both films and TV, particularly in the 1980’s and 90’s in such films as Blade Runner and Tango & Cash. He was prominently featured as the butler in Chinatown and appeared again in the ill fated sequel, The Two Jakes.

Hong’s deadpan approach was also particularly hilarious in the Chinese restaurant episode of Sienfeld in 1991. Still acting well past the age of 80 in both films and television, James Hong has made a wonderful career for himself as a character actor.

 

28. Pete Postlethwaite

Pete Postlethwaite

Postlethwaite, the pocked face British actor, appeared mostly on TV until his memorable turn as Kobayashi in the 1995 film The Usual Suspects. After that, Postlethwaite appeared frequently in films, often as a heavy or tough guy due to his somewhat unusual appearance.

He appeared in The Lost World, the remake of The Omen, Inception and The Town. Sadly, Postlethwaite passed away in 2011 at the age of 64 from cancer, but he left his mark on the film world by proving you didn’t need matinee idol looks to succeed.

 

27. Yaphet Kotto

Yaphet Kotto

Born in 1939, Yaphet Kotto appeared mostly on TV until his performance as the evil Kananga in the 1973 James Bond film Live and Let Die. After this high profile appearance, Kotto didn’t play only bad guys, appearing with Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel in the comedy Blue Collar and as the heroic detective, Harry Lowes in The Star Chamber.

He also appeared in the original Alien (1979) as Parker, rounding out a great ensemble cast. Since the 1980’s he has gone on the play a variety of roles in both films and television, often portraying policemen or authority figures.

 

26. John Cazale

The Godfather Part II

John Cazale’s career was brief, but extremely memorable. Born in 1935, Cazale was a stage actor and a newcomer to films when Francis Ford Coppola cast him as the dimwitted Fredo in The Godfather (1972) and its 1974 sequel. He went on to star with Al Pacino again in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and as Gene Hackman’s sidekick in Coppola’s The Conversation (1974).

Seemingly on the verge of stardom, Cazale was ill with cancer while playing Stan in The Deer Hunter (1978), and died shortly thereafter, thus ending one of the great but brief careers in Hollywood history.

 

25. John Turturro

The Jesus, The Big Lebowski

Another character actor lacking leading man looks, Turturro appeared in small parts until he grabbed the leading in the Coen Brothers film Barton Fink in 1991. Though the film flopped, its reputation has grown since, and Turturro continued to appear frequently in films such as Quiz Show, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou.

Since 2000 he has been seen often in films, including appearing in Anger Management with Adam Sandler, as well as a recurring part in the TV series Monk. Turturro’s interesting looks and bombastic style have made him the classic contemporary character actor, and his extensive resume reflects his status.

 

24. Elisha Cook, Jr.

Elisha-Cook-Jr

Emerging on the scene in the 1930’s, Elisha Cook jr.’s diminutive stature relegated him to character parts, including the gun man Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon. He continued to act for another forty plus years in films such as The Big Sleep. Cook began to play cowboy parts more in the 1950’s, including the ill fated Torrey in Shane (1953) in which he is gunned down in the streets by Jack Palance.

In the 1960’s and 70’s he segued into TV roles, appearing in westerns such as Gunsmoke and cop shows like Baretta. In 1968 he was Mia Farrow’s landlord in Rosemary’s Baby. Finally, Cook passed away in 1995 at the age of 91, after a long and distinguished career.

 

23. Brian Dennehy

Brian Dennehy

Tough and stout, Brian Dennehy was the perfect character actor to play cops, tough guys and gangsters. Born in 1938, Dennehy didn’t really begin to make his mark until the 1980’s, appearing in the TV series Dynasty and Cagney and Lacey. By the mid 80’s he was mostly seen in films, most notably in the thrillers F/X and Legal Eagles.

Once again playing a cop, Dennehy was featured in the Harrison Ford film Presumed Innocent in 1990. More recently he has turned to television and has been seen often throughout the early 2000’s, and is still acting now as he approaches his late 70’s.

 

22. Ward Bond

Ward Bond

A featured member of John Ford’s stock company of players, Ward Bond turned up again and again in westerns. Often playing the grouchy tough guy with a heart of gold, Bond was particularly notable in Ford’s 1956 masterpiece, The Searchers.

Present day film fans will most likely recognize Bond from his role as Bert, the cop, in Frank Capra’s 1947 Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. After years as a character actor, he gained stardom on TV in the western series Wagon Train, but Bond died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 57 in 1960, leaving behind a great legacy of film performances.

 

21. Sam Elliott

Sam Elliott

Another frequent cowboy character actor is Sam Elliott, who emerged in the early 1970’s from a variety of TV roles to star in the 1976 film Lifeguard. He returned to cowboy and western parts in TV movies throughout the 1980’s, but by the 90’s had expanded his range to include appearances in films such as Tombstone, The Big Lebowski and the 2003 version of The Incredible Hulk, in which he portrayed General Ross, the Hulk’s nemesis.

Known for his deep voice and thick mustache, Elliott has stayed very busy recently, including considerable voice work in films, television and commercials.

 

 

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  • Ted Wolf

    really shocked there’s no Donald Crisp, Alan Hale Sr. or Walter Brennan

  • FJM

    wait, no Brad Dourif? Hmmmmm….

  • SJHoneywell

    I agree completely on Walter Brennan. This list is pretty much void without him.

  • Cathlene Brady

    Vincent D’onofrio?

  • Sammy Swiegers

    JK Simmons?

  • Mikey O.

    Dennis Quaid, Alfred Molina, John C. Reilly, Tim Roth, Stanley Tucci, David Tomlinson, David Morse, Peter Skaarsgard…many omissions (where’s the character ACTRESS list?).

    • Kev_S

      Not to mention Chris Cooper, William Sadler, Martin Short, John Goodman, Michael Shannon and the late Taylor Negron. And as for character actresses, Kathy Bates immediately comes to mind, ditto Julie Walters, Alfre Woodard and Brenda Fricker.

      • Mikey O.

        Character ACTRESSES is an article which should be written! Many come to mind immediately. I will disagree with you already regarding Kathy Bates. She is no character actress. Her Oscar win for Leading Actress was for MISERY. Her other nominations were for supporting. Aside from her turn in TITANIC as Molly Brown (an interesting character that should have been more prominent), I can barely think of any roles to be considered as “character acting”.

        • zeke

          Ummm…About Schmidt, Primary Colors,
          Fried Green Tomatoes, Midnight in Paris not to mention her roles on TV in Six Feet Under and American Horror Story. Kathy Bates is a definite character actress!

          • Sorry dude. Bates has become a SUPPORTING actress through the years, never a character actress. She was nominated for an Oscar for ABOUT SCHMIDT even. She was the main character in FRIED GREEN TOMATOES. Even her role on AHS won her an Emmy for Best SUPPORTING actress. She may not be as prominent in film as she used to be, but I will say once more…Not a character actress…

          • Cygnifier

            Most supporting actors/actresses ARE character actors. Separating the two is a difference without a distinction.

          • I’m not sure if you know the definition of a character actor.
            char·ac·ter ac·tor
            NOUNan actor who specializes in playing eccentric or unusual people rather than leading or supporting roles.

          • Cygnifier

            LOL. I’ve taught film for decades and am pretty sure I know exactly what the definition of character actor is — and the first hit on a Google search is not likely to capture the nuances of the term. Consider for example the Oxford dictionaries definition: “An actor who specializes in playing eccentric or unusual people rather than LEADING roles” (emphasis mine). Roles are structured as leading, supporting, and bit. Most character actors overlap the supporting and bit categories. If they get awards, it is in the supporting actor categories. Think of “character” and “supporting” definitions as parts of a Venn diagram with overlap rather than being two separate non-overlapping diagrams. Some character actors develop a connection with specific idiosyncratic roles; some shift back and forth between supporting and bit parts; come even shift in and out of leading, supporting, and bit parts. Judith Anderson, for example, was mostly a supporting character actor in film, with her most notable role as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (she was typically a lead on stage — and with an occasional bit part on screen).

          • I never intended for this to become an argument. You certainly just puffed yourself up in the previous post. Decades of teaching film. You should add “character acting” to your syllabus. Or maybe just “Kathy Bates”. Cheers.

          • Cygnifier

            No argument from my side of things . So sad you feel your ego tweaked. Clarifying definitions isn’t arguing and establishing credibility isn’t puffing one’s self up. I’m so glad you mentioned Kathy Bates. Her awards for Best Actress in lead roles AND Best Supporting Actress roles as well as a number of distinctive “color” supporting roles makes exactly the point I was making. Thanks!

        • Jim Beaver

          I’ve been acting professionally for 44 years. In the industry and in virtually all film scholarship, Kathy Bates is considered a character actress, not merely a supporting player. Extras are supporting players. Character actors are actors who are not (generally) leading men or women. There’s a lot of crossover (Gene Hackman, Warren Oates, et al), but the term for people such as Bates and Jane Darwell and, if I may be permitted, myself, as generally understood by the film industry and critics is “character actor.” It has nothing to do with eccentricity. It has to do, pretty much, with who is and isn’t generally considered a lead. There’s leads and character actors, and these are people who play most of the roles that we remember in a movie. The rest are supporting players (often character actors, too) and bits (or day-players, in industry-speak). There’s some fluidity to it, but in general the terminology follows these rules, not yours.

          • Misery–Best Leading Actress.
            Fried Green Tomatoes
            Bonneville
            Unconditional Love
            Dolores Claiborne
            A Home Of Our Own
            Hostages
            and many more full-on Supporting performances.
            She had become a bit of a character actress in recent years, but looking at her career as a whole she was not.

          • Holy shit Mr. Hollywood! Why toss insults at me? Is that what they do in your professional career? Did Susan Sarandon dictate things to you with bad grammar and punctuation? Did AL Pacino barf nonsense at you? Maybe Sophia Loren laid her rules out for you?
            Now I’m being a nasty brat because you insulted my intelligence (which I DO possess), and talked down to me.
            Aw shoot! You win! Nobody should follow my rules (which are actually pretty much just opinion–vice versa). So we’ll totally follow your Biblical opinion–I mean RULES!

      • reeceindie

        Thelma Ritter is the only actress who could top the actress list…

  • verclear

    Uhhhhhhhhh…J.T. Walsh, anyone?

    • TheKeenGuy

      Yup. J.T. Walsh was the best at playing the slimiest, smarmiest characters who smile and shake your hand while stabbing you in the back.

      • Kev_S

        That description beautifully sums up Emil Jannings, if his performance as the Devil in “Faust” is anything to go by.

  • Kosta Dibass

    Luis Guzmán

  • Miss Terryman

    How about Willem Dafoe, Michael Shannon and Klaus Kinski??

  • Right_Bastard

    A James Hong write up without mentioning “Big Trouble in Little China”? For shame. Speaking of, shout out to another great Asian character actor, Victor Wong.

  • Christine Golden

    Three of my favorites were Barry Fitzhgerald, John Carradine, and Victor McLaglen.

  • Dom

    How is John Goodman not on there? Seriously?

  • This guy

    why is it that the more I get closer to the top 10 the more I dislike them?

  • Annie R. Such

    You should be ashamed that Peter Sellers is not on this list. One movie: Dr. Strangelove– 3+ roles that make him unrecognizable. He should be #1 on this list.

  • freudulant

    Sam Rockwell?

  • freudulant

    Woody Harrelson?

  • Hettie Finn

    I’m a little confused as to why none of the “greatest character actors” are female. I can think of a lot of female actors more worthy than some of this depressing top 30…

  • saneiac

    JT Walsh should be more than an honorable mention. Bruce Campbell and Miguel Ferrer also deserve recognition.

  • Lucky U2

    While this is an excellent list and all the actors listed are deserving and qualified character actors. There are too many to list that have been missed. Also I believe none should be ranked but rather listed either by year or alphabetically. Walter Brennan, Karl Malden, Jason Robards, Arthur Kennedy, George Sanders, Ed Begley, Claude Raines, Peter Lorre, Clifton Webb, Edmond O’Brien, J.T. Walsh, Dennis Hopper just to name a few.

  • defacebook

    Decent list, but only scratches the surface, and is completely lacking in the great character actors of the “studio era”, such as Walter Brennan, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre (to name just a few). And, yes, where are the women — from contemporary (Juliette Lewis and Kathy Bates) to classic (Thelma Ritter and Agnes Moorehead) — who need their own list.

  • Ian Goater

    Bert Kwouk, Vladek Sheybal, Herbert Lom, Thora Hird, Wilfred Hyde White, Dame Flora Robson, Dora Bryan, Brian Cox, Robbie Coltrane, Joe Don Baker, Ed Begley Jr, Robert Newton, Marty Feldman

  • Coko Moroccan

    This is Davidson’s list of 30 actors. Everyone seems to count actors he’d missed, but any arguments on those he included? I commend the fact that he spanned decades. For those complaining, why not create your own list of only 30? Then you can be on the receiving end of complaints for those you’d missed.

  • FunnyFaceKing

    Poor, poor Peter Lorre.

    • Steve McCallister

      And Sydney Greenstreet and Dan Duryea for good measure!

  • Peter Podgursky

    No Dick Miller?

  • wecandobetter758

    Stephen Root. An actor who can take on any character and make it believable (or unbelievable, if that’s what is called for). And John Goodman, definitely.

  • Unkle Amon

    John Malkovich, Forrest Whitaker, Chris Walken, Dennis Hopper,
    John C. Reilly, Michael Caine, Robert Duvall….

  • Cassandra Atticum

    Sam Rockwell, Vincent D’Onofrio, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Margo Martindale, Vincent Schiavelli, Danny Trejo, Michelle Hurst, Tilda Swinton, Dianne Wiest, Lili Taylor

  • Rhonda Lynn Kasperek

    Character actors are those performers who’s names you can’t quite recall; they can play any role, seamlessly. Most of these men couldn’t really be considered “character actors”.

  • Cygnifier

    Really? Not a single female character actor??? Mildred Natwick, Una O’Connor, Marjorie Main, Marie Dressler, Jane Darwell, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, Judith Anderson (who also played one of the most unsettling characters ever as Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca), Margaret Dumont, Thelma Ritter, Eve Arden, Margaret Hamilton, Kathy Bates, Teri Garr, Ruth Gordon, Eileen Brennon, Glenne Headly, Karen Black, … On the men’s side, I’d also add Claude Raines (who also starred), Walter Brennen, Alan Hale Sr. (Errol Flynn’s sidekick in many films). Glad you included Ben Johnson — Harry Carey Jr. was another of his era.

  • John Luciano

    Is this list a joke? You’re telling me that Paul Giamatti is a better character actor than Daniel Day Lewis? Much less Al Pacino, or Robert Di Niro? I’m laughing.

  • Scott Nicholls

    Surely James Rebhorn has to be on this list, Al Pacino would never have won the Oscar for Scent Of A Woman without him playing the scuzzy headmaster. …

  • Santo Czùbito

    So… being a character actor is only men’s thing?

  • Another phenomenal character actor was Sydney Lassick.

  • Nic Walli

    Lee Van Fleet and Eli Wallach

  • Dixie Burge

    I thought sure Eli Wallach would have made the list.