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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.