The 30 Greatest Character Actors in Hollywood History

20. Murray Hamilton

Murray Hamilton

Murray Hamilton is primarily known for the roles that he played in two highly significant films. Born in North Carolina, Hamilton starred acting in films and on Broadway, gradually making his mark with numerous guest appearances on TV in the 1950’s, frequently on shows such as Perry Mason and Gunsmoke.

As the 1960’s wore in, it appeared that Hamilton would remain primarily a TV actor until he played that part of Mr. Robinson in the groundbreaking 1967 film, The Graduate. Hamilton continued to work in TV and films until 1975, when again he was featured in one of the years biggest films, Jaws, as the Mayor of Amity. He appeared in the 1978 sequel of Jaws and then was back to mostly TV roles until his early death in 1986.


19. Charles Durning

Charles Durning

Somewhat reminiscent of Brian Dennehy and Jack Warden is Charles Durning, a heavy set character actor who often played policemen or working class guys. Beginning in films such as The Front Page and Dog Day Afternoon in the 1970’s, Durning went on to what is probably his best known role as Les, Jessica’s Lange’s father, who has a brief romance with Dustin Hoffman’s Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie (1982).

By the 1990’s, Durning was appearing more frequently on TV but still popped up in films such as Home for the Holidays and O Brother Where Art Thou. He passed away in 2012 at the age of 89 after a long and highly successful career.


18. Strother Martin

Strother Martin

Rarely does a character actor gain fame from a single line of dialogue, but Strother Martin became well known after uttering the memorable line “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate!” from the 1967 Paul Newman vehicle Cool Hand Luke, in which he played the brutal warden of a rural prison. Martin had risen slowly playing bit parts on TV in the 1950’s before hitting his stride in the 1960’s in films such as Harper and The Flim Flam Man.

Because of his interesting nasal sounding southern accent, he frequently played cowboys and did so in several Paul Newman movies, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Martin died prematurely at the age of 61 in 1980, leaving behind a fine legacy as an actor.


17. Ben Johnson

Ben Johnson

Known as ‘the last cowboy’, Ben Johnson was an actual cowboy and rodeo rider who came to Hollywood in the 1940’s. His career started in earnest in the mid 1950’s in a series of TV westerns, but in the late 60’s he started to work in features such as Hang ‘Em High (1968) and The Wild Bunch (1969).

His most famous role came in 1971 in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show as Sam the Lion, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Later roles in The Getaway (1972) and Bite the Bullet (1975) sustained his lengthy and esteemed career, and he passed away at age 77 in 1996, an icon to an earlier era when westerns and cowboys films ruled.


16. Robert Loggia

Robert Loggia

While Strother Martin was known for one particular line, Robert Loggia became known for one particular scene, in which he and star Tom Hanks played the keys of a giant toy piano in the 1988 comedy Big. Loggia’s career began on television in the 1950’s and he stayed primarily a TV actor until the 1980’s, when he moved into features such as Scarface (1983) and Prizzi’s Honor (1985) playing gangsters.

A more benign role was in Big, in which he played the owner of a toy company who hires the grown up 12 year old Hanks to be a toy designer and tester. After Big, Loggia played a wide variety of roles and returned to TV more, including a part in the Sopranos. He is still working and going strong at age 84.


15. James Cromwell

James Cromwell

Son of a noted film director, James Cromwell began in theater and started out in television in the 1970’s, before making his first real mark in film as the farmer raising a pig who thought he was a sheep in Babe (1995). From there the distinctive looking, tall (6’6”) and slender Cromwell had his first important dramatic part as chief Dudley Smith in the 1997 thriller L.A. Confidential.

After L.A. Confidential it was non-stop work for Cromwell, both in films such as the role of the warden in The Green Mile (1999) and in a variety of TV series. He again played a warden in the 2005 remake of The Longest Yard and played President George H.W. Bush in W. in 2008.


14. Gary Oldman

Norman Stansfield (Leon The Professional)

Born in England in 1958, Gary Oldman has become the true definition of a character actor by playing a wide ranging number of roles. He was Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy (1986), Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK (1991) and Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version of Dracula.

In the 2000’s, Oldman moved into important parts in high visibility films such as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films and as Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight films. Recently he also played George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Oldman has virtually risen above the level of character actor to the status of a star, but his versatility and chameleon-like persona will probably keeps him at the top of the ranks of character actors for years to come.


13. William H. Macy

William H. Macy

Another character actor who is bordering on star status is William H. Macy. Macy struggled for years in theater and in small parts in film and television through the 1980’s and 90’s before emerging in his breakthrough part as Jerry Lundegaard in the Coen Brothers’ 1996 hit Fargo.

Since then he has worked steadily in movies such as Happy Texas, Magnolia, and Bobby. He has shown great versatility by appearing in TV as well as films, and is currently on Showtime in the hit series Shameless, as well as films like Wild Hogs and The Lincoln Lawyer. Macy is perfect playing the average man or underdog in both serious films and comedies.


12. Steve Buscemi

Steve Buscemi

Buscemi is a favorite of directors Quentin Tarentino as well as the Coen brothers. Buscemi began by playing a wide variety of small parts in films in the 1980’s and early 90’s, before gaining visibility as Mr. Pink in Tarentino’s 1992 breakthrough film, Reservoir Dogs, as well as the 1994 hit Pulp Fiction.

Later, he appeared with William H. Macy in Fargo, as well as The Hudsucker Proxy and The Big Lebowski for the Coens. Buscemi has parlayed his, uh, interesting looks into a fine career, appearing in the TV series The Sopranos and 30 Rock, and recently starring in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.


11. Lee J. Cobb


This burly, stocky character actor who reached his peak in the 1950’s and 60’s, specialized in playing authority figures, gangsters and policemen. Emerging from the New York theater scene of the 1930’s and 40’s, Cobb began to make his mark with his Academy Award nominated performance as Johnny Friendly in On The Waterfront. He was memorable as “juror #3” in 12 Angry Men, and later he costarred with Clint Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff (1968).

One of his last high profile roles was as a policeman investigating the weird goings on in The Exorcist (1973). Sadly, Cobb passed away in 1976 at the age of 64, but anyone who saw one of his film performances surely remembers him.