The 30 Greatest Character Actors in Hollywood History

10. Paul Giamatti


Born in 1967, Giamatti comes from a fine pedigree which includes a Master’s degree from Yale University in drama. Beginning in theater, Giamatti moved to small parts in film and TV in the 1990’s, until his breakthrough role in the 2005 Alexander Payne film Sideways, co-starring with Thomas Haden Church as two middle aged men on a trip through the wine country.

Since then, Giamatti has turned up frequently in films such as Duplicity, The Hangover II, 12 Years a Slave and Saving Mr. Banks. With his round face and receding hairline, Giamatti will probably never be a leading man, but he is perfect as a best friend, manager, agent or accountant. Look for him in many films to come in the years ahead.


9. James Whitmore

Brooks, Shawshank Redemption

Another Yale grad with a background in theater, Whitmore began acting in Hollywood films after World War II, including a small but important part in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Whitmore went on to appear in musicals, bio-pics and on TV in the landmark series Playhouse 90. His craggy features and heavy eye brows resulted in his being cast often as fathers, policemen and historical and military figures.

In the 1960’s and 70’s he largely appeared on TV and in movies such as Planet of the Apes and Tora, Tora, Tora. The signature role of Whitmore’s later years was as Brooks Hatlen, the ‘lifer’ prison convict who can’t deal with the outside world in The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Whitmore passed away in 2009 at the age of 87.


8. M. Emmet Walsh

M. Emmet Walsh

One of those faces that you know immediately – even if you don’t recognize the name – belongs to longtime character actor M. Emmet Walsh. A native of New York, Walsh began working in films and TV in the early 70’s, with small roles in films like Serpico and Bound for Glory and on TV in Starsky and Hutch. He slowly began to become a recognizable character actor as the 80’s dawned in films like Brubaker, Ordinary People, Reds and Silkwood.

The role his is probably best known for is as the sleazy private detective in the Coen brothers debut film, Blood Simple (1984). Although this part didn’t vault him into stardom, he continued acting very regularly throughout the 80’s, 90’s and into the new millennium and is still working regularly in both TV and films.


7. Harry Dean Stanton


The premiere character actor of the ‘new Hollywood’ period is no doubt Harry Dean Stanton. With his thin nose and craggy looks, Stanton seems to have been born a character actor. He appeared in numerous TV shows in the 1950’s and 60’s before his first important part in Cool Hand Luke (1967). He continued to appear in TV westerns and on film in Two Lane Blacktop (1971) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).

Throughout the 1970’s he stayed busy, but his career really peaked in 1984 when he was cast in two films, Win Wenders’ Paris, Texas and the offbeat comedy Repo Man. He has continued to alternate more mundane TV roles with prestigious films such as The Last Temptation of Christ and The Green Mile, and is still around and working today.


6. Jack Warden

Jack Warden

Originally appearing as part of the cast of 12 Angry Men (1957), round faced Jack Warden played primarily blue collar everyman types on TV in the early part of his career. In the 1970’s he moved into features, most notably as the shady Lester Carpf in Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975) and again with Warren Beatty as the coach in Heaven Can Wait (1978).

Parts as a newspaperman in All the President’s Men (1976), a befuddled judge in …And Justice for All (1979) and as the impotent President in Being There (1979) revealed the wide range of this talented actor. After starring in the mid 80’s TV series Crazy Like a Fox, Warden continued to work steadily through the 90’s until his final role in The Replacements. After a long and distinguished career, Jack Warden passed away in 2006 at the age of 85.


5. Warren Oates

bring me the head of alfredo garcia (1974)

Like many of the actors on this list, Kentucky born Warren Oates began by making his mark in the myriad TV westerns of the 1950’s. His first important feature part was for director Sam Peckinpah in the 1962 western Ride the High Country, and Peckinpah became an important part of Oates’ career as the years went by. In 1967, he played the critical part of deputy Sam Wood in the winner for best picture of the year, In the Heat of the Night.

After Heat it was on to more significant roles for Oates in films such as The Split, The Wild Bunch and Two Lane Blacktop. Oates’ career rounded out with a great comic appearance as Sgt. Hulka in Stripes and a part in the 1982 Roy Scheider vehicle, Blue Thunder. Sadly, Oates died young at the age of 53 in 1982, leaving a legacy of great character parts behind.


4. Thomas Mitchell

Thomas Mitchell

The great character actor of Hollywood’s classic era was Thomas Mitchell. He frequently played characters of Irish decent who actually nipped a bit too much at the bottle. His career began in earnest in the late 1930’s in such great films as Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and as Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone with the Wind.

In 1946, he played the memorable part of Uncle Billy in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, a film that has since become an iconic Christmas favorite. He continued to work in films such as High Noon, in westerns on TV and in Fritz Lang’s 1956 film noir While the City Sleeps. His last appearance was again for Capra in Pocketful of Miracles in 1961, and he passed away the next year at the age of 70.


3. Martin Balsam

Martin Balsam

Marty Balsam was a product of New York’s progressive New School as well as The Actor’s Studio. After World War II he emerged as a film actor, appearing in On the Waterfront (1954) and as “juror #1” in 12 Angry Men (1957). By the 1960’s, Balsam was a recognizable character actor, playing the detective Arbogast in Hitchcock’s 1960 hit Psycho and as the police chief in Cape Fear (1962).

Numerous other high profile film appearances followed, and in the 1970’s he was featured in a number of thrillers such as The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and Two Minute Warning, and was also on of the Post editors in All the President’s Men. By the 1980’s he began to return to TV and was a regular on Archie Bunker’s Place; his career began to wind down and he passed away in Italy in 1996 at the age of 76, one of the most revered and respected actors of our time.


2. George Kennedy

George Kennedy

The burly George Kennedy began his career in (what else) TV westerns. He often played heavies and thugs early in his career before he began to develop a wider range of parts in such films as Hurry Sundown and The Dirty Dozen. In 1967, Kennedy won the top prize for character actors, the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Cool Hand Luke.

His career took off after that in such films as Airport, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Eiger Sanction. Appearing frequently in films and occasionally on TV, Kennedy enhanced his persona with a few great comic performances, such as the one he gave in The Naked Gun (1988). Now well past age eighty, George Kennedy is still acting from time to time. He has had a long and distinguished career that has seen him go from bit part heavy to star status, and it is all well deserved.


1. Ned Beatty

Ned Beatty

Some may argue with the selection of Ned Beatty as the top character actor, but a look at the man’s career and versatility will give no doubt that he has been the ‘go-to guy’ for major Hollywood directors for many years. Stocky and rotund, he was never going to be a leading man, but has been excellent at playing detectives, second bananas, comic foils and best pals. He should probably get the top spot for putting up with the ‘squeal like a pig’ scene that he appeared in in his first film, Deliverance, in 1972.

After that, Beatty worked almost continuously for the next two decades. He appeared in White Lightning, Nashville, All the President’s Men and in 1976 he was nominated for an Academy Award for his role as corporate magnate Arthur Jensen in Network. After that it was on to Silver Streak, Superman and Superman II, The Toy and Stroker Ace. He had some memorable TV appearances also, including playing doomed congressman Leo Ryan in Guyana Tragedy: the Story of Jim Jones.

In the 1980’s he began to appear more frequently on TV, including a part as Dan Conner’s father on Roseanne. Now well into his 70’s, Beatty is more frequently doing voice work, including Rango and Toy Story 3. His career has been incredible and his myriad great performances have been both memorable and highly professional. Ned Beatty is the character actor’s character actor indeed.

Author Bio: Jim Davidson is a 1980 graduate of Northwestern University’s Radio-TV-Film Dept. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been a video producer since 1987. Jim has written articles for Images Film journal and is currently working on a book about the movie Harold and Maude.