‘Oh it’s that guy / girl! I LOVE them! What else do I know them from…?’
A typical response when one of these familiar actors appear on screen; we know and even love their faces, we know they can make a good movie better, but we can rarely remember their names.
It’s a tale as old as Hollywood; as long as there are commanding leading men and prepossessing leading ladies, there will be talented supporting actors who allow the stars to shine. In fact, a great many of these smaller-name actors have forged long, lucrative and award-winning (if not particularly glittering) careers by consistently playing supporting or ‘character’ roles. In most cases these actors’ unrelenting supporting positions don’t mean they’re any less talented than the A-listers. On the contrary, their ability to adapt, to diversify, and to become those comfortingly familiar mainstays in Hollywood speak to their supreme talent.
The dynamic of an ensemble cast can make or break the success of a movie and that’s exactly why these supporting actors deserve recognition in their own right. If the movie industry can do it with an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, we figure we can too. These are 23 of the actors who have held Hollywood together for decades, but never quite get the recognition they deserve…
23. Peter MacNicol
You will certainly recognize MacNicol, and you’ll likely have lots of warm and fuzzy feelings for this actor – but can you mention one movie or TV show in which he appeared? Go on, it’s on the tip of your tongue..
OK, we’ll help you out. You probably know MacNicol from several standout roles in, for example, comedy classics like 1995’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It, the Addams Family Values, or Ghostbusters II, and TV shows like Ally McBeal and, more recently, Greys Anatomy and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. MacNicol has been working consistently as both actor and voice artist since the early ’90s: Despite his 60 years, he has maintained his distinctive loveable, youthful look through the course of his long and very active career. But he’s always been more of a character actor, and never quite fitted the bill for Leading Man.
22. Kathy Najimy
Kathy Najimy has been a popular live-action and voice actor for decades. She had her break as Sister Mary Patrick in Whoopi Goldberg’s Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit and most 90s’ kids will recognize her from the Halloween classic Hocus Pocus. She has worked consistently ever since, most recently appearing on Veep and Inside Amy Shumer. Aside from her role as Peggy Hill in the animated series King of the Hill, Najimy has played secondary characters almost exclusively throughout her career.
21. Allison Janney
55 year old Allison Janney has been acting since the early 1990s. She has had a very long and reputable career as a stage, television and film actress. Despite Emmy awards, Screen Actors Guild awards and even Tony award nominations, Boston born Janney has never played the leading lady role. Regardless, she is very well respected and is most recently notable for her supporting work in The West Wing and Masters of Sex.
20. Embeth Davidtz
Embeth Davidtz rose to stardom partly thanks to her role as the sweetheart teacher in Matilda. She had supporting roles with Robin Williams in Bicentennial Man and a notable supporting turn in Bridget Jones’ Diary. Despite never having landed the role of leading lady, she’s had a prolific career – and she even appeared as Mary Parker in 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Her TV credits include Grey’s Anatomy and Mad Men.
19. Dylan Baker
You might remember David Baker in Spider-Man 2 and 3 as Dr. Curt Connors. Baker has played in dozens of memorable supporting roles with leading actors including Denzel Washington, Will Ferrell, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Despite his work as a secondary actor, there are no signs of his career waning anytime soon; he has at least two films in post-production to be released in 2015.
18. Bill Nighy
Bill Nighy is an award-winning British character actor, and one of the most well-loved of the British screen veterans. Nighy got his start in Guildford School of Dance and Drama in London, and is well known to international audiences for his role as a washed-up rock star in Love, Actually and as Rufus Scrimgeour in the Harry Potter series. He has been acting professionally since 1979 and has continued to take roles in leading international and American films. He won a BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actor.
17. Bob Balaban
69 year old Bob Balaban is one of those instantly recognizable faces who seems to have been around forever without ever having changed much. Throughout the course of his varied and prolific career, he has held supporting roles in – among others – Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Moonrise Kingdom, A Mighty Wind, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Although he has won a 1979 Tony Award for Best Actor for his work on the stage, he has not quite broken out into leading film roles.
16. Octavia Spencer
Octavia Spencer is one of those rare supporting actors whose years and years of hard work paid off in some seriously meaty roles and multiple high-profile awards, including the Academy Award for best supporting actress in 2011 for The Help. Before and after that break-out role, Spencer has had supporting parts in Get on Up, Snowpiercer, and Fruitvale Station. She is one of only 6 African American actors to ever win an Oscar.
15. Mary Kay Place
Mary Kay Place, 67, has co-starred with big name stars like Reese Witherspoon, John Cusack and Meryl Streep. She is one of the most well-established supporting actors in Hollywood, having been acting since as far back as 1976 when she got her breakthrough role as the country-western singer Loretta Haggers in TV’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Her upcoming roles in 2015 will be in movies The Hollars and Grace and Frankie.
14. Margo Martindale
Margo Martindale can do it all as a supporting and character actor, including both comedy and drama, television and movies. Recently she co-starred in August: Osage County with Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep, and in 2007, with John C. Reilly in the comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. She won a Primetime Emmy Award in 2011 for Outstanding Supporting Actress and has been nominated for many others.
13. Christine Taylor
Christine Taylor has a famous face and a very famous husband. She’s married to comedy and drama actor Ben Stiller, and she has starred with him as a supporting actor in movies such as Dodgeball and Zoolander. She has also worked with Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer. Taylor first grabbed the attention of the public as Marcia Brady in the 1995 The Brady Bunch movie and her most recent role has been Sally Stillwell in the television series Arrested Development.
12. Jonathan Loughran
If you’re an Adam Sandler fan, than you have undoubtedly seen the cross-eyed comedic look of Jonathan Loughran. He may be Sandler’s first choice for a supporting actor, but he has broke away on his own with small supporting roles in two Kill Bill movies and Get Smart. He has no award nominations yet, and his movie choices don’t seem to have moved in the direction of critical acclaim, but given that Sandler likes to cast his buddies we can safely bet that Loughran’s career will go on for as long as that of his more famous friend.
11. Peter Dante
Peter Dante is another Adam Sandler favourite, appearing in some capacity in almost every Happy Madison production in the last decade – but he hasn’t ever ventured further outside of that realm of relatively low-grade humour. He may only have supporting roles in the Sandler films, but he always strives to hit the mark and get laughs, playing any character is thrown at him from a gay lawyer to a macho police officer.
10. Judy Greer
Michigan-born Judy Greer is the eternal best friend, who has held supporting roles for most of her career. Since she began appearing on screen in the late ’90s, Greer has amassed over 50 screen credits to her name.
In the last five years, however, she has been breaking out with larger and larger roles alongside major actors including George Clooney and Clive Owen. People can expect a lot more of her with her starring roles in the highly anticipated movies Jurassic World and Disney’s Tomorrowland.
In 2014, Greer published a book of autobiographical essays, Confessions of a Co-Star, a title which indicates a definite level of commitment to – or at least, recognition of – her status as the always-supporting actor.
9. Hugo Weaving
Hugo Weaving has had some high-profile roles, but rarely do we see him as a leading man. One exception is V for Vendetta with Natalie Portman, but his face was covered the entire film with the iconic Guy Fawkes mask. Regardless, he has done nothing less than impress audiences with his work in The Matrix Trilogy and The Lord of the Rings.
8. Joan Cusack
Joan Cusack is the sister of John Cusack, a leading man in his own right. The lesser-known Cusack has starred in dozens of well-received movies since the 1980s, having earned her name particularly as a comedic actress. In the past she has done voice-over work in the Toy Story movies and, more recently, played Dr. Burton in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
7. Chris Cooper
Chris Cooper has appeared on broadway, in television and movies since he graduated from the University of Missouri school of drama in the early 1980s. Cooper is not entirely a supporting actor; he has had some near-leading roles in pictures such as Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are, and American Beauty. Still, he does play mostly secondary characters. He won an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in 2011 for his work in Adaptation where he starred with Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep.
6. Vincent D’Onofrio
Vincent D’Onofrio is one of the privileged few who worked with Stanley Kubrick in the masterpiece Full Metal Jacket. He played Private Gomer Pyle who eventually couldn’t handle the stress caused by the abusive Drill Sergeant. His career has been strong since then, appearing in dozens of films, most recently The Judge with Robert Downey Jr. D’Onofrio will be seen as Morton in the next installment of the Jurassic Park franchise.
5. John Goodman
John Goodman is well known as the hilarious Dan Connor in the primetime television series Roseanne during much of the ’90s. He has been starring in mostly supporting roles ever since with movies such as Argo, Red State, and multiple Coen brother’s films. In 2015, he will be playing Frank King in the movie Trumbo.
4. Rob Riggle
Rob Riggle is a former Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. He started taking acting seriously in the 1990s, costarring in mostly comedy roles in The Upright Citizens Brigade, The Other Guys, and both 21 Jump Street movies. He constantly gets good reviews for being one of the funniest actors in the films he appears.
3. Luis Guzman
In his long career since the 1970s, Luis Guzman has appeared in over 50 feature films and television series, but has never starred as a leading actor in any of them. He has worked with critically-acclaimed directors Paul Thomas Anderson and costarred with dozens of A-list actors including Jim Carrey and Jennifer Connelly.
2. Peter Dinklage
Peter Dinklage did star in the independent film The Station Agent in 2003, but the vast majority of his roles go to support an ensemble cast in productions such as Game of Thrones. It’s not always easy for “little people” to land starring roles of any kind, but Dinklage’s talent and hard work have won over directors and audiences.
1. Paul Giamatti
Paul Giamatti had supporting roles for years before finally becoming the leading actor in the last 5 years. Some of his most breakout performances include Barney’s Version and the independent film Win Win. He is often critically acclaimed for his performances, even as a supporting actor. This can be seen in 12 Years a Slave and Saving Mr. Banks. He was nominated in 2006 for an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, but did not win. However, it’s likely only a matter before he earns the coveted Oscar for Best Actor.