HBO is known for quality programming. From classics like The Wire, The Sopranos, and Sex and the City to the newer hits like Game of Thrones, Westworld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO has been at the forefront of television for years now. So, if you’re someone who feels like they’ve watched just about every single show HBO has to offer, you’ve probably noticed a few of the same faces keep popping up again and again and again. This is not a coincidence. It’s the HBO Recycling Program.
The HBO Recycling Program may seem insulting, y’know like you’re recycling these actors. But, it’s actually a great thing for these character actors. For example, Michael K. Williams was once a guy with a facial scar who couldn’t get his career to start. Now, he’s Omar from The Wire and he’s Chalky White from Boardwalk Empire. He’s someone you recognize right away. The HBO Recycling Program isn’t necessarily making these character actors into the next Brad Pitt or anything, but it does elevate these actors’ careers.
This also makes it easier for casting directors to cast those huge shows. I mean, HBO isn’t putting out small-scale television shows. Shows like Game of Thrones, Westworld, The Wire, and The Sopranos are large-scale shows that have many moving parts. With such large casting needs, it’s helpful for casting directors to be like, “Hey, can you get me Omar from The Wire for this new role?” I mean, I think casting directors probably know his name is Michael K. Williams by now, but you get the point.
Because of the Recycling Program, here are 15 actors you’ve seen in almost every single HBO show ever.
14 Michael K. Williams - Total Count: 5
If you didn’t immediately think of Michael K. Williams when you saw the title of this piece, I would be shocked. Williams is one of the most recognizable faces that HBO just loves to use again and again and again. The HBO/Michael K. Williams love affair began in 2001, when he appeared as Ray Ray on one episode of The Sopranos.
It wasn’t until the following year, when he appeared as Omar Little on The Wire, that he really made a name for himself in the HBO family. Williams was credited on 51 episodes of the series, appearing from 2002 through 2008. In that time, Omar became iconic, with his long jacket, his bulletproof vest, and his eerie whistling. What really set Omar apart character-wise was his moral code, something we see very little of in terms of TV bad guys.
Williams returned to HBO in 2010, as Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire. This character would become another iconic HBO baddie. Williams then appeared in the 2015 HBO film, Bessie, for which he was nominated for an Emmy.
Most recently, Williams had a large role on The Night Of, as Freddy Knight, the hardened, long-time prisoner who takes the newbie under his wing. So basically, HBO really loves casting Michael K. Williams as the bad guys... who might not be totally bad. Luckily, Williams has the acting chops to pull off these meaty characters.
13 Stephen Tobolowsky - Total Count: 6
Stephen Tobolowsky is one of those actors who appears on screen and suddenly you go, “Hey, I know him from somewhere.” Well, yeah, you probably know him from his HBO roles. Actually, Tobolowsky has 249 (!!!) acting credits so chances are you could know him from a ton of different roles.
Tobolowsky began his HBO appearances in 2005, appearing on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Then, from 2005 – 2006, Tobolowsky appeared on Deadwood, HBO’s crime show set in 1800s Deadwood, South Dakota. By the way, Deadwood is a REAL city in South Dakota. Who names a city that?!
In 2007, Tobolowsky appeared on Entourage, playing the Mayor of Beverly Hills. Then, he was on John From Cincinnati, for a three episode arc. In 2014, he returned to HBO for an appearance on Hello Ladies. Tobolowsky currently appears on Silicone Valley, on which he plays Jack Barker.
While Tobolowsky may not have had characters who are as memorable as Omar or Chalky White, he's certainly part of the HBO family too.
12 Evan Rachel Wood - Total Count: 4
At just 29 years old, Evan Rachel Wood may be the youngest person on this list, but HBO loves her.
HBO first cast Evan Rachel Wood in True Blood in 2009. Wood played Sophie-Anne Leclerq, the Vampire Queen of Louisiana. Her character was an antagonist, who met her death in the fourth season.
Wood was then cast in 2011’s mini-series, Mildred Pierce. Wood's performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination and an Emmy Award nomination. Wood followed this up by appearing in five episodes of Doll & Em, in which she played herself.
In 2016, Evan Rachel Wood starred in HBO’s newest hit show, Westworld, on which she plays Dolores. Wood received another Golden Globe nomination for her performance as Dolores, so it looks like the HBO/Evan Rachel Wood relationship is working out for both of them.
11 Jamie-Lynn Sigler - Total Count: 2
Alright, this one is kind of for funsies, but we also couldn’t not include Jamie-Lynn Sigler.
If you know who Jamie-Lynn Sigler is, you most likely know he from her role on The Sopranos. She played Meadow Soprano, who was the daughter of Tony (James Gandolfini). Meadow was pretty much your typical teenage girl, as she was dramatic, emotional, spoiled, and bratty. She grew up though, to become a smart, independent women. When Sigler started playing the role, she was only 18 years old, so props to her for being able to keep up with James Gandolfini.
Jamie-Lynn Sigler then went on to appear in 13 episodes of Entourage… as Jamie-Lynn Sigler. The fact that an HBO show was being so aware of another HBO show was kind of genius.
Yes, she was only on two HBO shows, but the way she was used was genius.
10 Domenick Lombardozzi - Total Count: 4
Domenick Lombardozzi joined the HBO fam in 2000, when he appeared as Ralph Galino on Oz, HBO's brutal show about prison life. Lombardozzi's character was a victim of unfortunate circumstance. He was a contractor and one of his buildings fell, killing two people. This is what landed the otherwise law-abiding citizen in jail. In a two-episode arc, he ends up dead. But hey, HBO kills off most of their favorite actors.
Next, Lombardozzi appeared on The Wire, where he played Thomas ‘Herc’ Hauk. Lombardozzi is credited with appearing in all 60 episodes of the critically acclaimed show.
In both 2006 and 2008, Lombardozzi had appearances on Entourage as Dom, Vinnie’s cousin and former member of his entourage. In 2013, Lombardozzi made a return to HBO with his appearance on Boardwalk Empire. He played Ralph Capon, Al Capone's older brother. By the way, if you're keeping count, Lombardozzi played TWO guys named Ralph. To be fair, he does look kind of like a Ralph.
9 Laila Robins - Total Count: 4
Laila Robins made her HBO debut when she appeared on The Sopranos in 1999. She played a young Livia Soprano in a flashback scene. Livia Soprano was Tony Soprano's mother, who was maybe the worst TV mom ever. Oddly enough, David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, says that his own mother inspired the role of Livia Soprano... his own mother, you guys! If you felt bad for Tony having a sh*t mom, you should feel really bad for David Chase.
Laila Robins then went on to appear on Sex and the City in 2004. She played one of Aleksandr Petrovsky's art friends, but I pretty much try to completely block out any and all Aleksandr Petrovsky related plots.
Robins followed this up with 4 episodes on In Treatment in 2009, and 4 episodes on Bored to Death in 2010.
8 James Ransone - Total Count: 4
James Ransone joined the HBO fam with an appearance on The Wire in 2001. You’re noticing a trend here, right? Many people were able to get in with HBO on one of their ensemble shows. I mean, shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, and Oz were constantly introducing new characters for shorter character arcs, and so they needed new actors for almost every episode. Unfortunately, since all three of these shows were investigating crime in one way or another, there was also a very high chance of your character getting killed off. But, that’s really just the case with any HBO show.
Back to James Ransone, who played Chester "Ziggy" Sobotka on the second season of The Wire, aka the season all about the boring union drama. Ransone returned to HBO in 2008’s Generation Kill, which was another David Chase project.
In 2010, he appeared in 7 episodes of How to Make It in America. Ransone followed this up by appeared in 10 episodes of Treme, HBO’s show about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
7 J.D. Williams - Total Count: 5
J.D. Williams first appeared on Oz in 1997. He continued to occasionally appear on the show up until 2000. Williams played Kenny Wangler, a disrespectful drug addict, who found himself in jail. He was a pretty unsympathetic character, as his constant bullying of other characters and his self-destruction kept the audience from really connecting to him. In the season four premiere, Kenny Wangler was shot by a prisoner... who he had been bullying. Eh, can't feel all that bad about his death, right?
During his time on Oz, Williams also appeared on other HBO shows. In 1999, Williams was on one episode of The Sopranos, playing Special K. In 2000, he appeared as Sweet Sauce on Sex and the City. Is it just me or does J.D. Williams totally get the character with the most fun names?
Williams went on to appear on The Wire for 42 episodes between 2002 and 2006. He returned to HBO for 2016’s The Night Of. What can we say? This dude loves crime shows.
6 Jim Beaver - Total Count: 4
Jim Beaver first appeared on Six Feet Under in 2003. His character was named Prison Officer… so yeah, his role wasn’t all that big, but HBO must have liked him, as they’ve used him quite a few times since this role.
In 2004, Beaver joined the cast of Deadwood, on which he’d go on to appear in 35 episodes as Whitney Ellsworth. In 2007, Jim Beaver had a 3-episode arc on Big Love, HBO’s show about a polygamist played by the late Bill Paxton.
In 2007, Jim Beaver also appeared in 8 episodes of John from Cincinnati. John from Cincinnati only lasted one season, which is pretty rare for an HBO show, as all HBO shows are usually critical and commercial hits. John from Cincinnati, however, failed to gain an audience during its first season, despite the fact that it premiered after the series finale of The Sopranos. Though, maybe the whole audience was too busy grieving the loss of The Sopranos to really care about John from Cincinnati? Whatever the case, John from Cincinnati was a flop.
5 Kevin Dunn - Total Count: 4
You’ll notice many of the stars on this list have worked with HBO since the late ‘90s, as they appeared in Oz, The Sopranos, or Sex and the City. Kevin Dunn is the exception to this rule. His first HBO gig was 2011’s Luck, y'know that Dustin Hoffman show about horse racing. (It’s okay if you don’t remember it, because I don’t either.) Dunn appeared in 9 episodes of this short-lived show.
In 2013, Kevin Dunn returned to HBO with Veep on which he plays Ben Cafferty. While appearing on Veep, Dunn also found time to appear on True Detective – the first season, not the second season. Just, never the second season. On the critically acclaimed show that basically reinvented Matthew McConaughey’s career, Dunn played Major Ken Quesada.
Dunn also appeared on one episode of The Night Of. Despite not getting an HBO gig until 2011, the network clearly loves him and keeps offering him roles.
4 Clarke Peters - Total Count: 5
Clarke Peters started his HBO career with an appearance on one episode of Oz in 2000.
In 2002, Clarke Peters then really, really joined the HBO fam with his role as Lester Freamon on The Wire. Peters appeared in every single season of the show between 2002 and 2008. His character was a wise detective, whose skill and experience often proved imperative to the investigations.
In 2010, Peters took a major role on Treme, on which he appeared in every episode of the series. Peters then appeared in one episode of 2014’s True Detective - again, the first season because I like to not even acknowledge that the second season exists.
In 2015, Peters appeared on Show Me a Hero, the miniseries that explored Nick Masicsko’s fight to desegregate the public housing of Yonkers.
3 Paul Ben-Victor - Total Count: 6
Paul Ben-Victor’s first HBO role was on The Wire, on which he had a reoccurring role. Between 2003 and 2008, Victor appeared in 17 episodes of The Wire. In that time, Victor also appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2005 and John from Cincinnati in 2007. Between 2005 and 2008, Victor also appeared on 7 episodes of Entourage as Allen Grey. It sure seems that this dude is great at having a reoccurring role and being a character who dips in and out of the series whenever need be.
In 2014, Victor appeared on True Detective – you guessed it, season one. Season two never really happened, so it wouldn’t have even counted if he was on that show.
Victor’s biggest HBO role was on 2016’s Vinyl, which was cancelled after the first season. The premise – the music industry during 1970s New York – seemed interesting enough, but the show failed to find an audience. Again, this is one of HBO's rare misfires.
2 Jeffrey Wright - Total Count: 4
In 2003, Jeffrey Wright appeared in Angels in America, which was pretty star studded. We’re talking Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson. Those are legit movie stars, HBO can seemingly entice anyone to take a television role, even Meryl Streep.
Angels in America was an adaptation of Tony Kushner’s play about the AIDs epidemic in the ‘80s. The story revolves around a group of separate, but connected individuals. Oh, and it won all the awards ever. In fact, ol' Jeffrey Wright took home an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie.
In 2013, Jeffrey Wright returned to HBO in Boardwalk Empire, on which he appeared in 20 episodes. Wright then appeared in 2016’s Confirmation, a HBO TV-movie about Judge Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court and Anita Hill’s testimony of sexual harassment.
What Jeffrey Wright is most recognizable for now, though, is his role on Westworld, in which he plays Bernard Lowe. The series premiered in 2016 to both critical acclaim and commercial success. It’s set to return in 2018, because HBO loves to make us wait for the goods.
1 Bobby Cannavale - Total Count: 5
Bobby Cannavale entered the HBO world in perhaps the best way possible. In 2000, he appeared on Sex and the City playing a man Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) was dating. The problem was that he had “funky tasting spunk” and Samantha didn’t want to give him head again. When he tells Cannavale’s character the issue, he dismissed it and says that blowjobs are easy. To this, Samantha replies, “You men have no idea what we're dealing with down there. Teeth placement, and jaw stress, and suction, and gag reflex, and all the while bobbing up and down, moaning and trying to breathe through our noses. Easy? Honey, they don't call it a job for nothin'.”
For the record, I’d like that tattooed on my forehead.
Anyways, Cannavale then appeared on Oz in 2003, then Six Feet Under in 2004. His breakout HBO role came in 2012 with his appearance on Boardwalk Empire. He played Gyp Rosetti, a violent, unpredictable mobster who is a major antagonist on the show.
From there, Cannavale nabbed the lead role on Vinyl, but as I said, poor Vinyl got canned.
Most of the actors on this list have appeared in at least four HBO projects. But, there are also the actors who have had a couple super iconic roles with HBO, so we thought we’d give them a shout out too.
There’s Steve Buscemi, who starred as the unforgettable Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire. Before that though, he appeared in 14 episodes of The Sopranos in 2004. He played Tony Sopranos’ cousin, who, after being released from prison, falls back into a life of crime.
Aidan Gillen currently plays Littlefinger on Game of Thrones. He may actually be Westeros’ most deceitful manipulator. I mean, Littlefinger has to get what's coming to him in season seven, right guys? The role of Littlefinger is actually not too far from his role of Tommy Carcetti on The Wire. Tommy Carcetti was a politician, who, through the course of the series, worked his way up from councilman to Governor of Maryland. Basically Maryland's Littlefinger.
Sarah Jessica Parker starred as Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City, which was praised for its envelope-pushing way in which the women talked about sex and has gone on to become an iconic part of pop culture. She now stars in Divorce, which is more or less Sex and the City, Part II, as it showcases the pitfalls of not only divorce, but of dating in your 50s.
I mean, you guys get it. HBO loves using the same actors over and over again. This works out well for both the actors and the network. The actors all have access to some of the best shows on television. Meanwhile, the network has a relationship with some of the best working actors in the industry. It’s surprising that more networks haven't followed suit, but I guess that’s why HBO is HBO and ABC is… well, Grey’s Anatomy should say it all.