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23 Great Character Actors You See Everywhere (But Don’t Really Know)

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23 Great Character Actors You See Everywhere (But Don’t Really Know)

There are big name actors whose appearance on a marquis will ensure a good box office performance: The De Niros, the Day Lewises, the Redfords. The rest of the cast is generally fleshed out by talented and charismatic faces whose names you just don’t bother to look up. But they’re out there, and sometimes they transcend the character actor/star barrier.

Most recently, three names come to mind that have become names rather than just faces. J.K. Simmons’ Oscar winning turn in Whiplash catapulted him to fame, leading to his casting as Commissioner Gordon in the upcoming Justice League film. Simmons first caught public attention in Sam Raimi‘s Spiderman, doing a pitch perfect J. Jonah Jameson. His Jameson is as if the character on the page leaped out into our dimension and played himself.

But Simmons is still a workhorse actor, still taking time to be the spokesman for Farmer’s Insurance.

Richard Jenkins‘ rare leading role in The Visitor also earned him an Oscar and a slew of supporting roles in high profile films. And lastly is Jonathan Banks, who milked his 80s history as henchman and hitman in films like Beverly Hills Cop and turned it into Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for his role as Mike in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.

But there are many other actors still on the fringes of stardom. You know the face, now meet the names.

23. Dylan Baker

Baker is a familiar face to any filmgoer. His most notorious role was in Todd Solondz’ Happiness, in which he plays a pedophile father who has disturbingly frank conversations with his son about sex. He’s also played a lot of historical figures throughout his career, most notably Robert McNamara in Thirteen Days.

Baker was also Dr. Curt Connors in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films and, had the series continued past the third entry, likely would have become The Lizard that Rhys Ifans plays in The Amazing Spiderman.

22. M. Emmett Walsh

Roger Ebert had a theory about M. Emmett Walsh. Along with actor Harry Dean Stanton, Ebert theorized that if one of them were featured in a film, it couldn’t be all bad. He rethought his theory after Walsh appeared in Wild Wild West.

Perhaps his most accomplished role is as murderous, double-crossing hitman Loren Visser in the Coen Bros. debut Blood Simple. However, it’s always a joy to see him onscreen, in anything from Fletch to A Time to Kill. Walsh’ specialty seems to be sleazy private dicks and good ol’ country boy doctors and lawyers.

21. J.T. Walsh

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J.T. Walsh was one of the most celebrated character actors of the past 40 years. While he might best be remembered for one of his final roles as the mayor afraid of change in Pleasantville, he had been performing since 1975. Despite often playing the villain, Walsh was chameleon enough to disappear into more decent characters. His typecasting as the chief heavy dates back to his early days, playing the uptight antagonist to Robin Williams‘ wartime DJ in Good Morning, Vietnam. But his most chilling bad guy is in John Dahl’s uniformly excellent neo-noir Red Rock West, in which he plays a local sheriff intent on killing his femme fatale of a wife.

Anytime Hollywood needed to class up its most recent blockbuster thriller, they’d bring in Walsh for a scene or two – most memorably as an outraged politician for his one scene in Outbreak.

Walsh passed away of a heart attack in 1998 at age 54. Jack Nicholson dedicated his Oscar for As Good As It Gets to the actor.

20. Vincent Schiavelli

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The gangly, skeletal form Vincent Schiavelli doesn’t want Patrick Swayze on his train. Or so his character as a cruel ghost who threatens Swayze’s departed hero bellows repeatedly throughout Jerry Zucker’s Ghost. Schiavelli’s 150-plus filmography capitalizes on his bizarre appearance both for horrific and comedic purposes – he was the only actor to reprise his role as Mr. Vargas in Fast Times at Ridgemont High for the short-lived television spinoff. The actor’s bizarre physical appearance is attributed to Marfan Syndrome – a condition that affects the connective tissue.

Aside from acting, Schiavelli was also an acclaimed food writer, penning several cookbooks and articles for various newspapers. He also had a 26 episode cooking show on PBS.

He passed away from lung cancer in 2005. He was 55.

19. James Rebhorn

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Do you need an anal-retentive headmaster/lawyer/all-around jerk? Look no further than James Rebhorn, who practically owned such roles ever since his appearance as the uptight dean in Scent of a Woman. He was the definitive WASP stereotype, walking into every role with a stick protruding from his rectum. And he was excellent at it.

His final role was perhaps one of his most sympathetic. As Claire Danes‘ father in the hit series Homeland, he compassionately dealt with her bipolar disorder. His unfortunate passing from melanoma at age 65 forced writers to include his death in the end of the fourth season, leaving the characters to honour him in a finale that serves as a bittersweet elegy.

18. Brion James

Fans of Blade Runner will instantly recognize Brion James as the murderous replicant Leon, but his career spread over 100 films. His hulking six foot-three inch frame as well as his commanding screen presence dominated villainous turns in Another 48 Hours and Tango and Cash.

Horror geeks will remember him from the third entry in Sean S. Cunningham’s House films entitled The Horror Show. It’s not connected to the other films in the series, and the plot finds an executed James haunting the house of the cop who caught him. The plot is nearly identical to Wes Craven‘s Shocker, which came out the same year.

James died of a heart attack in 1999.

17. David Warner

Speaking of horror nerds, how about that David Warner? Warner became a household name for genre fiends after his appearances in 70s classics like The Omen and later Waxwork. His death scene in The Omen is one of the most memorable of the decade.

Outside of the genre, Warner got his start in the Royal Court Theatre in London. One of his major breakthrough roles was in a BBC presentation of Madhouse on Castle Street, where he played alongside a young folk singer named Bob Dylan (this was January 1963, and Dylan was just breaking ground in the U.K.).

He honoured his horror legacy with a cameo appearance as Neve Campbell‘s drama coach in Scream 2.

16. Bob Gunton

Like Rebhorn, Bob Gunton regularly plays uptight antagonists who get their comeuppance. His most embarrassing role of that nature was probably in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. But you know him from everyone’s favourite movie as the corrupt warden in Frank Darabont‘s The Shawshank Redemption and, more recently, as Leland Owlsley in season one of Netflix’s Daredevil.

Gunton, like a lot of character actors, started on the stage, earning a Tony nomination for the original Broadway production of Evita. He also has a healthy career on television, most recently guest starring on an episode of Law and Order: SVU.

15. Frank Whaley

Frank Whaley has made a career out of playing pale-skinned, neurotic, jittery side characters, but there was a brief time in the early 90s where he could have been a leading man. In 1990, he starred opposite Jennifer Connelly in John HughesCareer Opportunities. Had it been a few years earlier, when Hughes held claim to a sizable portion of the decade, such a role could have launched his career into an entirely different trajectory.

Instead, Whaley turned to independent features, starring in George Huang’s pitch black satire Swimming With Sharks alongside Kevin Spacey. He appears to be always just on the outskirts of mainstream fame – he’s a dear friend of Ethan Hawke, was listed as one of the most promising actors of 1981, and appears as the ill-fated Brett in the Big Kahuna burger scene in Pulp Fiction.

Since, he has written and directed four films that were critically well-received.

14. Ronny Cox

Ronny Cox is best known as the evil head of OCP Dick Jones in Robocop, but he played a very different cop on television in the 80s – a singing cop. While his character was one of few in the much-maligned musical TV show Cop Rock that didn’t have a song in his heart, Cox – like many cast members from the show – speaks highly of the experience. Apparently, Cop Rock was as much a blast to film as it was an insulting chore to watch.

But Cox has another pivotal role in film history. Everyone is familiar with the infamous possum boy/Dueling Banjos scene in John Boorman’s Deliverance, but few remember it was Cox who played second banjo. His death in the film sets in motion the sadistic final act of the film.

13. Harris Yulin

Los Angeles native Harris Yulin is a face any child of the 90s will never forget. He was Judge Stephen “The Hammer” Wexler in Ghostbusters 2, whose bluster causes the mood slime to erupt in his courtroom and wreak havoc. Beyond that pivotal role of so many’s childhood, he’s known for playing corrupt officials from police officers (Scarface) to politicians (Clear and Present Danger).

In 1996, he earned an Emmy nomination for his hysterical guest role as a mafia boss who needs relationship help from Kelsey Grammer on Frasier.

12. David Paymer

David Paymer has been a recognizable face in film since 1979, but earned his first significant recognition as Billy Crystal‘s put-upon brother in Mr. Saturday Night. The forgettable film, which was directed by Crystal, focuses on the life of a fictional stand-up comedian. Paymer was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

While actors say it’s nice just to be nominated, such an honour doesn’t do for your career what a win did for J.K. Simmons and Richard Jenkins. So Paymer went right back to playing supporting roles as stereotypical Jewish characters. He’s made a living appearing on television as standard roles for character actors – doctors, judges, and lawyers.

11. Bruce McGill

Bruce McGill has a long working relationship with director Michael Mann, appearing in Collateral, Ali, and The Insider. His powerhouse performance in the latter nearly walks away with the film, despite only appearing in two scenes. Taking ex-tobacco employee Jeffrey Wigand’s deposition in Mississippi, McGill’s lawyer suddenly explodes at the powerful Brown and Williamson attorneys on the other side of the aisle.

In a film with great performances from Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer and fellow character actor Colm Feore, McGill certainly held his own.

10. Richard Riehle

I wouldn’t want to jump to conclusions about actor Richard Riehle, whose performance as the body-cast car accident victim/lawsuit payout recipient in Office Space is second only to Stephen Root’s Milton. In fact, Office Space is populated with enough character actors to make an entirely new list based on the cast, from Gary Cole’s manipulative boss to John C. McGinley’s Bob (the first Bob). But Riehle has appeared as similarly exploited characters, and he regularly nails the pathos such a character requires.

He first defined the role of the desperate loser as the local braggart guard who lies about Richard Kimble’s escape in The Fugitive, who Tommy Lee Jones embarrasses by calling out his fictitious version of events.

9. David Morse

Character actor David Morse is another man always teetering on the brink of stardom. He is best remembered as Doctor Jack “Boomer” Morrison on the hit 80s show St. Elsewhere, but it was Denzel Washington – not Morse – who broke into bigger and better things. Morse even managed a lead role on the would-be hit CBS series Hack, but it was cancelled early in its run.

In film, he’s suffered typecasting as the villain or main henchman – in roles as far reaching as The Rock and Disturbia. Hit star or not, Morse always lends some much needed gravitas to whatever film he’s in.

8. Paul Gleason

James Rebhorn took the mantle of uptight bureaucrat from Paul Gleason, who mastered such a role in Die Hard and The Breakfast Club.

In his personal life, however, he was as far removed as the authority figures he played as one could imagine. Gleason decided to become an actor after watching Splendor in the Grass in 1961 while hanging out with friend Jack Kerouac. Just imagine, the grumpy principal from The Breakfast Club probably smoked, ate, and shot illegal substances while wandering America with one of the most influential writers in recent histories. He could well have been eating magic mushrooms, skipping about New York City until he wandered into Lee Strasberg’s acting studio, where he studied.

He died in 2006 of mesothelioma, believed to be contracted from contact with asbestos when he worked construction sites as a teenager.

7. Charles Napier

If you needed a cold-as-ice police officer from the deep south, Charles Napier was your man. His jaw – chiseled and shaped out of stone and soaked in Bourbon – along with his Kentucky heritage, made him perfect for any threatening redneck onscreen.

Napier even played such a role for laughs as one of the Blues Brothers’ many antagonists.

Napier was working as a journalist for Overdrive and appearing in low-budget films when a strike sent him out to Hollywood in 1975. He was then summoned to meet with director Alfred Hitchcock – who spotted him in a recent low budget Russ Meyer film called Supervixens. The meeting led to him securing a one year contract with Universal. Throughout the 70s and 80s, he had guest roles on The Rockford Files and The A-Team.

6. Tom Atkins

Like David Warner, Tom Atkins has a long history with the horror genre. He earned the prestigious honour after appearing as the grizzled detective in Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps as well as his long working relationship with John Carpenter. He has appeared in three Carpenter films, and also landed a leading role in the director’s produced and written (but not directed) Halloween III: Season of the Witch.

His connection to the genre inspired director Patrick Lussier to cast him in his remake of My Bloody Valentine. He’s currently scheduled to appear in the next entry in the Halloween series – again produced by Carpenter.

5. Robert Prosky

Few actors can spend most of their career playing grandfatherly types, but Robert Prosky was perhaps one of the best at it. Despite giving a great, evil turn in Michael Mann’s Thief, Prosky settled into father-figure roles in films like Broadcast News and the magical projectionist in the 1993 memorable flop Last Action Hero. As he got older, his roles didn’t really change, playing the father-like TV vampire to Zach Galligan’s hero in Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

His biggest stretch was playing the secret Nazi Chancellor of Germany who filmed a gay sex tape with Hitler which also features him assassinating the Fuhrer in Loose Cannons. Yeah, it’s a really strange movie.

Prosky passed away in 2008 from complications due to heart surgery.

4. Mike Starr

Mike Starr’s tall, hulking frame has made him perfect for any mob henchman or hitman in any film, and he’s taken full advantage of it – whether he’s playing it for laughs in Miller’s Crossing, The Ice Harvest, and Dumb and Dumber or using for more intimidating purposes in Goodfellas, Billy Bathgate, and The Black Dahlia.

For a Sopranos-type actor, he also has incredible comic timing. Miller’s Crossing finds his henchman approaching Gabriel Byrne for an epic beating, but Byrne signals he’d like to remove his coat first. Starr allows it, and winds up taking a chair to the face. Nose bleeding, but otherwise unmoved, Starr utters, “Jesus Tom” before just walking crestfallen out of the room. It’s just one indelible moment from the Coens, which Starr plays note-perfect.

3. Donald Moffat

A poor man’s James Cromwell, Donald Moffat is usually found in one politician role or another. He even played the president in Clear and Present Danger – a role Cromwell took on in another Clancy adaptation, The Sum of All Fears. But to call the actors interchangeable is an insult to both, as Moffat brought his own brand of paranoid intensity for his role of Garry in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Throughout the film, Garry is one of the prime suspects of being the impostor alien, and his suspicious performance lends credence to the theory. However, it turns out Garry is just kind of a jerk, but a human one.

2. Kurt Fuller

Another Ghostbusters II alum, Kurt Fuller owned the 80s role of sleazy, coked-out, yuppie businessman. He played the extremity of such a role in the cult classic Miracle Mile. As L.A. is about to be struck by a nuclear bomb, Fuller shouts half-naked from a rooftop, rambling nonsensically, his upper lip covered in white powder.

But it was Ghostbuster II which jump-started his career, and in an interview with The A.V. Club, he is especially gracious about it.

Harold Ramis really got my career going and was a friend for a long time. I was doing a play in L.A., and he came to see it a few times and recommended me to Ivan Reitman for Ghostbusters 2. Six months later, I quit real estate and was acting for good, and it was really because Harold took an interest in me and made a phone call and did stuff that people don’t usually do, even if they like somebody,” he said.

1. Kevin Corrigan

You may not know the name Kevin Corrigan, but the indie actor has the distinguished honour of starting his career in a Martin Scorsese film as a young man, only to work with the director again as a grown-up. In Goodfellas, Corrigan plays Henry Hill’s younger brother Michael, who has to keep the stirring the sauce for the spaghetti all day. In The Departed, he returns as Leonardo DiCaprio‘s drug dealing cousin.

In between, he’s lent his spot-on comedic timing to Judd Apatow in Freaks and Geeks, Superbad, and Pineapple Express as well as Dan Harmon in Community. His performances in indie-fare like Some Guy Who Kills People have been met with wide critical acclaim.

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