Classic Film Guide

Essential Character Actors

this is a work in progress (and currently male only), please check back later for updates

During the studio era, character actors were common (and respected), much more so than today. Whether it was MGM, Warner Bros. or you name it, each company had some stock players that were excellent supporting players, whether they were typecast or not. Sometimes, it was directors (e.g. like John Ford, later copied by Clint Eastwood) who chose to employ the same personnel in picture after picture of their movie portfolios. In any case, there are some faces that every film fan should recognize, because they were prolific or otherwise unforgettable (in no particular order) great character actors:

  • Ward Bond - one of Ford's regulars, appeared in more John Wayne films than any other too
  • Walter Brennan - the granddaddy of character actors actually won three Best Supporting Actor Academy Awards out of his three Oscar nominations in that category.
  • Edward Brophy - not always credited, bald, grinning, sometimes flustered
  • Joseph Calleia - played gangsters and other ethnic types
  • Leo G. Carroll - who appeared in more Hitchcock films (six) than any other actor (of course, the director appeared in more;-)
  • Charles Coburn - a likeable father figure, excelled in comedies with Jean Arthur (one Academy Award out of three Supporting Actor nominations)
  • Jimmy Conlin - smallish, older, distinguished by his glasses and hat, lots of roles (frequently uncredited)
  • Jerome Cowan - a lawyer, a friend, not the one the woman chooses (much like Ralph Bellamy?)
  • Donald Crisp - perhaps it's not really fair to include him here, but I did include Walter Brennan
  • Harry Davenport - this veteran, unlike Walter Brennan (and some of these others), never received any recognition; played a lot of wise older relative in a big wealthy family roles
  • Edward Gargan - did not receive a lot of screen credits, appeared as police detective in comedies like The Falcon Series
  • James Gleason - older gentleman, thin, usually wisecracking, what a character!
  • Paul Guilfoyle - frequently played ethnic 'hoods', not always credited for his work
  • Alan Hale - big, affable, laughing, and loud, besides being the Skipper's (from TV's Gilligan's Island) father, he's best known as Errol Flynn's sidekick
  • Charles Halton - wears glasses, the person I was thinking of when I wrote about Foulger below
  • Edward Everett Horton - appeared in a lot of comedies (e.g. with Fred Astaire and others), oftentimes a theater producer (or a would-be one)
  • Allen Jenkins - often played street smart New Yorkers with a gift for jargon and slang
  • Tom Kennedy - big faced comedic, sometimes serious, actor who wasn't credited as often as he appeared
  • Guy Kibbee - his puffy smiling face contributed to the affable roles he usually played
  • John Litel - tall, dependable lawyer or those type of roles
  • Gene Lockhart - usually played a slippery, not to be trusted, fellow; goofy at times, cunning at others
  • Donald MacBride - usually appeared in comedies, "king" of the double-take
  • Barton MacLane - played figures of authority, police detectives, not always on the up and up
  • Mike Mazurki - big, tall, unique face, dozens of movies, played comedic foils and tough guys mostly
  • Frank McHugh - one of the Irish mafia (in movies with Pat O'Brien & James Cagney), with a wisenheimer laugh that was perfect for providing comic relief
  • Thomas Mitchell - did play meatier roles at time, won a Supporting Oscar for Stagecoach (1939)
  • Alan Mowbray - sometimes suave, sometimes serious, somewhat effeminate British actor that played a wide range of roles, specialized in the double take
  • Henry O'Neill - grey haired father figure who appeared in so many films
  • Eugene Pallette - frog voiced, barrel chested, height challenged actor who was a staple in comedies
  • Franklin Pangborn - specialized in playing befuddled hotel concierges
  • Nat Pendleton - played big, dim-witted characters (ex-football players in the mob?) like bouncers exceptionally well
  • S. Z. Sakall - the man with the squeezable cheeks, a cuddly immigrant with a unique take on the English language
  • C. Aubrey Smith - renowned, distinguished British actor, father or authoritarian (trusted) figure
  • Ned Sparks - cigar chomping, sometimes, wry and/or sarcastic scene stealing, everytime!
  • Lewis Stone - think Henry O'Neill with a mustache;-) Actually, seems to have appeared in as many films as Charles Lane because Stone's career begun in the silent era; played Andy Hardy's dad
  • George Tobias - Brooklyn New Yorker type, humorous, friendly, likeable; played a number of different ethnic urban roles
  • John Williams - dependable, distinguished British actor perhaps best known for his role in Dial M for Murder (1954)
  • Rhys Williams - large bald, not always trustworthy
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  • Eddie Albert - though he was the leading man on TV's Green Acres, in movies he was frequently a piano playing sidekick (received two Supporting Actor Oscar nominations)
  • Edward Arnold - serious, gruff, father or other (frequently flawed) man in charge, business owner, etc.
  • Mischa Auer - often played eccentric foreign actors, those able to use their "foreign-ness" to scam Americans
  • Irving Bacon - tall, almost lanky, service industry personnel (e.g. behind the counter or manservant)
  • Willie Best - a face (and dated characteristics) that everyone should recognize
  • Eric Blore - a dependable manservant, easily confused by his employers; goes off, does what he'd told only to return and find out that circumstances have changed and, unfortunately, he then has to expend more effort doing just the opposite
  • Felix Bressart - often used a funny accent to go with his eccentric (and often ethnic) characters in comedies
  • Al Bridge - appeared in Westerns and most Preston Sturges films
  • Leo Carrillo - has a California state park named after him; played roles in gangster and western movies alike
  • Hobart Cavanaugh - can easily be confused for Byron Foulger
  • Eduardo Ciannelli - often confused with Joseph Calleia (above), played ethnic tough guys
  • Cliff Clark - almost always a beefy police officer
  • Fred Clark - mustache, bald, sometimes an official who's been proved to be wrong
  • Elisha Cook Jr. - played quirky characters with an edge, opened his mouth in surprise
  • Henry Daniell - a good villain, not always trustworthy, British, cultured, educated characters
  • William Demarest - started out as one of director Preston Sturges's group
  • Charles Dingle - another who can be confused with Kibbee
  • Byron Foulger - think of the guy who sweeps up after Rocky and Bullwinkle at the end of their show, the mustached sanitation worker; played administrators, accountants, bureaucrats, etc. who twisted their facial hair between their fingers
  • William Frawley - went on to fame on TV
  • Porter Hall - quirky, sometimes with a twitch, played funny or evil characters equally well
  • John Hamilton - not only played Perry White in the Superman TV series, but he appeared (often uncredited) in countless B&W films
  • Harry Hayden - a father, a priest, or other authority figure; often trustworthy
  • Selmer Jackson - tall, grey haired, frequently uncredited background actor in a position of authority, within a company or the government
  • Roscoe Karns - the reporter that needs a story?
  • Cecil Kellaway - similar in appearance to Guy Kibbee and J.M. Kerrigan, Irish, affable, kind, sometimes comic relief
  • J. M. Kerrigan - can be confused for Kibbee, he's kind of the Irish version of him;-)
  • Otto Kruger - memorable in "bad guy" roles, filling the bill as a German in some war pictures
  • Charles Lane - perhaps the most prolific of all character actors. Is there a movie he's not in?
  • Donald Meek - appropriate surname for the parts this bald, short, older gentlemen played
  • Grant Mitchell - another dependable, father-like figure, often in comedies
  • J. Carrol Naish - very prolific, received two supporting actor Academy Award nominations, including one for his role in Sahara (1943)
  • Reginald Owen - British, in some biopics, oftentimes humorous, distinctive voice
  • John Qualen - played virtually every kind of foreign immigrant part there was
  • Joseph Schildkraut - inhabited his roles, appearing differently in each one, much like lead Paul Muni in The Life of Emile Zola (1937) for which he received a supporting actor Oscar
  • Henry Stephenson - tall, old grey haired gentleman with impeccable manners making him ideal for wise wealthy father roles
  • Guinn Big Boy Williams - probably not an essential, but he did appear in a lot of films as a laborer, prisoner, big strong not too sharp mug
  • Ian Wolfe - so very recognizable and prolific, bald headed with a large nose; played butlers domestically or abroad, and/or other officials etc.
  • Will Wright - veteran, older actor that appeared in lots of different genres

I would be remiss if I didn't include mention of the "Oriental contingent" that appeared in so many classic films, often uncredited (even in key roles), frequently portraying villains (in war movies), servants or as comic foils (negatively stereotyped):

  • Philip Ahn
  • Benson Fong
  • Willie Fung
  • Richard Loo
  • Keye Luke
  • Victor Sen Yung

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