January 17, 2012
Name: Cristine Rose.
Usually Plays: Formidable matriarchs, unflappable corporate execs, and other powerful women.
Relatively Insignificant Early Role That I Recall Fondly Due to My David E. Kelley Fetish: As the ex-wife of beleaguered lawman Jimmy Brock (Tom Skerritt) on Picket Fences, still the record-holder for the all-time greatest TV ensemble.
Her Magnum Opus: As the mother of two of the superpowered protagonists (Adrian Pasdar and Milo Ventimiglia) on Heroes. I suspect that Angela Petrelli was initially an insignificant or short-term part, or else they would have cast a name actress in it. But Rose, with her clenched jaw and enigmatic glare, turned Angela into one of the show’s most prominent villains, held her own against star-turn baddies Malcolm McDowell and Robert Forster, scored main-title billing, and survived till the very end of the show. Bravo.
See, I Told You About Picket Fences: Q: “You’ve appeared in many great TV shows. If you could pick any one to return to, which would it be, and why?” A: “Angela Petrelli aside, the one that comes immediately to mind is Lydia Brock, on Picket Fences. When I came out here [to Los Angeles], I had a lot of fun doing sitcoms. I came out here from New York in 1986, and I did several sitcom pilots, and in the early nineties I really wanted to dso hour-long shows. I love humor, and theatricality – humor and drama together are the perfect blend. I think you get to a person’s heart through humor, and then you get into the heart and you wrench it. It’s a very powerful way to make a point. And Lydia Brock was one of those people . . . . Kathy Baker and I used to have great scenes together. Beautifully written. A beautifully defined character.” (From a long video interview with Rose here.)
Fanboy Cred: Hey, she was even a Klingon, too!
December 3, 2011
Name: Titus Welliver.
First Noticed As: The most psychopathic, and least dull-witted, of Al Swearingen’s rogues’ gallery of henchmen in Deadwood.
(Maybe) Most Famous As: The Man in Black, the human incarnation of the island’s great unexplained evil, on Lost. Welliver was an inspired choice, because his somber mien added shades of wisdom and regret to the, y’know, evil. When the show’s labored metaphysics required one of the regulars (the equally great Terry O’Quinn) to take over for Welliver, it was a loss.
The Tilt: Every good character actor needs a reliable mannerism or two. Welliver’s is the meaningful head-tilt (see above); the more extreme the angle, the more serious the moment.
Sam Elliott Called and Wants His Voice Back: Welliver’s great asset is is unexpectedly deep, rangy, moody voice, which can make even the dumbest line sound like a quote from Steinbeck or Twain. Some producers like to cast him as furriners, and Welliver does the accents competently – as an Irish gun peddler on Sons of Anarchy, for instance – but I think he’s less interesting when he’s suppressing that grand American baritone.
Lately Seen In: The Town, in the classic #2-cop-who-follows-around-the-big-deal-detective-looking-impressed role, and The Good Wife, as scumbag state’s attorney Glenn Childs. The latter is almost a stock villain, and I hope Welliver doesn’t settle in as TV’s go-to bad guy. He has more soul than that.
August 8, 2011
Name: Stephen Tobolowsky.
Trademark: A robotic, slowed-down speech pattern that makes his delivery sound as if he’s addressing a small child, but also has a sinister quality that gets him parts as bureaucrats and villains. There’s another contrast that widens Tobolowsky’s range, too: he has milquetoasty features (sorry, Stephen) but his height (he’s 6’3″) allows for physical menace as well.
Most Famous As: Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day.
On Television: A funny but relatively small role on Glee, as a gay, toked-up, burned-out ex-choir teacher has raised his profile somewhat. But Tobolowsky had a meatier part a few years back on Heroes, as a sociopathic Company functionary; recurring roles on Deadwood, John From Cincinnati, and Californication; and a guest shot on Community as the teacher of a Who’s the Boss? symposium.
Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party: This is a documentary in which Tobolowsky, more animated and Southern-accented than when he’s in character, relates anecdotes about himself for an hour and a half. It is not terribly flattering or well-made, but the precedent has value: every great character actor should be the subject of his or her own movie.
His Definition of a Character Actor: As expressed in this witty op-ed piece for the New York Times, an actor who plays characters who aren’t given names in the script.
July 15, 2011
Name: Margo Martindale.
Distinguishing Features: A rotund figure and a rich Texas accent that can come out warm or mean.
A Holdout: She eschewed television for stage and film roles until joining the ensemble of Sidney Lumet’s 100 Centre Street in 2000.
On the Big Screen: Supporting roles in Lorenzo’s Oil, The Firm, Robert Benton’s Nobody’s Fool and Twilight, and last year’s Secretariat. Hilary Swank’s mother in Million Dollar Baby, and a lead role in Alexander Payne’s segment of Paris, Je t’aime that he wrote for her.
I Wish I Had Seen: Her Tony-nominated turn as Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, opposite Ned Beatty.
A recent patron: Dmitry Lipkin, creator of The Riches and co-creator of Hung, middling shows with good supporting parts for character players. Martindale did her best work in years as a stifled, pill-popping McMansionite with a closeted husband on The Riches, then swung through Hung once as a timid client of the male prostitute protagonist.
The Life of the Working Actor: “I’ve worked ever since I started acting, but I’ve been very poor a major part of my career. And it didn’t discourage me. I just kept going. And today it’s pretty good. Pretty good. I might even could buy a house soon.”
Upcoming: I haven’t seen Justified yet but Martindale just snagged an Emmy nomination for a meaty role as a villain. Reason enough to move that Blu-ray to the top of the stack.
July 5, 2011
Name: Zeljko Ivanek.
Best Known As: The courtly, corrupt, and ultimately tragic high-powered lawyer Ray Fiske on Damages, a very affecting performance despite the shakiness of Ivanek’s Southern accent.
Trademarks: Hiding behind an unpronounceable Slovenian name, this very American stage actor has a dimunitive frame, a prominent forehead, and a crooked, sardonic mouth, all of which tilt his casting toward the debauched or the demonic.
First Glimpsed In: The cult horror film The Sender, with our friend Shirley Knight.
First Big TV Exposure: Part of the Tom Fontana repertory, Ivanek played a prosecutor on Homicide and the governor on Oz.
High Art Moment: Ivanek was part of the amazing ensemble in Dogville, Lars Von Trier’s best film, and its disastrous sequel, Manderlay.
Ivanek the Terrible: Lately he’s been overexposed as TV’s go-to guy for generic villainy: miscast as a rogue military operative in Heroes, miscast as a deranged redneck on Big Love, nothing to do as a vampire judge in True Blood. Somebody should use Ivanek against type as a nice guy, before I get tired of him.
June 8, 2011
Name: Michael Paul Chan.
Not Charlie, But …: Chan hit a recent career peak on The Closer, as part of what may be TV’s best-ever character-actor cop ensemble. (Sorry, Hill Street.) He plays the only guy on the squad who understands computers, and he gets endless mileage out of his primary prop, the glasses perched on his shaved head. Chan is one of those actors who can’t play dumb; he exudes intelligence and confidence and he’ll take over a scene anytime the director lets him. He can do Chinese and Chinese-American stereotypes on cue but, like the great James Hong, Chan is adept at undermining them with humor.
First Noticed In: The Wonder Years. Chan cracked me up as the pidgin-English-speaking nightmare boss when Kevin took a crummy Chinese restaurant job.
His Best Patron: Michael Mann. Small roles in Thief and The Insider built to a great supporting role on Mann’s cop opus redux, Robbery Homicide Division. Counterbalanced by the great, hounddog-faced Barry Shabaka Henley, Chan’s fast-talking RHD detective was a first draft of his Closer character.
Obligatory Age/Race-Related Stereotype: Turns out Chan is over 60 (past retirement age for cops!), and has been doing bit parts since the days of Police Woman and Baretta. Tell me the man can’t pass for 45.
What Now: He’s plateaued as a team player. Somebody write a leading role for Chan, a meaty, fully-rounded part that digs beneath the surface of his trademark sharp-edged cynicism.
Read More About It: Here’s a brief interview with Chan.
May 25, 2011
Name: James Rebhorn.
Description: Tall, angular, and toothy, Rebhorn specializes in villainy of every nuance, from psychopathic to weaselly to merely bureaucratic.
Famous As: The headmaster in Scent of a Woman (1992); the defense secretary in Independence Day (1996).
Recently Seen As: A creepy small-town doctor with a gruesomely funny death scene in the odd neo-noir Don McKay (2010).
What He Needs to Do Next: Play some nice guys. He has the range. His villains are always strangely likable; I’d like to see Rebhorn play some worldly grandpas as he approaches Social Security age.
On TV: Recently a regular on Big Lake and recurring on White Collar. I haven’t seen either show, but eventually I’ll take a look, if only to see what Rebhorn is doing in them. If this new series of quick takes on underappreciated, contemporary actors needs a subhead, it would be that: Actors whose movies (or TV shows) I’ll watch just because they’re in them.