September 17, 2010


They Had Great Character (STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY, 9/15/10, NY Times)

There is one thing that [Kevin McCarthy, Carl Gordon, Maury Chaykin, James Gammon, Harold Gould] and I have in common: we have all played parts that didn’t have names.

When you are Harrison Ford you play Richard Kimble or Han Solo. You have a first and last name, and the writer has thought enough about you to give you a life. Harrison Ford’s characters eat, sleep, drink coffee, shave, shower (from the back only, waist up), read the newspaper, get dressed, drive to work, run for their lives, shoot guns, deliver stirring oratory to alien warlords and possibly kiss Renée Zellweger — all because they have been named.

Compare that with James Gammon, who assayed the roles of “Texan,” “Paps” and “Double D.” Or Carl Gordon, whose characters were sometimes identified only by a job description like “Foreman” or “Luther the Pimp,” or simply age and location like “Older Man on Train.” Harold Gould was stuck with his location on the family tree when he played “Grandpa” in “Freaky Friday.”

I personally have felt the bite of having no name. In my time, I have played “Ranger Bob,” “Ringmaster Bob,” “Dr. Bob,” “Father Jon” and “Father Joe.” For the TV movie “Last Flight Out,” my name was “Tim” in the first half of the script and “Jim” in the last half. One of our stars was Richard Crenna, the funniest man who ever lived; he would always call me “Tim Jim” with a straight face during our scenes and in serious discussions with the director. No one noticed.

The career of Kevin McCarthy, who was somewhat of an icon for his performance in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” proves this rule. When he was younger, he was a leading man; he had his hair and his good looks and almost always played parts that had first and last names. He became a character actor only after he outlived all the leading ladies he could have plausibly kissed. When that happened, Kevin’s characters began to lose their names, though he was so respected that they were almost always given a higher education: “Dr. Jones,” “Professor Ragnar,” “Professor Weaver,” “Bishop Ryder,” “Pastor Waltz” and “the Monk.”

Do not be deceived, however: the onscreen life of Paps or the Monk or Older Man on Train had to be just as full and vibrant as that of, say, Capt. Jack Sparrow or Don Corleone.

The only difference is that the parts with no names have been somewhat abandoned by the screenwriters, so it is the job of the character actor to bring substance to the role. That may take imagination, research or just plain prayer. But it has to be done. The character actor has to bring the complete person to the set, ready to roll with the punches.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 17, 2010 5:51 AM
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