A film, television show or play needs a variety of actors, those in the lead and others in secondary roles who provide dramatic or comedic textures, while advancing the storyline. Character actors come into and go out of the production; their job is to give someone for the lead actors to play off of, to provide new elements of the story, or to fill a certain type of role with a convincing performance. Character actors often type cast themselves with performances that get them hired again to play the same type of character, or to play a related type of role. As an example, a mature actor with a commanding delivery or stature might play persons of authority, maybe a cop, doctor, politician or judge. Likewise, an actor with certain physical characteristics and is good at accents might play characters of many nationalities.
Character actors sometimes move up to become lead actors. Jack Klugman, Walter Matthau, Leslie Nielsen, Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson started out as character actors. Character actors are like third down backs or situational pass rushers in football, or studio musicians that are hired to provide to add punch to a recording; they don’t get the glory but are professionals, craftsmen.
There are hundreds of good characters, I have picked a few that give many fine performances, folks who worked constantly because they were convincing and viewers responded to their performances. These are also folks I remember from my TV watching years of the 1960s and 1970s. You might not know the name but you likely know the face and their work. Many of these folks worked in 1950s television, the glory days of stellar writing and often live broadcasts. Others came up through the theater, also cutting their teeth on live performances.
Richard Deacon – Tall, deep voice, bald. Mel Cooley was his best known role, followed by Lumpy Rutherford’s dad on Leave it to Beaver, and then many other roles.
Michael Ansara – His first big role was as Cochise in Broken Arrow in the 1950s. He was a versatile actor, who could play many different ethnicities and nationalities.
Strother Martin – Instantly recognizable, his career grew over the course of his long career. He worked with John Wayne and Paul Newman in many films. His bread and butter was the Western but he appeared in many other kinds of films. His keynote role was in Cool Hand Luke uttering the line, “What we have here is failure to communicate.” He was often a grizzled and folksy character.
Emmet Walsh – Began his career in the late 1960s, he is still going in his 80s. Alternating between dramatic and comedic roles, he hit is stride in the late 1970s. Some of his most memorable roles were in Straight Time, Slap Shot, Cannery Row, Blade Runner and Blood Simple.
Albert Paulsen – Mainly a television actor, he portrayed dozens of spies, generals and hitmen of various nationalities. His accent and hard look made him idea for shows like Mission Impossible, Combat!, Hawaii Five-O, The Man From UNCLE, and many more dramas.
Henry Darrow – A regular on the series High Chaparral and Harry-O. Appeared in many Westerns and crime shows. If you needed a Latin actor, Darrow was probably your man; but he played a lot of no-Latino parts too. Portrayed sophisticated characters.
James Olson – Most popular in the 1960s and 1970s, usually in dramas, his thinning hair and round face made him very distinctive. Never projected much warmth, he could be steely or display a depth of emotion. Frequently on crime and medical dramas, especially Quinn Martin shows and Hawaii Five-O.
Pat Hingle – A nearly 60 year career, he continued to get plum roles late in his life, including Commissioner Gordon in several Batman films. He often worked with Clint Eastwood. On imdb.com he is credited with 198 acting roles, not counting his many theater productions.
Albert Salmi – Another actor who worked extensively, often a villain or shady character, but you probably didn’t know his name. Like many character actors of the era he populated Westerns and crime shows, including Daniel Boone, Gunsmoke and The Virginian. Frequent actor in Quinn Martin productions.
Claude Akins – Had a long career in television and film, often as a tough guy, played both good and bad guys. He had a plum role as the preacher in Inherit the Wind, and cold play silly as Sheriff Lobo. His beefy appearance and distinctive voice made him perfect for the many Westerns he appeared in.
R G Anderson – Large man with steely eyes and a firm, but folksy voice. He was often associated with farmers, preachers, lawmen and other serious characters, often in Westerns.
Simon Oakland – Played a lot of tough guys or authoritative roles such as cops, including the police captain in Bullitt. Had a reoccurring role on Black Sheep Squadron, Toma and Kolchak. Made many appearances on Gunsmoke, Combat!, Bonanza, Ironside and Hawaii Five-O.
G.D. Spradlin – Gravelly voiced actor, very clean cut and had a no nonsense air about him. He played politicians, sheriffs and military officers. Memorable as the Tom Landry-type coach in North Dallas Forty, the corrupt Senator in The Godfather Part II, a general in Apocalypse Now and a minister in Ed Wood.
Fritz Weaver – Often played distinguished or well educated characters but he didn’t have a “type.” He won many awards for his Broadway work, and was in demand for his voice work, particularly as a narrator. He worked steadily from the 1960s through the 1990s. Some of his memorable roles were in The Holocaust (TV), Creepshow and Fail Safe.
Matt Clark – Active from the 1960s to today. He has worked extensively in television and film, usually in folksy, character roles. In 1972 he appeared in six films alone (The Cowboys, Pocket Money, The Culpepper Cattle Co., Jeremiah Johnson, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean).
Victor Buono – A very portly, balding man, he played villainous roles, often somewhat cowardly. He appeared in many Westerns, sometimes as a corrupt businessman, and had a reoccurring character on The Wild, Wild West. In real life he was a poet and a stage actor. He died at a young age but left an indelible presence.
Edward Andrews – Big, white hair, horn-rimmed glasses and distinctive voice. Andrews played businessmen, doctors, lawyers, banker, military officers, grandfathers and whatever middle-aged men were. He was the grandfather in Sixteen Candles, the doctor in Send Me No Flowers, the first time father in The Thrill of it All, defense secretary in The Absent Minded Professor, Senator in Advise and Consent. He often worked with Doris Day and appeared in many Disney films.
Keenan Wynn – Instantly recognizable face and voice, he worked steadily, often in small but distinctive roles. Appeared in many Disney films. When he wasn’t appearing in Westerns he was a grandfather type or a corrupt businessman. He played comedy much like he played dramatic parts. He was the solider who shot up the soda machine in Dr. Strangelove.
Dub Taylor – Often in Westerns, he was a grisly, old man with wild hair. He was a shop keeper, cook, cop, blacksmith, or other ordinary character. His flair was to bring a sense of world weariness and gruffness as a counterpoint to the main star. He made the most of a few moments of screen time.
John Anderson – You might not know his name but he worked extensively. Deep voice and chiseled looks, he could play a variety of roles. Guess-starred in television shows from the 1950s to his death in 1992. Portrayed Lincoln several times and had a reoccurring role in MacGuyver.
Allan Melvin – Sgt Hacker, Sam the Butcher, Archie Bunker’s friend, he has reoccurring roles on many television series including many guest appearances. A very familiar face and voice, he also had a long career as a voice actor doing cartoon work. Usually, he played a scheming, obnoxious character, mostly in comedies. His characters could be loud and imposing.
Burt Mustin – He came to acting late in life, a spry old timer with a distinctive nose. He was Gus the fireman on Leave it to Beaver and frequently appeared on The Andy Griffith Show, many Disney films, and was a frequent actor on Jack Webb shows. His characters were often opinionated and full of spunk. He had a 25-year career in television and films.
Jack Elam – A most distinctive actor with a droopy and menacing look, and a deep voice. Mostly a villain in Westerns, he turned to comedy in later years playing off his dark persona. From Support Your Local Sheriff to Once Upon a Time in the West, he was unforgettable.
William Windom – Portrayed doctors, laywers, businessmen, and a host over characters during his long career. Perhaps best known as the doctor on Murder She Wrote. His first big role was as the prosecutor in To Kill a Mockingbird. In the 1960s and 1970s he guested on mainly dramas and action shows. He could be equally effective in mild-mannered or unhinged roles.
Henry Jones – Often confused with Harry Morgan, he played pretty much everything in comedy and drama. He played doctors, politicians, judges, storekeepers and brought a distinctive voice and stateliness to his roles, but he could also be conman and a rascal. He was in many Disney films and Westerns
John Dehner – Tall, well-spoken and a man of authority, either as a politician or lawyer, or a conman. Equally effective in comedies or dramas, and often in Westerns. Nearly a 50-year career, he was in demand until the end of his life.
Victor French – A character actor, he found greater fame later in life in starring roles in Carter Country, Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven. His hard looks and deep voice made him perfect for villainous roles. He guested on Gunsmoke 23 times.
Roscoe Lee Browne – The first thing you noticed about him was his rich baritone voice and his dignified manner. He was in demand as a voice artist and appeared in many stage productions. Frequently on television and film, one of his most notable roles was as Jebediah Nightlinger in The Cowboys.
Parley Baer – He had a roly-poly appearance and distinctive and voice, he started out on radio. He moved into television and film, often playing troublemakers or fussy characters. He is remembered as Mayor Stoner, a frequent thorn in the side of Andy Griffith.
Edgar Buchanan – He came to acting late, having spent his early career as a practicing dentist. Most famously known as Uncle Joe from Petticoat Junction, he was wily and cunning, although usually never successful in his get rich schemes. Appearing in over 100 films and many television guest appearances, he often appeared in Westerns. He was Uncle Billy in Leave it to Beaver, and Bunny Dull in McClintock!, and the confused judge in Move Over Darling with Doris Day.
Harold J. Stone – A versatile actor, whose career started on the stage before moving into film and television. He played gangsters, lawyers, soldiers, doctors, and in everything from Westerns to crime shows to comedies. He could also play a variety of ethnicities. His serious face and deep voice commanded attention even while speaking in low tones. He played lots of heavies or unbending father types.
J.D. Cannon – Usually a gruff businessmen or persons of authority, his gravely voice added to domineering manner. Mostly a television actor, he did appear as one of the convicts in Cool Hand Luke. His most noticeable role was Chief Peter B. Clifford in McCloud.
Ellen Corby – Her most famous role was Grandma Walton, for which she won three Emmy Awards, but she had a long career dating back to the 1930s. Her roles were often brief but with her voice and familiar face she didn’t need much screen time make an impression. She could easy portray sweet old ladies and brash swindlers, as she convinces Barney Fife into buy a lemon of an automobile.
Ben Johnson – Cowboy actor whose career spanned seven decades. He had a slow, folksy delivery, but spoke wisely. He started as a stuntman and wrangler, appeared in several John Ford Westerns and many others. Not all of his work was as a cowboy, he won an Oscar for Joe “the Lion” character in The Last Picture Show.
Ed Lauter – Tall, thin and balding, he often played heavies on both the big and small screen. Playing Captain Knauer in The Longest Yard, this was one of his highest profile roles. He had a cameo appearance in the 2005 version. When he wasn’t playing heavies he had the roles of coaches, detectives, clergymen, generals and other authority figures.
Anthony Zerbe – Playing a variety of roles, Zerbe could inflect an original character thread into his roles with an intellectual or quirky nature. He won an Emmy along side of David Jannsen in Harry-O. He acted in many Westerns but his forte was crime and action shows like Mission Impossible and Hawaii Five-O.
Virginia Gregg – Began her career on radio but found steady work on television, especially working for Jack Webb. Provided the voice of mother in the Psycho films. One of her big roles was as the head nurse in the Cary Grant film Operation Petticoat.
Hope Summers – Appeared in many television shows and films, but mostly remembered as neighbor Clara Edwards on The Andy Griffith Show. She had many roles as the busybody or prime and proper relative.
Ruth McDivett – A familiar face from the 1950s through 1970s, she usually portrayed the kindly or confused older woman. Her early career was spent on the stage. She was Don Knotts mother in The Shakiest Gun in the West, a regular in the short-lived Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats, the mother of Wally Cox in Mr. Peepers and even appeared in an episode of Love, American Style.
Madge Blake – She played many matronly type roles including Aunt Harriet on Batman, Larry Mondello’s mother on Leave it to Beaver, Joey Bishop’s mother on one version of his sitcom, and frequently appeared on The Jack Benny Show and The Real McCoys.
Nehemiah Persoff – Began his acting career in 1948, he played diverse characters in his career, different ethnicities and nationalities. He played intense characters, mostly in television dramas. Multiple appearances on Hawaii Five-O, Mission Impossible, Gunsmoke, The Naked City, Burke’s Law and Playhouse 90.
Andrew Duggan – Credited with over 70 films and 140 television appearances. He was tall and distinguished, often appearing in Westerns, including a starring role in the TV series, Lancer. Played ranchers, generals, doctors, cops, criminals and judges. He easily moved back and forth between TV and films.