Hollywood JargonHollywood SlangHollywood Speak

character actor  Noun, e.g., "Character actor" has been used to describe actors ranging from Larry Storch to Lawrence Olivier.

Definition: Varies according to the user. The term has three conflicting definitions:

  • A supporting actor who plays one distinctive persona.
  • A supporting actor who plays different distinctive personas
  • Any actor who plays different distinctive personas.

History: Every actor plays a character, even the actor who plays only one. Asked by a fan whether he was Cary Grant, the Hollywood icon replied, “Nobody is.” Point being, Archie Leach’s greatest role was playing Cary Grant, no mean feat.

Even so, the brand of acting that created motion picture icons Grant, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Doris Day, etc., came to be thought of as playing yourself. Leading film actors who “played themselves” would be outside everyone’s definition of “character actor.” Aside from bit players, every other actor would be inside it. 

Wikipedia tells us that the British theatrical newspaper The Stage defined the term in 1888 as an actor “who portrays individualities and eccentricities.”  Not until the 1960s, however, did dictionaries chime in. Their definitions resolved little, e.g.,

  • Funk & Wagnalls (1964):  “An actor who portrays characters markedly different from himself in age, temperament, etc.”

  • Webster’s New World (1991):  “An actor who specializes in supporting roles with certain pronounced or eccentric characteristics.”

  • MacMillan (Present): “An actor who plays unusual, strange, or interesting characters instead of being one of the main characters.” 

The problem is that the meaning of character actor is too indefinite to be defined—at least with a straight face, e.g.:  “An actor who is not one of the following:  A bit player or a leading actor who always plays himself.” Blame it on the chaos of a forming Hollywood culture.  Character actor takes its meaning from the specific actor it is used to describe; alone it is meaningless.

Definition #1:  A supporting actor who plays one distinctive persona.

This definition comes closest to the 1888 The Stage definition and probably was the primal meaning in Hollywood. The studios of Golden Hollywood were elaborate versions of the theater stock company, each maintaining in-house actors, screenwriters, directors, etc. Central casting hired scores of actors with personas best suited for typecasting. Screenwriters wrote to the personas of the contract actors. Personas included not only “types” but “sub-types.” Need a comical homely middle-aged woman? Possibilities included Margaret Dumont, the clueless dowager; Marjorie Main, the folksy Ma Kettle; Mary Wickes, the New England spinster; Thelma Ritter, the crusty urban blue collar woman; etc.

Definition #2:  A supporting actor who plays different distinctive personas.

The association of character actor with supporting actor understandably led some to regard the two terms as synonymous.  Initially supporting actors who played different personas were in the minority. Examples included Ethel Barrymore, Claude Rains, Charles Coburn, Angela Landsbury, Roddy MacDowell, Walter Slezak, James Whitmore, Celeste Holm, etc. Female actors in this category were often more devoted to stage than film.

Beginning in the 1950s, the decline of the studio system and the resulting free agency of actors placed an ever greater premium on acting ability. Studio stables of salaried actors and screenwriters would go the way of the dodo. Screenwriters would no longer tailor roles to one-persona contract actors. Young actors could not survive auditioning for roles with the same persona. Supporting characters actor would become the popular definition of character actor.

Definition #3: “An actor who plays distinctly different personas.”

The 1950s also saw Hollywood trend away from leading actors who played themselves in heroic roles to actors who played different and often anti-heroic personas, e.g., James Dean, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Cliff, Paul Newman, Richard Burton,  etc.  Meanwhile, proving you could play different personas as a supporting actor became, sans the studio star system, the main path to becoming a leading actor. For instance, George C. Scott, Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson, supporting actors in the 1950s and 1960s, would win Academy Awards for Best Actor in the 1970s.  

Today, many Hollywood stars gravitate between leading actor and supporting actor. For instance, after winning Best Actor Oscars, Hackman and Nicholson each won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor.  From 1979 to 2014, Meryl Streep received two Best Actress Oscars (1982, 2011), one Best Supporting Actress Oscar (1979);  13 Best Actress nominations, and three Best Supporting Actress nominations, the last  in 2014.

The narrowing of the distinction between leading and supporting actor caused many to emphasize acting versatility in defining character actor. “Some actors make a career out of being themselves in a movie,” observed director Tim Burton as he sung the praises of his favorite leading man, Johnny Depp. “But I've always enjoyed those real character actors that just like to become different creatures.”

Of course, Burton has never directed a leading actor to play an American diplomat, Madison Avenue executive, international jewel thief, OSS agent, New York theater critic, composer Cole Porter, Wall Street trader, English Lord, newspaper editor and such ilk. If ever he does, he might better appreciate Archie Leach.

Related Terms:     Star System    Ulmer Scale       

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