More often than not the unsung hero(s) in a great film are the supporting characters. The actors who provide the critical down fill of the cinematic pillow. Sometimes it’s comic relief, sometimes it’s the dramatic voice of reason, all the time it’s great acting. Even though they don’t get star billing, and far too often don’t receive star treatment, their overall thespian contributions provide a profound cinematic glue. In short, these actors are huge on talent and performance. This list aims to illuminate some of the better veteran character actors whose work and contributions haven’t been given the type of shine that they richly deserve. Many of these actors are still working today, some have slowed down, and some have left this earth. Whatever the individual case may be, enjoy these actors, and look out for their work. Trust me, they’re worth it.
#12. John C. McGinley
John C. McGinley is a Hollywood mainstay who’s career has seen him portray more than a few recurring film and television characters including the brilliantly obnoxious, and acerbic Perry Cox (Scrubs), the monotone suit Bob Slydell (Office Space), a homicidal Marine Cpt. Hendrix (The Rock), the jovial and juvenile Wall Street broker Marv in Oliver Stone’s (Wall Street), and an excellent short recurring appearance as CIA Agent Tom Card in the vastly underrated USA network show (Burn Notice).
#11. Giancarlo Esposito
Giancarlo Esposito had an accomplished acting career before he became very well known and awarded for his Gustavo Fring role on the runaway hit AMC series (Breaking Bad). A role which earned him a ‘Best Supporting Actor in a Drama’ 2012 Critics’ Choice nod. That same year he was also nominated for a Primetime Emmy for ‘Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series’. Prior to his television success Esposito had memorable roles in a number of hit films including several with Spike Lee, (Do the Right Thing), (School Daze), and (Mo’ Better Blues). There were also his roles in Abel Ferrara’s (King of New York), and Bryan Singer’s (The Usual Suspects).
#10. Keith David
You’ve probably seen Keith David‘s work in more than a few memorable films including (Crash), Spike Lee’s (Clockers), (There’s Something About Mary), (Pitch Black), (They Live), (Barbershop), John Carpenter’s (The Thing), as well as Oliver Stone’s (Platoon), and Darren Aronofsky’s (Requiem for a Dream). He’s acted in several television projects as well including the NBC comedy series (Community).
#9. Sam Rockwell
Sam Rockwell is an interesting case study as his career has oscillated between leading roles and supporting roles when typically ‘never the twain shall meet’. For the purposes of this list we will focus on his work as a supporting actor while taking nothing away from his leading role work. His better supporting roles include (The Green Mile), (Galaxy Quest), (Frost/Nixon), (Iron Man 2), (The Assassination of Jesse James), (Cowboys & Aliens), and (The Way, Way Back). Sam is a gifted actor and if you didn’t know before, you know now.
#8. Isaiah Washington
Isaiah Washington is a supremely talented actor known for his roles in film and television. His notable film roles include a two of Spike Lee’s (Clockers), and (Get on the Bus), as well as (Dead Presidents), (Love Jones), (Soul of the Game), (Always Outnumbered), (Bulworth), and (Out of Sight). His television credits included a 3 season regular role on (Grey’s Anatomy), and some early (Law and Order). Isaiah’s work is always on point and he leaves an indelible mark on the characters that he plays. He’s very good.
#7. Ed Harris
Any way you want to slice it, Ed Harris is bad-ass actor. Throughout his career, Harris has brought an intensity to his dramatic roles that is rarely equaled, and always respected by his peers. His performance in Dave Foley’s film adaptation of the David Mamet classic ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ was spellbinding. He has also brought out the hammer in other notable films including (The Right Stuff), (The Abyss), (Nixon), (The Rock), (A Beautiful Mind), (A History of Violence), (Gone Baby Gone), (Gravity), and a gritty performance in (The Way Back). Ed has been nominated three times for an Academy Award for ‘Best Supporting Actor’ one for (Apollo 13), one for (The Truman Show), and one for (The Hours). He was also nominated for ‘Best Actor’ for his portrayal of Jackson Pollock in (Pollock), a film he also directed. Ed Harris is about as good as character acting gets in the business.
#6. Luis Guzman
Luis Guzman is the quintessential answer to the age old ‘Who was that guy who was in that movie?’, question. Why? Because he’s been in more movies than pretty much any actor I’ve ever heard of. Besides the fact that certain directors worship at the altar of Guzman (Steven Soderbergh, Paul Thomas Anderson), he is a great character actor. Audiences are so used to seeing him in films it’s difficult to pin-point any one film he’s been in, crazy stuff. Keeping his list of film bonafides within reason wasn’t an easy task, however here are a few of the very many, (Out of Sight), (Carlito’s Way), (The Salton Sea), (The Limey), (Traffic), (Boogie Nights), and (Magnolia). Guzman’s career started back in 1977 and he has starred in over 100 films and television projects (90+ films). You’ve seen his work.
#5. Delroy Lindo
Did you know that Delroy Lindo is British? True story. What isn’t surprising is his body of work and the immense talent that has helped create it. Lindo brings a style and gravitas to his roles that is unique and compelling. He is difficult to ignore on screen. Lindo has had a long and fruitful career that began back in 1976, and his filmography includes some great films, several with Spike Lee at the helm, (Malcolm X), (Clockers), and (Crooklyn). In addition he has impressed in (Get Shorty), (Gone in 60 Seconds), and (The Cider House Rules). To watch Delroy perform is to be entertained and enthralled. A great talent.
#4. Danny Aiello
Danny Aiello‘s role as Brooklyn pizzeria owner Salvatore Frangione in Spike Lee’s classic film (Do the Right Thing) earned him a well deserved Academy Award nomination for ‘Best Supporting Actor’ back in 1989. Danny is a proud Italian-American actor who brings the hammer to all of his roles, including (Once Upon a Time in America), (The Godfather Part II), (The Purple Rose of Cairo), (Moonstruck), (The Professional), (Two Days in the Valley), and a humorous turn in the underrated comedy (Hudson Hawk). Aiello is one of the unsung greats in the annals of Hollywood character actors.
#3. Samuel L. Jackson
When it comes to prolific character actor careers, Samuel L. Jackson holds significant space as one of the icons. Audiences started to take notice of Samuel in the 1990s with his early roles in films such as (Jungle Fever), (Patriot Games), (True Romance), and (Jurassic Park). However, he became a bonafide superstar in 1994 with his role as ‘Jules Winfield’ in Quentin Tarantino’s all-time classic crime film (Pulp Fiction). He followed that film with roles in additional Tarantino pictures like (Jackie Brown), and (Django Unchained). His non-Tarantino efforts include (Die Hard with a Vengeance), M.Night’s (Unbreakable), (Shaft), (Black Snake Moan), and even a turn in the controversial (Star Wars prequel trilogy). In all, Sam has appeared in well over 100 films in his career. Need I say more?
#2. Christopher Walken
Not to be outdone by the aforementioned actor, Christopher Walken has had an equally if not even more prolific acting career in terms of the sheer number of film appearances. There are some who would opine that Walken plays the same character time and again, and perhaps that is debatable. However, what can’t be denied is that his on-screen presence is transcendent, and it works like a charm. Among his memorable films you’ll find (The Deer Hunter), Woody Allen’s classic (Annie Hall), (The Prophecy), (The Dead Zone), (A View to a Kill), (True Romance), and of course Tarantino’s (Pulp Fiction). Walken’s work speaks for itself, awesome.
#1. Philip Seymour Hoffman / July 23, 1967 – February 2, 2014
In 2014 the world of entertainment lost one of it’s most gifted and talented thespians in the form of the sudden passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. In terms of sheer character acting ability there is the late Mr. Hoffman, and then all of the rest. He was in a class by himself, an assertion that would be quite difficult to contend. Philip was that great. He brought a uniqueness to every character he portrayed with such gravitas, it compelled audiences the world over. His onscreen performances captivated audiences largely due to the fact that he compelled them to share the emotion. Hoffman earned numerous honors in a career that was cut short. Some more notable films include (Boogie Nights), (Happiness), (The Big Lebowski), (Magnolia), (The Talented Mr. Ripley). His portrayal of Truman Capote in (Capote) earned him the Academy Award for ‘Best Actor’. The reality is that more often than not Philip Seymour Hoffman was the very best actor on the screen.