These performers play parts other than those traditional roles of leading man or lady, ingenue, or juvenile. Though they usually act in support of stars, character actors sometimes play leading roles and can (and have) become stars in their own right.
Character actors are often players who are cast repeatedly in certain specific roles. For instance, Elisha Cook Jr. played small-time losers for more than 40 years, his characters being killed in a huge percentage of his films, such as The Big Sleep (1946) and Shane (1953). Franklin Pangborn is another example of the typecast character actor. He played a seemingly endless series of prissy hotel managers, waiters, and such, most notably in PRESTON STURGES’S films of the early 1940s. Among female character actors, Beulah Bondi played old ladies while still in her mid-thirties and continued to do so with astonishing effectiveness for 50 years, most heartwrenchingly in LEO MCCAREY’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937).
Another common role for character actors has been the heavy. One of the premier actors in this type of role was certainly Edward Arnold, who was always well cast as a corrupt businessman or government official. He was director FRANK CAPRA’s favorite villain in films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941). Other character actors in this category have been Sydney Greenstreet, CLAUDE RAINS, and William Bendix. These actors sometimes had starring roles in films, and William Bendix in particular played a wide range of characters, including average American G.I.s, tough guys, likable comic types, and the hero’s best friend.
Character actors often provide comic relief in films, and among the best in such roles were Eric Blore, who was deliciously acerbic in the Astaire-Rogers musical Top Hat (1935), Eugene Pallette, who had the most incredible foghorn voice in Hollywood, and Charles Butterworth, a goofy, idle dreamer in films such as Love Me Tonight (1932).
While character actors have generally been overlooked by the public in favor of stars, some of these players have been honored for their work by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with awards for Best Supporting Actor. For instance, one of the most famous character actors in Hollywood history, WALTER BRENNAN, took home three Oscars, for Come and Get It (1936), Kentucky (1938), and The Westerner (1940). Other character actor Academy Award winners have included Fay Bainter for Jezebel (1938), the enormously versatile Thomas Mitchell for Stagecoach (1939), Barry Fitzgerald for Going My Way (1944), Martin Balsam for A Thousand Clowns (1965), and Olympia Dukakis for Moonstruck (1987). A major source of character actors has been the ranks of fading leading men and women. For instance, LILLIAN GISH was a major star in the silent film era who became one of the industry’s most durable character actresses, and James Mason extended his career by becoming a character actor when he began to age.
Then again, there are some stars who, despite their billing, have always been character actors, playing character roles that happen to be the most important parts in their films. For example, MARIE DRESSLER, CHARLES LAUGHTON, PETER LORRE, EDWARD G. ROBINSON, PAUL MUNI, GEORGE C. SCOTT, and even DUSTIN HOFFMAN have never been considered stars in the traditional sense. The force of their screen personalities however, allowed movies to be built around them if only they had the right vehicle, and with those vehicles, these character actors have been able to build loyal followings. The number of character actors who have made their mark in Hollywood movies is staggering. From the mousy John Qualen to the brassy JOAN BLONDELL, and from the vulgar Burt Young to the sophisticated CLIFTON WEBB, Hollywood’s character actors have added immeasurable richness to the movies they have graced.
Charisse, Cyd (1921– ) A dancer and actress who was arguably the most technically proficient female dance partner of both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly at the height of the MGM musical era of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Beautiful, long-legged, and mysteriously sensual in appearance, she exuded sex appeal while moving with the grace of a cat. Unlike GINGER ROGERS or JUDY GARLAND, Charisse couldn’t sing and her acting was only adequate, but she was a dancer par excellence.
Born Tula Ellice Finklea, she studied ballet from childhood and was a highly regarded dancer while still in her teens. As movie musicals began to grow in popularity in the early 1940s, she was featured in small roles in films such as Something to Shout About (1943) under the stage name of Lily Norwood.
Later, after signing with MGM, she took the name Charisse from her fist husband (and ballet coach) Nico Charisse and was groomed for stardom. She first appeared in featured roles in such films as The Harvey Girls (1946) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946) and soon graduated to supporting parts in movies such as The Unfinished Dance (1947), Words and Music (1948), and Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
Charisse received her first important starring role because of her experience as a ballerina. Playing a ballet star trying to make it on Broadway, she was given the enviable opportunity to dance with Fred Astaire in one of the great movie musicals of all time, The Band Wagon (1953). The film was a major hit and she was a sensation. During the last phase of MGM’s musical golden era, she was a star, lending her long legs and seductive charm to such musicals as Brigadoon (1954), It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), Invitation to the Dance (1957), and Silk Stockings (1957).
After the latter movie, however, the musical virtually disappeared from Hollywood and she began to appear in dramas. She had acted in straight films before, such as East Side, West Side (1949) and Tension (1949), but there was nothing special about her abilities as an actress and after appearing in movies such as Party Girl (1958), Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), and a number of European films, her movie career began to dissolve. She appeared in very few films during the later 1960s and only one in the 1970s, Warlords of Atlantis (1978).
For the most part, she has spent the years since the early 1960s working in nightclubs as a dancer, often sharing the bill with her second husband, singer Tony Martin, whom she married in 1948.
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