Character actors are performers who fill supporting key roles in films (and plays). Some are strongly associated with a certain top-billed movie star (Ward Bond, a regular in director John Ford’s movies, appeared with John Wayne in 22 films), most are often seen in a particular film genre (like Bond or Walter Brennan, both usually seen in westerns), and all generally play a certain type, such as a heavy, or comic relief.
It often takes more than one character actor to color a film, and several people on the following list sometimes found themselves on the same cast list, though not necessarily in the same scenes.
Here are my favorite character actors from the first decades of the sound era, plus a character actress from that period:
Archetype(s): sidekick, lumpen prole
Heyday: ’30s and ’40s
Signature role: Gruff, simple sailor Gus Smith in Lifeboat
Lead role(s): George Herman Ruth in The Babe Ruth Story, Chester A. Riley in The Life of Riley (the latter also on radio and TV)
A solid, stolid, dry-voiced palooka type, not too bright, and ready to use his fists but generally good hearted (exception: The Glass Key). Miscast as Babe Ruth, but usually a natural in his roles.
Archetype(s): sidekick, authority figure
Signature role: Boxer John L. Sullivan in Gentleman Jim, starring Errol Flynn as the legendary pugilist
Lead role(s): Wagon master Seth Adams, Wagon Train (TV); he died while the show was still on the air
A sturdy guy, tough but decent, a staple in John Ford westerns, but also a natural as a policeman (he played good cop to bad cop Barton MacLane in The Maltese Falcon) or as a soldier (Fort Apache, They Were Expendable)-and twice as a not-so-meek clergyman (in The Quiet Man and The Searchers). He got into filmmaking thanks to University of Southern California football teammate Marion Morrison (who had the good sense to change his name to John Wayne). Offscreen, Bond was a bit of a pill, arrogant and rabidly right wing, but he was cuddly as Bert the Cop in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and generally likeable in all his roles.
Archetype: sidekick, yokel
Signature role(s): Stumpy in Rio Bravo, Groot in Red River
Lead role(s): Grandpa Amos McCoy in The Real McCoys (TV)
The dean of American character actors, he won three Oscars for best supporting actor (a standing record, and accomplished before any Hollywood star had won three Academy Awards for lead roles). Although he appeared in dozens of westerns, fitting the old-coot stereotype like a glove, Brennan was from Massachusetts. Poison gas damaged his vocal cords during service in World War I, and he later lost most of his teeth in an accident, which accounted for his distinctively high-pitched, lisping speech, but his frequent limp was an affectation. Brennan was very conservative politically but well liked in Hollywood.
Archetype: clergyman, feisty bantam
Signature role(s): The impish village gossip Michaleen in The Quiet Man
Lead role(s): Father Fitzgibbon in Going My Way
The mischievous-looking Fitzgerald, though a Protestant, was the go-to guy for playing priests from the Auld Sod. He was nominated for both leading and supporting Oscars in Going My Way, which prompted a change in the Academy Awards rules. (He won for Best Supporting Actor but later accidentally decapitated his statuette while practicing his golf swing.) The names of his characters ran through the roster of Irish surnames, though he was Welsh in How Green Was My Valley, and one of his last appearances was in an Italian film.
Archetype: stalwart sidekick
Signature role(s): Little John in The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn
Lead role(s): none
Picture a tougher, brawnier version of the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island, and you have Alan Hale-the father, in fact, of Bob Denver’s costar in that silly sitcom. Hale set out to be an opera star but ended up acting and directing for Cecil B. DeMille and then becoming a Warner Bros. stalwart (though he did sing in some productions). He appeared with Errol Flynn in 13 films.
Archetype: heroine’s confidante or servant; harridan
Signature role(s): Bess, Maid Marian’s lady-in-waiting, in The Adventures of Robin Hood
Lead role(s): none
This diminutive Irish-born actress with a distinctively thin face and thin voice, whose career started with the advent of sound films, was often called on to provide comic relief or commentary in small but memorable roles. You may not be able to picture her now, but if you’re the old-movie buff you claim to be, you’ll know her when you see (and hear) her.