Character actors aren’t the stars of the show, but sometimes they steal it, and many are as well known as top-billed performers. Unlike most lead actors, supporting players often welcome becoming typecast, because it assures them steady work. Others, however, are more versatile, and enjoy working in a variety of projects. Here are more of my favorite character actors from the first decades of the sound era, plus a character actress from that period:
Archetype: bon vivant, official, eccentric
Signature role: Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life, Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone with the Wind
Lead role(s): none
Mitchell’s versatility is encapsulated in the archetype keywords above: He could play anything from an adventurer to a judge or a mayor to a buffoon. How in demand was this quintessential character actor? In 1939, Hollywood’s annus mirabilis, he appeared in Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gone with the Wind, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (He won the Oscar for best supporting actor for Stagecoach.) You also know him from Lost Horizon, It’s a Wonderful Life, and High Noon. His movie career was bookended by working on Broadway for 20 years and, for the last 10 years of his career, making the rounds of 1950s TV playhouse series and other programs (as well as a film now and then) — and in 1953, he was the first actor to win the Triple Crown: an Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy (the latter two in that same year).
Archetype: nobleman, authority figure
Signature role: Captain Renault in Casablanca
Lead role(s): The title character in The Invisible Man
Rains was a successful stage actor (and acting teacher, whose students included Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud) before being cast as the title character in The Invisible Man in his first Hollywood outing. (At that point, he had appeared in a single British silent film.) Thereafter, he was usually a supporting player, though he was perhaps the most successful character actor, appearing in one classic after another (with a few inevitable duds thrown in). The list of films he was considered for — The Hunchback of Notre Dame and My Fair Lady, among others, is almost as impressive as his actual filmography, which includes The Wolf Man, Notorious, and Lawrence of Arabia.
Signature role(s): Sir Guy of Gisborne in The Adventures of Robin Hood
Lead role(s): Sherlock Holmes in multiple films
Rathbone gets my vote for having the best actor’s name of all time, though his full birth name — Philip St. John Basil Rathbone — is even more sublime. Rathbone is of course best known for a series of 13 atmospheric Sherlock Holmes films produced before and during World War II (most of them updated from the Victorian era to wartime so Holmes could outwit Nazi agents), but he was also a great sneering villain in his day — and a dazzling swordsman with bona fide fencing skills. He appeared in Dickens adaptations (David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities), real and faux Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet and The Tower of London), and the likes of The Mark of Zorro. He also did a lot of TV work in the 1950s, but during the next decade, his career in decline, he succumbed to schlock like The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini.
Edward G. Robinson
Archetype: gangster, investigator
Signature role: Johnny Rocco in Key Largo, Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity
Lead role(s): Rico Bandello in Little Caesar
Robinson, born in Romania as Emmanuel Goldenberg, had an ugly mug, and his voice wasn’t any better, but the man could act, dammit. His portrayal in Little Caesar was the blueprint for gangsters — ironic, considering that he was a cultured, sophisticated man — but he was equally at home in biopics and as intelligent, thoughtful men on the right side of the law in such films as the film noir classic Double Indemnity and The Stranger, dogging scheming insurance investigator Fred MacMurray in the first film and playing cat-and-mouse with Nazi war criminal Orson Welles in the second one.
Archetype: artistocrat, upper-class cad
Signature role: Addison De Witt in All About Eve, Jack Favell in Rebecca
Lead role(s): none
If you needed a hissable heel, you went to George Sanders. Curiously enough, the 6-foot-3 actor also made a slew of films starring as suave secret agents the Saint and the Falcon. Thanks to his dry, droll, patrician persona, he was most memorable playing conniving, blackmailing, seducing slimeballs, though he was convincing (and almost unrecognizable) as a coarse, combative pirate in The Black Swan, opposite Tyrone Power. Other films include The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Like Rathbone, he veered into camp territory late in life, appearing on TV and in such fare as the Sonny and Cher groaner Good Times (William “The Exorcist” Friedkin’s directorial debut).
Signature role: Mrs. Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life
Lead role(s): none
During the Golden Age of Hollywood, if you needed a buxom, bustling, motherly type, you cast Beulah Bondi. Ironically, the picture-show personification of maternity never married or had children, but she portrayed the mother of James Stewart’s character in four films (and his short-lived 1971 TV series), and you can’t get much more typecast than that. She got off to a late start, debuting on Broadway at 37 and appearing in her first film six years later, but she kept going for nearly a half century more, including lots of TV work, into her mid-80s. Her filmography includes Our Town (appearing with Thomas Mitchell, who she also shared the screen with in It’s a Wonderful Life) and The Life of Riley.