When George Lucas and his team were preparing The Empire Strikes Back, they anticipated adding two major characters to Star Wars lore: the gruff and wise Jedi Master Yoda and the charming rogue Lando Calrissian. While both had an impact, it was a third new character who nearly stole the show. The bounty hunter Boba Fett, whom Lucas later described as practically an afterthought, developed a huge cult following. His action figure flew off the shelves, while fans speculated on his backstory. Lucas, rarely one to ignore an untapped market, eventually authorized comic books and novels devoted to Boba Fett. He even inserted Fett into the Special Edition of Star Wars and made him and his father key players in Attack of the Clones.
Sometimes it’s the smaller characters like Fett that stick with you. They are the surprises. When you go into a film you probably know the leads and often know the key supporting players. Then along comes a distinctive performance from someone you might not know. You then enjoy it that much more. If you see the film again, you might particularly look forward to that character’s scenes, however brief they may be. In a strange way you may feel that you discovered a buried treasure. It’s these under-the-radar gems that can make a film special. Of course it’s a reflection of not just the actor but the writer, director and editor who put in the time and effort to make the small roles count.
As I put together some of my favorites, I had a few basic rules: No big stars. No leads or even primary supporting characters. No one who was Oscar nominated for that film (this rule eliminated Claude Rains in Casablanca). With that out of the way, here are my top ten (in chronological order):
Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado) – High Noon. Other then Will Kane (Gary Cooper), most of the characters in High Noon are fooling themselves. The townspeople come up with several reasons not to stand with Kane against the approaching killers but it’s really pure cowardice. Helen Ramírez is the only one who sees things as they are. She knows what’s going on, why it's going on and that the town is not worth living in anymore. In particular, she sees through Deputy Pell (Lloyd Bridges), her immature, foolhardy lover. Like many of the characters on my list, she serves as the audience surrogate. She’s also the moral bellwether, calling out Kane’s wife for not standing with her husband. Ramírez was a rarity for that era in Hollywood. While minorities were often depicted in insulting, stereotypical ways, here you have a Mexican woman who is a business owner and tied to no man. She is tough, intelligent and proud. Many of these qualities describe Jurado herself, who imbued Ramírez with a fierceness and dignity that still resonate 55 years later. Jurado was a pioneer, later becoming the first Mexican actress to receive an Oscar nomination (for Broken Lance). She also had a stellar turn in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. But it’s mainly High Noon for which she’s remembered, and rightly so.
Stella (Thelma Ritter) – Rear Window. Were it not for my “no Oscar nomination” rule, I could have picked Ritter in All About Eve or Pickup on South Street. Ritter was nominated for Supporting Actress six times from 1951 to 1963, although she never won. She was the Joan Cusack of her day, never the star but adding immeasurably to many films. Ritter excelled as the everywoman, earthy with an innate wisdom. Like Jurado, her characters are often the ones that see things most clearly. Ritter also displays perfect comic timing, delivering some wonderful lines with great aplomb. This is especially true in Rear Window, where she plays the nurse to the apartment-ridden L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart). It’s Stella who tells Jeffries that he’s an idiot for not committing to Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly). Who in the audience isn’t thinking the same thing? Later Stella becomes an invaluable partner to Jeffries and Lisa as they try to catch the murderer. If I were ever stuck in my apartment I’d want Thelma Ritter as my nurse. OK, first I’d want Grace Kelly, but Ritter would be a close second.
Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendáriz) – From Russia with Love. Many of James Bond's colleagues make little impact before their eventual death. Bey is different. From Russia with Love gives you glimpses into Bey's own life outside of Bond. Bey and Bond develop a true friendship as they work together. Armendáriz carries the role off with zest and flair. When Bey dies you feel a real sense of loss. A whole film could have been made about him. Armendáriz was a star of Mexican cinema in the 1940s and later co-starred in three John Ford films. His fine performance in From Russia with Love is even more noteworthy because he suffered from terminal cancer during the shooting. The cancer grew so painful that Armendáriz committed suicide a month after filming ended. As swan songs go, you couldn’t get much better than Kerim Bey.
Pete Clemenza (Richard Castellano) – The Godfather. Clemenza provides some much needed comic relief in The Godfather. Who can forget him making fun of Michael Corleone talking to his girlfriend or the immortal line “Leave the gun. Take the cannolis"? Castellano brings a sense of fun to his role. Yet you still take him seriously as a dangerous gangster. Unfortunately, Castellano made many outrageous demands (such as having his girlfriend rework his dialogue) which led to Francis Ford Coppola dropping him from The Godfather, Part II. Castellano did not have much of a career afterwards. But that does not take a way from his fine work in the original.
Kid Twist (Harold Gould) – The Sting. The first Newman-Redford effort, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, was a classic buddy movie. Many people refer to The Sting in the same way, but the latter film is actually a fine ensemble piece. While Newman and Redford do not disappoint, they are helped by a superior supporting cast including Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Eileen Brennan and Ray Walston. Harold Gould as Kid Twist stands out because of his impeccable sense of style and timing. Kid Twist is the con team’s jack-of-all trades, easily slipping in and out of any guise the work demands. Gould’s best moment comes when a fellow con man is worried about the FBI and Twist says, with just the right panache, “If this thing blows up, the Feds will be the least of our problems.” While Gould has appeared in movies and TV since the 60s, he has won more acclaim for his theater work. I recently saw him in the title role in “Tuesdays With Morrie” at the Warner Theater. You could say that Gould is as versatile an actor as Kid Twist is a con man.
Coleman (Denholm Elliott) – Trading Places. Playing “the English butler” may seem thankless (unless you’re John Gielgud), but Elliott made it work. As Coleman, he is the island of sanity in the sea of craziness. While Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd paint with broad strokes, Elliott uses subtlety. His understated expressions and quick glances clue the audience in on what’s really going on underneath the stately British reserve. Elliott’s restraint throughout most of the film makes it that much more rewarding when he lets loose just a little bit towards the end. Unlike some others on this list, Elliott did not entirely fly under the radar. He nabbed a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for A Room with a View and played Dr. Marcus Brody in two of the Indiana Jones movies. Acting in Britain and the US for over 40 years, few played English gentlemen any better than Elliott.
Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson) – Ghostbusters. “Ray, when someone asks you if you're a God, you say ‘YES’!” Like Coleman and others on this list, Zeddmore is the audience surrogate. Also like Coleman, Zeddmore injects a small dose of reality into this silly fantastical comedy. He gains our sympathy by reacting to the outlandish situations and the other characters the way we might. Hudson’s not being a comic actor works to his advantage. His everyman quality makes him the perfect counterpoint to Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis. True to his persona, Hudson has worked steadily in TV and movies for the past 30 years without achieving stardom. He might be best known as the warden in the HBO series “Oz.” To me though, he will always be the normal Ghostbuster.
Dick (Todd Louiso) – High Fidelity. John Cusack starred in High Fidelity, and Jack Black had the breakout role, so Todd Louiso can easily be overlooked. Dick (Louiso) and Barry (Black) are the employees of Championship Vinyl, whose owner Rob (Cusack) calls them “the musical moron twins.” Many of the laughs in High Fidelity come from the Rob, Barry and Dick hanging out in the record store, debating music and forming their “Top Five” lists. Louiso and Black in particular make a wonderful team. While Black is a force of nature, Louiso is mild-mannered to a fault. The two play off each other beautifully with a yin-yang vibe. Black’s showier role helped make him a star, but Louiso excels as the straight man who can occasionally get a laugh on his own. Louiso has worked mostly as a character actor, and has moved into directing. I hope as a director he finds actors as good as he was in High Fidelity.
Pagoda (Kumar Pallana) – The Royal Tenenbaums. No current director fills the screen more than Wes Anderson. His films feature rich backgrounds and distinctive smaller characters. One of these is Pagoda, the loyal servant to the Tenenbaum family. Pagoda is the observer, originally only noticeable for his bright pink pants. Slowly during The Royal Tenenbaums Anderson and Pallana offer glimpses into the character. Pagoda only has a few lines, but Pallana makes them count. His best moment is dryly remarking “There he goes” as Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) runs away. Even when he is not talking, Pallana’s understated screen presence gradually makes an impact. Pallana reportedly ran a coffee shop in Dallas when Anderson discovered him. Now well into his 80s, Pallana has used his association with Anderson as a springboard into other roles. He has a second career at the age when most people are well into their retirement.
Cal (Seth Rogen) – The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Even though The 40 Year-Old Virgin is Steve Carrell’s film, Writer-director Judd Apatow gives many of the best lines to Rogen and Paul Rudd, who play the title character’s friends. I could have picked Rudd for this list instead, as he is also hilarious in this film. He and Rogen have many great scenes together, such as when their characters riff on how they know the other one is gay. I’m going with Rogen here because he seems to come out of nowhere. His deadpan delivery and sharp timing added to the wonderful dialogue Apatow gave him (although reportedly Rogen also improvised some of it). Cal is the smart-ass brutally honest friend who will make fun of you and tell you things you don’t want to hear, but has your best interests at heart. Rogen has such an affinity for the role that you feel like you’ve known guys like Cal even if you haven’t. In his new film Knocked Up, Apatow has moved Rogen up to a starring role. Some treasures don’t stay buried forever.
June 1, 2007