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Major Stars Who Become Character Actors


TomJH
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We've all seen a favourite star of our's, once a golden name of the cinema, later playing support or character roles in their careers.

 

Some may see this (including the actor him/herself) as a result of a sad acknowledgement of the passage of time and the fact that they no longer had the same pull at the box office. And, after all, an actor still has to eat. In some cases self destructive behaviour may have played a very prominent role, as well.

 

And there are still those other stars who just aged like a fine wine, and continued to do interesting work, even if they no longer had their name above the film's title. Think of Mary Astor, for example.

 

Does anyone have any particular favourites that come to mind of stars who became character actors in their later career. And how do you feel about their particular circumstances. Sad? Pleased that they were still able to make a living?

 

There are, of course, those stars who retired before this happened. The Garbos and Shearers never became character performers, leaving the scene while they were still more or less on top (but perhaps fearful of the writing on the wall). Do you wish that some of them may have extended their careers a little longer, even if it meant a demotion in billing and and doing character work?

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It strikes me that Tyrone Power is an excellent illustration of a former matinee idol who openly courted doing character work (or starting to, at least) as he reached his early '40s.

 

It was the actor in him that wanted to do it, of course. But perhaps also a man wise enough to know that his good looks weren't going to stay with him forever (in fact, they were starting to fade).

 

Think of Ty Power's wonderful turn, virtually a Mr. Chips performance, as he gracefully aged on screen, in John Ford's THE LONG GRAY LINE. Shortly before his death he accepted the challenge of another pair of roles that would have been inconceivable for him years before, ABANDON SHIP and WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (well, at least regarding the surprise revelation regarding his character in the latter).

 

Then, again, even when Power was in his prime years as an actor he did great character work (or, at least, played a character so different from anything else he had done until then) in NIGHTMARE ALLEY, the only time that Zanuck allowed him to bring away from the mould of leading man.

 

All of these performances are to Power's credit as an actor. Ironically (or appropriately), these films comprise a large percentage of what is largely regarded now as some of the best work of his career.

 

longgrayline2_zps4d7307d7.jpg

 

The Long Gray Line: Power choosing to be a character actor, rather than being forced into the role

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I guess its a question of how much value you put in the role of the supporting, character actor.  As the viewer I put a lot of value in those performances and I believe that some actors were quite comfortable in  playing those parts. Better to be playing a quality role in a quality picture, even if you are down in the billing,  then playing a lead in a second rate production.  As a fan I would much rather see my favorite play a small part but shine while doing it. One actor who comes to my mind is Fredric March. What a terrific actor with a terrific career.  And as he aged he didn't seem to mind taking second stage to a younger performer. But when he had his moment he still came through big.  Edward G Robinson is another. We know in the 50's he had to take on many films that were "B" status, he still had the lead. But he also played smaller roles in major films and he always excelled.   To put a bit of a flip on this, I actually feel sorry for those  stars who were insecure about their status as leading men / ladies and wouldn't accept lesser roles.  Some of them look foolish trying to maintain their standing, playing in low rate films but able to keep their name at the top of the credits.

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I guess its a question of how much value you put in the role of the supporting, character actor.  As the viewer I put a lot of value in those performances and I believe that some actors were quite comfortable in  playing those parts. Better to be playing a quality role in a quality picture, even if you are down in the billing,  then playing a lead in a second rate production.  As a fan I would much rather see my favorite play a small part but shine while doing it. One actor who comes to my mind is Fredric March. What a terrific actor with a terrific career.  And as he aged he didn't seem to mind taking second stage to a younger performer. But when he had his moment he still came through big.  Edward G Robinson is another. We know in the 50's he had to take on many films that were "B" status, he still had the lead. But he also played smaller roles in major films and he always excelled.   To put a bit of a flip on this, I actually feel sorry for those  stars who were insecure about their status as leading men / ladies and wouldn't accept lesser roles.  Some of them look foolish trying to maintain their standing, playing in low rate films but able to keep their name at the top of the credits.

Yes, mrroberts, Frederic March is a shining example of a star who did very impressive character work later in his career. (And sometimes that character work was even in a leading role - INHERIT THE wIND, though that particular perfromance of his is not one of my favourites). I would point to March's performance as the President in SEVEN DAYS IN MAY as a wonderfully subtle peformance).

 

As far as Edward G. Robinson is concerned, he had an advantage, I suppose, over some of the other leading men of his time when Eddie G. got top billing, for Robinson was ALWAYS a character actor as far as I am concerned, but with less screen time much of the time as his career progressed and others got billoing over him.

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Sometimes character actors get a role which makes them stars, at least for a while. Gene Hackman and The French Connection is a good example. Once he was no longer getting lead roles, he slipped comfortably back into the character actor niche, picked up a second Oscar, this time for supporting actor, and continued to work.

 

George Segal is one of those actors on the cusp of leading man/character actor, and he continued to work after he was no longer getting romantic leads.

 

In some ways these actors had an easier time than those who always played romantic leads.

 

Television provided many opportunities for former stars to do smaller work.

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Yes, mrroberts, Frederic March is a shining example of a star who did very impressive character work later in his career. (And sometimes that character work was even in a leading role - INHERIT THE wIND, though that particular perfromance of his is not one of my favourites). I would point to March's performance as the President in SEVEN DAYS IN MAY as a wonderfully subtle peformance).

 

As far as Edward G. Robinson is concerned, he had an advantage, I suppose, over some of the other leading men of his time when Eddie G. got top billing, for Robinson was ALWAYS a character actor as far as I am concerned, but with less screen time much of the time as his career progressed and others got billoing over him.

I would classify March's roles in INHERIT THE WIND and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY as co-starring roles.To me, character roles are supporting roles.

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I would classify March's roles in INHERIT THE WIND and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY as co-starring roles.To me, character roles are supporting roles.

While I think that a lot of people think of character actors as being in support, that doesn't necessarily have to be the case. Walter Huston does magnificent work in Treasure of the Sierra Madre and could be considered a Bogart co-star in that film as far as screen time is concerned. Are you saying that just because Huston had a lot of screen time in the film (pretty much comparable to that of the top billed star) that it's NOT a character performance?

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While I think that a lot of people think of character actors as being in support, that doesn't necessarily have to be the case. Walter Huston does magnificent work in Treasure of the Sierra Madre and could be considered a Bogart co-star in that film as far as screen time is concerned. Are you saying that just because Huston had a lot of screen time in the film (pretty much comparable to that of the top billed star) that it's NOT a character performance?

If you start dividing starring roles into leads and character performances, you're on a very slippery slope.

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If you start dividing starring roles into leads and character performances, you're on a very slippery slope.

I can't say that I see how. While I fully agree that most think of character actors as being in support, there are a number of illustrations that come to mind of lead performances by a star that can clearly be classified as character work. Think of Robert Donat in Goodbye Mr. Chips.

 

However, that is really not what I was thinking of, I admit, when I started this thread. I was thinking more along of a John Barrymore or, if it had been allowed to develop for him, John Gilbert (based on Captain Hates the Sea, his last film).

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Sometimes character actors get a role which makes them stars, at least for a while. Gene Hackman and The French Connection is a good example. Once he was no longer getting lead roles, he slipped comfortably back into the character actor niche, picked up a second Oscar, this time for supporting actor, and continued to work.

 

George Segal is one of those actors on the cusp of leading man/character actor, and he continued to work after he was no longer getting romantic leads.

 

In some ways these actors had an easier time than those who always played romantic leads.

 

Television provided many opportunities for former stars to do smaller work.

 

Today's birthday boy, George C. Scott, would be another example of this, as without his memorable and Oscar winning role as a certain U.S. Army General, he probably wouldn't have attained the "leading man star" status he enjoyed for a while.

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Today's birthday boy, George C. Scott, would be another example of this, as without his memorable and Oscar winning role as a certain U.S. Army General, he probably wouldn't have attained the "leading man star" status he enjoyed for a while.

So a leading man gets the girl, but a character actor does not?

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I can't say that I see how. While I fully agree that most think of character actors as being in support, there are a number of illustrations that come to mind of lead performances by a star that can clearly be classified as character work. Think of Robert Donat in Goodbye Mr. Chips.

 

However, that is really not what I was thinking of, I admit, when I started this thread. I was thinking more along of a John Barrymore or, if it had been allowed to develop for him, John Gilbert (based on Captain Hates the Sea, his last film).

 

You would need to define what 'character work' is for me to understand what your getting at.   First all roles are 'characters'.  So to me a character actor is one that plays the same type of role (character),  in a majority of their movies.   A supporting actor is one that doesn't have lead billing and tends to have less screen time.     Therfore all character actors are supporting actors but not all supporting actors are character actors.     

 

To me supporting actor defines Huston role in TOTSM since,  as you noted,  he has a big part but he is billed third in the credits.    (but Huston was NOT a character actor since he was very versatile).

 

While Donat had an interesting role in "Chips", he was the lead male actor on the film.   To me that isn't being a character actor,  but just a leading actor playing a unique character.   e.g. Bogie in African Queen. 

 

As for March in ITW;  I would define Tracy and March as co-leads.    Yea, Tracy got top-billing but due to his ego that was a demand the studio had to meet.       

 

PS:  Is this thread mistitled?   I believe it is;  It should be Leading Stars that became supporting actors.   But of course one has to believe there is a difference between a character actor and supporting actor.

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Tom, Mary Astor.may not be the best example to illustrate this,.as she straddled the lead/supporting actor category throughout her career. She was rarely given above the title billing, and never consistently for any length of time. This was partly due to her lack of career.ambition and drive; she simply never cared enough to go after this.

 

One huge.star.that.did continue to work well past her heyday, with lesser.billing and in supporting roles, was Constance.Bennett. Another was Miriam Hopkins, which is rather.surprising, considering.Hopkins' ego.

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Several earlier stars became cowboy actors when they became a little old or chubby, such as Johnny Mack Brown and William Boyd, who both had been handsome young lover leading men earlier.

 

Also, some early western movie stars such as Hoot Gibson and Tex Ritter later became "sidekicks" when they became older or chubby.

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Tom, Mary Astor.may not be the best example to illustrate this,.as she straddled the lead/supporting actor category throughout her career. She was rarely given above the title billing, and never consistently for any length of time. This was partly due to her lack of career.ambition and drive; she simply never cared enough to go after this.

 

One huge.star.that.did continue to work well past her heyday, with lesser.billing and in supporting roles, was Constance.Bennett. Another was Miriam Hopkins, which is rather.surprising, considering.Hopkins' ego.

 

I agree with you about Astor.  Even at her peak, after winning an Oscar when Warners offer her more leading roles she didn't really want that type of spotlight.    But as time went on Astor continued to get supporting parts but smaller ones than she had in her peak days.    e.g. Act of Violence.   

 

Hopkins is a great example of a female actor for this thread.     She went from major female star to secondary leading star (E.g. her movies with Bette Davis where Hopkins is a co-star),   to supporting actor.   What a career.     To me she is a leading candidate for SOTM.      

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You would need to define what 'character work' is for me to understand what your getting at.   First all roles are 'characters'.  So to me a character actor is one that plays the same type of role (character),  in a majority of their movies.   A supporting actor is one that doesn't have lead billing and tends to have less screen time.     Therfore all character actors are supporting actors but not all supporting actors are character actors.     

 

To me supporting actor defines Huston role in TOTSM since,  as you noted,  he has a big part but he is billed third in the credits.    (but Huston was NOT a character actor since he was very versatile).

 

While Donat had an interesting role in "Chips", he was the lead male actor on the film.   To me that isn't being a character actor,  but just a leading actor playing a unique character.   e.g. Bogie in African Queen. 

 

As for March in ITW;  I would define Tracy and March as co-leads.    Yea, Tracy got top-billing but due to his ego that was a demand the studio had to meet.       

 

PS:  Is this thread mistitled?   I believe it is;  It should be Leading Stars that became supporting actors.   But of course one has to believe there is a difference between a character actor and supporting actor.

Initially I was indeed thinking of leading stars who later became supporting players. Usually that would mean doing character work (ie. the Barrymore illustration that I provided).

 

However, not to sidetrack the thread, I also think that a lead actor can still be doing character work, such as Donat as Mr. Chips, Ty Power in The Long Gray Line or, for that matter, your illustration of Bogart in African Queen. That, of course, is not quite the same thing to which I was originally referring, since these are all illustrations of stars choosing to stretch their acting muscles, rather than doing the character work because of circumstances such as career floundering, for example.

 

Yes, Walter Huston, particularly in his last decade or so, was very versatile. But he was also very much a character actor during the '40s, as well. Your defintion of character actor is different from mine, James. It does not always have to be someone playing the same persona in film after film, like an Allen Jenkins or Frank McHugh. To me it can also be anyone who is playing a non traditional leading man or woman part in a film, even if it is played by the actual star of the film.

 

But, again, I don't want to cause confusion since this was, I admit, an aspect of my perception of character work that I wasn't really thinking of when I originally created the thread. In that respect, your suggestion of a star who becomes a supporting player may be a more accurate description of what I was originally thinking of (sorry to end a sentence with a preposition). It was only later that I realized that "character work" (my defintion of it, as least) can also apply to the lead role of a film, on occasion, as well.

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Tom, Mary Astor.may not be the best example to illustrate this,.as she straddled the lead/supporting actor category throughout her career. She was rarely given above the title billing, and never consistently for any length of time. This was partly due to her lack of career.ambition and drive; she simply never cared enough to go after this.

 

One huge.star.that.did continue to work well past her heyday, with lesser.billing and in supporting roles, was Constance.Bennett. Another was Miriam Hopkins, which is rather.surprising, considering.Hopkins' ego.

You may be right, Arturo. Certainly, though, Astor's days of ever having a lead vanished once she appeared in Meet Me in St. Louis, to the best of my knowledge. After that it was strictly supporting work for the rest of her career.

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