‘Oh yeah! I’ve seen that guy before!’ Character Actors – the Strangers We Know So Well

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You’re deep into a movie or TV plot when enters a performer whose voice or face triggers something. You know you’ve seen this person um-teen times over the years, and often in the same kind of authority figure or eccentric role. That realization is fleeting, as your concentration is back on the plot or the big stars just in time to keep your disbelief suspended.

This person is a Character Actor. They are like the catalpa tree you zoom by on the way to work every morning and are momentarily curious about before the rush reasserts itself.

We don’t know their names. We know that voice lilt, that immaculate hair, that peculiar energy. The feeling passes quickly, but over the years and decades the sensual, if not name recognition of character actors accumulates. We know them and they are strangers to us.

Character actors may be told early in their careers they don’t have the sizzle or the physical stature to be heroes or heartthrobs, but after years of frequent, often brief appearances, their masterful facial skills and sooth, appealing voices make them not only recognized, but craved.

Whit Bissell, recalled by various genres as the ambassador in “The Trouble with Tribbles,” the base chaplain in “Gomer Pyle USMC” or a conniving U.S. senator in the political movie, “7 Days in May,” found that his ability to communicate tightly wired officiousness was his niche for lifelong success…

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Click to see Whit Bissell in 7 Days in May (1964)

Bissell, the urbane and well-read son of a New York City surgeon, preferred the term “supporting player,” to “character actor,” said friend Bernie Shine, who wrote on Leonard Maltin’s entertainment web site about Bissell.

“He told me that when he was starting out he found himself on the opposite side of the desk of a famous Hollywood mogul who bluntly told him that he didn’t have what it takes to be a leading man, stating, ‘I don’t see any women burning with desire when they see you,’ ” Shine wrote. “Whit responded, ‘Perhaps not, but I do think I could make them feel other emotions, such as laughing, crying, or caring.’ ”

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Reta Shaw, the daughter of a New England orchestra leader, once considered becoming a religious missionary. Though no such career ever happened, her persuasive, husky style proved perfect for playing people with connections to spirits of another sort. She is remembered as housekeeper Martha Grant on the 1968-70 sitcom The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, an acclaimed show based on the 1940s novel about a widow and her family who move into a seaside mansion which turned out to be haunted by the ghost of the sea captain who once owned it.

Prior to that, Shaw played Mrs. Halcyon Maxwell in Alan Rafkin’s The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. In Bewitched, she had a recurring role as Samantha’s Aunt Hagatha.

“People love to laugh,” Shaw said in a 1968 interview. “They love to be entertained. If I can bring a laugh, or please someone, I have accomplished something. It’s different from feeding souls in one way, but it’s feeding them in another way.”

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Shaw’s movie credits include playing a singing domestic in Mary Poppins, and Mabel in the movie and Broadway musical The Pajama Game, a comic part she created. On TV, her roles included parts in Happy Days, the Odd Couple, That Girl and Here’s Lucy, Lucille Ball’s third sitcom.

In one of the most culturally inaccurate Lost in Space forecasts of the 1990s, Will Robinson is transplanted back to Earth, specifically the hamlet of Hatfield Four Corners, Vt., where Aunt Clara Simms, payed classically folksy by Shaw, is one of the isolated townspeople who refused to believe Will’s story (they use crank telephones and dress like geeks in a decade when real Vermonters gave the nation Bernie Sanders, Civil Unions and Ben and Jerry’s).

In conservative rural North Carolina, ironically, two Shaw characters were outside the cultural norms, though along very different tangents. On the Andy Griffith Show, she played Big Maude, who was beyond the bounds of the law and wistful and longing Eleanora Poultice, who was beyond the bounds of common sense in seeing her pupil Barney Fife as musically gifted, going with her heart instead of her ears.

Click to see Reta as Mayberry aesthete Eleanora Poultice

The absence of name recognition allows a Reta Shaw or a Whit Bissell to be more than one person in a fairly short time without spoiling the dramatic license.

A character actor’s ability to focus like a laser on sometimes just one or two scenes, then quickly move on to another production gives her or him a mobility that the wealthy screen idol can’t match. That helps keep casting and filming costs down, while giving steady income to a performer who hustles, and, of course is sufficiently lucky.

And just as the financial rewards grow only gradually due to a volume of work over decades, the ego gratification for a character actor isn’t huge for any single role, but accumulates from being able to succeed more by one’s bootstraps than studio promotion machines, a feat that may have eluded James Stewart or Mary Tyler Moore had they lived the existence of a character actor.

“I’m cocky enough, still, to say that the things I do best, there isn’t anyone in the business that can do them better than I,” character actor Edward Andrews said in a 1984 feature in Starlog magazine. “There are roles that nobody can play better than I. It seems awfully immodest, but I have no doubt about it in the world.”

Andrews is the burly, strong but mellow voiced master of combining charm and suspiciousness in more than 50 movie roles including Sixteen Candles, Gremlins and Tora! Tora! Tora! Andrews, the son of a Georgia Episcopal minister, began acting on stage at age 12 in 1926. After decades of performing in theater, Andrews became one of Hollywood’s most prolific character actors, sometimes appearing in three motion pictures per year in the 1950s and ‘60s.

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In an equally packed small screen career, Andrews’ TV appearances included three “Love American Style” episodes, another trio of “The FBI,” and two each from “Bonanza,” “Bewitched,” (When Elizabeth Montgomery learned one of Andrews’ daughters was named Tabitha, she chose it for Samantha Stevens’ baby, mentalfloss.com reported) and “The Twilight Zone.”

In almost all his TV appearances, Andrews played different characters, but usually with a familiar mix of amiable magnetism and manipulative cageyness.

The same blend was apparent in the performer, not just his characters, Starlog’s Jim George wrote.

“Behind the ever-present trademark black frame glasses is a mischievous eye-twinkle which can shift from playful to nefarious literally in the bat of an eyelash. The slightest curling in the corners of one of those wonderfully wicked tight-lipped smiles can completely alter the tenor of a characterization…. One is never quite certain what is truly happening behind the sly smirk.”

To Andrews, and perhaps other character actors whose visits to movie sets are relatively brief, each line can challenge him like a whole movie does a star.

He acknowledged to Starlog that sometimes after telling directors he had come up with an idea for a line, he would manipulate them before stating the line, saying, “No, I’m not sure it would work” – priming their curiosity to make them more receptive to his suggestion.

“It’s a terrible, childish device,” Andrews said, “but it works.”

Click to see Edward Andrews in a 1981 TV commercial

…and in Broadside (1964), a short-lived sitcom

Like Reta Shaw going from ruffian abductor to sensitive music teacher in Mayberry, Allan Melvin was able to pull off a quick change in Astoria, N.Y. with minimal disruption to the All in the Family audience’s concentration.

Melvin was able to sell us on his being Archie Bunker’s neighbor and friend Barney Hefner, despite having played NYPD Officer Pulaski in a recently aired episode.

Melvin explained in an early 1970s interview: “I went in the same season from Pulaski to Barney Hefner. I think they make allowances for the fact that the audience will accept certain changes. I guess they figure since it was a one-shot I wasn’t that established. I’ve been Barney ever since.” This was from philsilversshow.com, a British blog on the great 1950s military comedy in which Melvin was cast as an army buddy of Sgt. Ernie Bilko.

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Allan Melvin was recalled to duty as Marine Sergeant Charlie Hacker on Gomer Pyle USMC, and he played the (presumably) same army buddy to Rob Petrie in various Dick Van Dyke Show flashback episodes, though often with variant names. A blog called toobworld says Melvin’s always boisterous, full voiced character was Sam Pomerantz, Sam Pomeroy, and Sol Pomerantz, depending on the episode. The blog calls them the “Pom-Poms.”

The strong yet soothing Allan Melvin speaking style had a career of its own, as he also did cartoon voices of Magilla Gorilla, Sergeant Snorkel, Bumbler, Barney Google and Bristol Hound.

Melvin wed Amalia Faustina Sestero in 1944 and they stayed married until his death in 2008.

Marriage stability seems more common among the top character actors than the archetypal screen legend. Andrews also was married once for life, to Emily Barnes Andrews. They wed in 1955.

Shaw had one spouse, though her 10-year marriage to actor William A. Forester ended in divorce in 1962.

Bissell, after a divorce in the 1950s, was twice widowed, losing his third wife, actress Jennifer Raine, in 1993.

Character actors, or supporting players have sub-cultures of close followers, and the internet has boosted appreciation of their skills, just as it has made their obscure identities discoverable. Search terms of any show or movie the curious follower can tie them to, and the name or generic description of one of their characters therein will usually do the trick.

Comments on fan sites, or YouTubes sometimes flow like rivers, reflecting decades of pent up sentiment.

Some recent examples:

  • “I’ve often thought of Whit [Bissell] as something of a second-tier Hume Cronyn. I’ve always liked his speaking voice, which I think very rich, mellow, and distinctive.” (on Silverscreenoasis. com)
  • “Once again the phenomenal Edward Andrews leaves us all awestruck!!” (YouTube on a 1981 Bell Telemarketing ad)
  • “The subtle touches Reta employed in her performances are so evident in these clips.  She had the ability to make her “small-town” characters so authentic that I always felt as if I really knew her as a person.  And, boy, could she play a piano!”  (YouTube compilation Reta Shaw’s clips)

Another on Silverscreenoasis lavished praise on Bissell while summing up the value to the entertainment industry — and to us, the viewers — of the Supporting Player, or Character Actor genre to which he devoted his life:

“ ‘Character actor’ isn’t a good enough term to describe Whit’s talents, so, for many years now, I have referred to any reliable character actor that happens to pop up as a ‘Whit.’ It’s an honorific term, meant to notice and celebrate his and other actors’ contributions as support in countless films. Whether he’s a senator or a janitor, you can always bet that Whit will make a positive contribution to the film in question. What more could you want? … But anyway, he leaves a tremendous legacy. One of the pleasures of watching TV with friends in the 70s was to do ‘Whit-spotting’ and point him out to others. ‘Oh yeah! I’ve seen that guy before!’… was the usual response.”

             Brian Arbenz is a Louisville-based writer and researcher who’d rather be a character actor than a star. That’s just his way. 

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