Just because you are a Character … the Greatest Character Actors of Our Time (updated)

By Niall McArdle

hoffThe tragic and untimely death of the great Philip Seymour Hoffman has me thinking about character actors. It’s a curious term: aren’t all actors playing characters? I suppose it was coined to distinguish those who didn’t have matinee idol looks. Usually offered supporting parts, they seldom get the girl or defuse the bomb or catch the bad guy (sometimes they are the bad guy).

Hoffman was one of the few truly talented character actors in recent years who broke through to become a character star, with a body of work that was mesmerising. After the Oscar win for Capote, he was no longer “that guy who had that supporting role in that movie”.


There have always been character stars in Hollywood – indeed, the two greatest screen actors of the Golden Age, Bette Davis and Charles Laughton, were solid character players who excelled in leading roles. In the 1970s, when cinema was radically changing, character actors broke through and established a new kind of film star: one that didn’t have to look like a Golden Age movie star. Some made such a mark that they have reached iconic status: Dustin Hoffman, Robert de Niro, Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, etc.


Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe are highly talented character players who are also leading men. Then there are character actors whose uniqueness and idiosyncracies put them on another level; they transcend films to occupy a vaulted place in the culture: I’m thinking of people like Nicolas Cage, Christopher Walken and Samuel L. Jackson.

So who are the greatest, most watchable character actors around today? Some are instantly recognisable. Some were once A-listers (or came close) who have matured into eminently watchable supporting players. Some should be bigger stars and seem destined to be only ever considered “indie darlings”.

Sam Rockwell: Immensely talented, quirky looking, comic genius: he’s also a hell of a dancer.

Michael Shannon: Perhaps the greatest screen actor of his generation. Intense and thoughtful, often seems pained

Guy Pearce: How much fun is it to watch this guy disappear into a role?

Laura Linney: Why is this woman not a star?

Toni Collette: Incredible ability to disappear into the role.

Kevin Spacey: He’d been bumping up against stardom for years before Se7en

Paul Giamatti: Did you know that before American Splendor and Sideways he was in Saving Private Ryan, The Truman Show and, er, Big Momma’s House?

Gary Oldman: Undeniably the most mesmerising screen actor of his generation.

Ray Liotta: A quick glance at him in Wild Thing and Field of Dreams made it clear he was going to be a star. It didn’t quite happen, did it? There was Goodfellas, of course, and several other iconic roles, before he matured into a smart and usually scene-stealing supporting player.

Bill Murray: Of course he’s going to be on this list.

William H. Macy: Indie Darling. Actor’s Actor. Was a ukulele enthusiast long before the instrument was discovered by pretentious hairy hipsters

Chris Cooper: After American Beauty he was almost typecast playing mean fathers, but thankfully that didn’t happen.

John Turturro: “Nobody fucks with the Jesus!”

Jeffrey Wright: It’s a shame most people only know this guy from Bond films

John Goodman: Wait a second? John Goodman has NEVER even been nominated for an Oscar?!?

Alfred Molina: It’s late into an already brilliant Boogie Nights before he shows up in an unforgettable scene.

John C. Reilly: Some people think he’s just Will Ferrell’s cuddly sidekick.

Woody Harrelson: If you had told me that Woody, the lovable dope from Cheers, would end up being one of the most watchable dramatic actors around, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Felicity Huffman: Not just Mrs Willam H. Macy, now, is she?

John Hawkes: Shockingly still not as famous as he should be …

Of course, this is only a partial list. Who do you think should be included?


Joan Allen: I once saw her; she’s very sexy in real life …

Catherine Keener: Sadly wasted in Captain Phillips.

Steve Buscemi: “He’s kinda funny looking.”

David Strathairn:

Catherine O’Hara: I hate the word “comedienne”: it’s dismissive.

Brendan Gleeson: The fantastically talented Irishman. This is the trailer for his new film Calvary

Brian Cox: The fantastically talented Scotsman. The ORIGINAL Hannibal Lecter

Peter Dinklage: He’d been working steadily for years before Game of Thrones made him a cult figure

Patricia Clarkson:

Oliver Platt:

8 thoughts on “Just because you are a Character … the Greatest Character Actors of Our Time (updated)

  1. That is a great list, to which I would add Steve Buscemi and Paul Rudd. To even up the numbers for the ladies, could I suggest Catherine Keener, Catherine O’Hara and Joan Allen? All deserving of a starring role but rarely getting one?


  2. Great idea, and good use of the inspiration from the loss of Hoffman. I am happy to see some English, Irish, and Scots in there Niall. I don’t really watch a lot of modern films, but I would suggest Daniel Benzali, Angelica Huston, John Cusack, Tony Shaloub, Minnie Driver, Elias Koteas and Tom Sizemore for consideration.
    Regards from England, Pete.


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