I love character actors.
Maybe it's because I'm a character critic that I relate so much to them. We all scrabble, fight the good fight, and try to do our thing. Most of us love what we're doing. But nobody knows who we are.
What do Zach Grenier, Robert Jay, and J.C. Mackenzie have in common? Or Zeljko Ivanek, Gregory Itzin, and Timothy Omundson?
They're character actors - faces without names. They may be familiar when they appear on our movie or tv screens. We may even like them and be glad to see them on screen, but they remain nameless.
The documentary That Guy... Who Was in That Thing gives the character actors substantial identity. They're personable and articulate, and they carry a lot of heavy baggage. I often admired their work, but I seldom fully realized their dimension and humanity.
The film gives a greater insight into the lives of character actors. It brings them out of the shadows. After seeing That Guy... Who Was in That Thing I will always look at them differently.
For the most part their lives are erratic ordeals - they have not taken the easy path. But if they don't reach the pot of gold, it still seems as though the trip they've taken is personally rewarding.
That's one of the main ideas that comes through most of the movie. The late Stanley Kamel says, "There isn't one part of what I do that I don't like." Zeljko Ivanek grins as he holds up a package and says, "I do have an action figure - for 24 [the successful action tv show]. Very proud of it. That's one of my greatest achievements. So cool."
But it's not always cool. Ivanek says, "Four or five years in, I didn't work for a year."
Wade Williams [tv's Prison Break] says, "You gotta be crazy to do this. A screw loose."
Timothy Omundson [one of the few unpretentious actors in tv's very pretentious Psych] says, "There's nothing better than to be a working actor. There's nothing worse than to be a not-working actor."
It's a risky tightrope they walk. Ebullient Bruce Davison [a character actor who actually once starred amidst the rats in the feature Willard, 1971] admits, "I gotta tell you, I still don't think I can make a living doing it."
Many have to scrimp and save. J.C. Mackenzie says, "My wife and I live like hippies. We have no television."
And the character actors often face long periods of unemployment. African-American character actor Rick Worthy tells how he reacted during a barren period and attacked his television set. "I killed my tv." Then he "called Donna [his agent] and broke down." She got him hired on tv's General Hospital.
Paul Guilfoyle [tv's CSI] says of guest starring actors, that it's "kind of a club. You fall in like you are all campers - or you are like alcoholics."
Although the character actors face strife, they yearn to perform. Even though auditions are frustrating travails, they may have something positive. Xander Berkeley says, "Part of me still loves the audition because it's getting to do a performance - one time, in a room."
Kamel says, "Sometimes that's the only time you're going to get to act - this day, this week, this month - that audition."
Guilfoyle was drawn to the lifestyle of the character actor, "I always liked the idea of this vagabond loner guy."
But Kamel emphasizes the totality, "We forget there's a whole community of solid working professionals who also help to keep this industry together. And I think I'm one of them."
Producer/directors Ian Roumain and Michael Schwartz get a bevy of engaging personalties in their different interviews. Their film is a treasure trove of unfamiliar information.
One of the great ironies is how difficult it may be to see this film. Like the character actors themselves, it's not getting much access.
That Guy... Who Was in That Thing is well worth knowing.
Like the character actors, it's rather special.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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