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A new documentary celebrates some of the great (and, sadly. late) unsung below-the-line heroes of cinema - the character actor.

The passing of Harold Gould left many in Hollywood missing a great friend. His dedication to his craft over five decades provided memorable moments in films as diverse as George Roy Hill’s The Sting (pictured, above), Woody Allen’s Love and Death, Billy Wilder’s The Front Page and Mark Waters’ Freaky Friday.

But there were no mountains of flowers left outside his Californian home to mourn his passing at age 86 on September 11, 2010. Gould was afforded the same quiet industry respect in his passing as he was granted professionally; utterly reliant upon his integrity, professionalism and ability to enhance the glow of the movie’s star, Hollywood remembered him fondly, registered his passing with sadness, and moved on.

Harold Gould was a character actor. If a steady stream of work was the payoff for the successful support player, anonymity was the curse. The American film industry has lost a great many of its supporting cast in recent times. Though their names will register with only a few of you, their performances have enlivened many films you’ve undoubtedly seen – James Gammon (A Man Called Horse; Silverado; Major League; pictured, right); Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers; The Misfits; Kansas City Bomber; Inner Space); Dan Resin (The Happy Hooker; Caddyshack; The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover); Richard Lynch (Bad Dreams; Invasion USA); Glenn Shadix (Beetlejuice; Heathers); Maury Chaykin (Wargames; Dances With Wolves) Carl Gordon (Gordon’s War; The Brother From Another Planet); and, Gloria Stuart, who was groomed for stardom (The Invisible Man, 1933) but ultimately made a living in support roles, culminating in her Oscar-nominated role in Titanic.

The character actor may finally get some long-overdue recognition thanks to producer Dea Lawrence who, with her filmmaking partner Saratoga Ballantine (pictured, right), has produced Troupers, a lovingly crafted documentary that profiles some of Hollywood’s greatest character actors. Ballantine is the daughter of character greats Carl Ballantine and Ceil Cabot and Lawrence is married to character actor Michael Zelniker, so the making of the film proved to be particularly emotional (both Gould and Ballantine passed away before they could see the finished film).

“One of the defining traits of a great character actor is that they truly love the craft of acting and their driving force is that love. Not, in the words of Harold Gould, ‘to make a pile of money and sit by the pool all day’,” says Lawrence, who premiered the film at a special screening for the Screen Actors Guild in Los Angeles. “A great character actor tends to be a person of depth and intelligence who is constantly improving his craft and keeps learning no matter his age or level of experience and knows how to put his ego to the side to make way for the star.”

The documentary follows some of the great characters in Hollywood film history, all of whom were over 80 years of age when interviewed for the film.  In addition to Gould and Ballantine, the ‘troupers’ include Ivy Bethune (92 years old), Kaye Ballard (85), Pat Carroll (83), the late Betty Garrett (91; pictured, right), Marvin Kaplan (83), Jane Kean (86), Bruce Kirby (82), Allan Rich (84), and Connie Sawyer (96). “The troupers profiled in our documentary survived constant rejection, debt, divorces, health issues, deaths of spouses and children, bad agents, insensitive casting directors, pilots that didn’t get picked up and of course, critics,” says Lawrence. “Both Allan Rich and Ivy Bethune were blacklisted along with Betty Garrett’s husband, Larry Parks.”

“Connie Sawyer said that she was never afraid to take B if she couldn’t get A. All of them would act wherever they could as much as they could and are not overly concerned with their appearance. So when looks faded, they did not,” says the filmmaker, with a deep and obvious respect for her subjects. “The business has changed so much since these actors first got into the profession, however it is inspiring to see how these people are still able to find work for themselves. Speaking with these talented pros was refreshing, inspiring and gave us hope that you can still pursue your dreams at any age, regardless of the situation or the town.”

The Australian acting community has produced some of the greatest characters ever seen onscreen. Though they never achieved the international fame that the Rod Taylor’s, Nicole Kidman’s or Mel Gibson’s would ultimately enjoy, there is plenty of nationalistic love for the likes of Michael Pate (40,000 Horsemen; Mad Dog Morgan; Death of a Soldier); Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell (Kangaroo; Smiley; Breaker Morant; The Castle); Ray Barrett (Touch of Death; Don’s Party; Goodbye Paradise; In The Winter Dark); Bill Kerr (Gallipoli; Razorback); John Meillon (The Sundowners; They’re a Weird Mob; Wake in Fright; The Picture Show Man; Crocodile Dundee) and Bill Hunter (Backroads; Newsfront; Gallipoli; Strictly Ballroom; The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert; Muriel’s Wedding; Australia; pictured, below, with Kerr and co-stars Mark Lee and Robert Grubb at a 2005 cast reunion for Gallipoli).

Other notable names that have swelled the character actor ranks Down Under include Tony Barry, Arthur Dignam, Ray Meagher, Alan Cassell, David Field and Terry Norris; actresses who have established long, esteemed careers as character players include Julia Blake, Monica Maughan, Robyn Nevin, Patricia Kennedy, Linda Cropper, Lynette Curran, Beverly Dunn, Jeannie Drynan, Penne Hackforth-Jones and Lois Ramsay.  

The backbone of every nation that prides itself on its cinematic pedigree was formed on the very strength of tradition that the character actor carries with them. The cinema of Japan has been shaped by hard-working actors such as Terajima Susumu, Ren Osugi, Tomorowo Taguchi and Renji Ishibashi, who continue the tradition of such character actor legends as the late Mako (The Sand Pebbles; Conan the Barbarian; Memoirs of a Geisha; pictured, left) and Sasano Takashi (Mahjong Horoki; Departures). Indian cinema has the likes of Mohan Makhijani, Sharman Joshi, Amrish Puri, Kader Khan and the late Kamal Kapoor. European film culture offered richly-talented support players such as Austrians Leon Askin and Otto Waldis, Frenchmen Phillipe Noiret and German Bruno Ganz, amongst many, many others.

One of Hollywood’s most recognizable character actors is Stephen Tobolowsky (insurance salesman ‘Ned Ryerson’ in Groundhog Day). When not filling memorable support slots in movies such as The Philadelphia Experiment, The Time-Travellers Wife, Memento and Basic Instinct, Tobolowsky is one of Hollywood’s most prolific bloggers and presenter of The Tobolowsky Files podcast. Writing on what it means to be a character actor in a celebrated op-ed piece for The New York Times, he described his resume as one of “parts that didn’t have names” and of the quizzical expression that often greets him that he refers to as the “You are either someone in show business or my former chiropractor” look. After three decades being in the shadow of the lead, he was resigned to the fact that “the very best character actors are made of equal parts discipline and madness, and the fact that our faces are more familiar than our names is not our curse, but our blessing”.

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