Great Character Actors of The Golden Era

by Robert Siney | created - 29 Nov 2010 | updated - 12 Aug 2011 | Public

A list commemorating the underappreciated character actors of vintage pictures; faces we recognise but usually don't remember their names. Truly terrific performers who seldom received the recognition their talent deserved.

1. Thomas Mitchell

Actor | Stagecoach

Thomas Mitchell was one of the great American character actors, whose credits read like a list of the greatest films of the 20th century: Lost Horizon (1937); Stagecoach (1939); The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939); Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939); Gone with the Wind (1939); It's a Wonderful Life...

Recommended performances: Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Stagecoach (1939), It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

2. Frank Morgan

Actor | The Wizard of Oz

Jovial, somewhat flamboyant Frank Morgan (born Francis Wuppermann) will forever be remembered as the title character in The Wizard of Oz (1939), but he was a veteran and respected actor long before he played that part, and turned in outstanding performances both before and after that film. One of ...

Recommended performances: The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

3. Thelma Ritter

Actress | Rear Window

Thelma Ritter appeared in high school plays and was trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In the 1940s she worked in radio. Her movie career was started with a bit part in the 1946 Miracle on 34th Street (1947). In the movie she played a weary Xmas shopper. Her performance in the short ...

Recommended performances: Pickup on South Street (1953), Rear Window (1954), The Misfits (1961)

4. Lee J. Cobb

Actor | 12 Angry Men

Lee J. Cobb, one of the premier character actors in American film for three decades in the post-World War II period, was born Leo Jacoby in New York City's Lower East Side on December 8, 1911. The son of a Jewish newspaper editor, young Leo was a child prodigy in music, mastering the violin and the...

Recommended performances: On The Waterfront (1954), Golden Boy (1939), 12 Angry Men (1957)

5. Agnes Moorehead

Actress | Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte

Of Irish/English ancestry, Agnes was born near Boston, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister (her mother was a mezzo-soprano) who encouraged her to perform in church pageants. Aged three, she sang 'The Lord is my Shepherd' on a public stage and seven years later joined the St. Louis Municipal ...

Recommended performances: The Magnificent Ambersons (1943), Dark Passage (1947)

6. Walter Brennan

Actor | To Have and Have Not

In many ways the most successful and familiar character actor of American sound films and the only actor to date to win three Oscars for Best Supporting Actor, Walter Brennan attended college in Cambridge, Massachusetts, studying engineering. While in school he became interested in acting and ...

Recommended performances: To Have and Have Not (1944), Sergeant York (1941)

7. Martin Balsam

Actor | All the President's Men

Martin Henry Balsam was born on November 4, 1919 in the Bronx, New York City, to Lillian (Weinstein) and Albert Balsam, a manufacturer of women's sportswear. He was the first-born child. His father was a Russian Jewish immigrant, and his mother was born in New York, to Russian Jewish parents. ...

Recommended performances: Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Psycho (1960)

8. Eve Arden

Actress | Our Miss Brooks

Eve was born just north of San Francisco in Mill Valley and was interested in show business from an early age. At 16, she made her stage debut after quitting school to joined a stock company. After appearing in minor roles in two films under her real name, Eunice Quedens, she found that the stage ...

Recommended performances: Stage Door (1937), Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

9. Felix Bressart

Actor | Ninotchka

Bressart made his stage debut in 1914 and his film debut in 1928. Going to the U.S. after being forced out of Germany in 1936, Bressart starred in his first American film, "Swanee River," in 1939. He went on to a successful career in films and during the filming of "My Friend Irma," Bressart passed...

Recommended performances: Ninotchka (!939), To Be or Not To Be (1941), The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

10. Edward Arnold

Actor | Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Edward Arnold was born as Gunther Edward Arnold Schneider in 1890, on the Lower East Side of New York City, the son of German immigrants, Elizabeth (Ohse) and Carl Schneider. Arnold began his acting career on the New York stage and became a film actor in 1916. A burly man with a commanding style ...

Recommended performances: Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Johnny Eager (1942)

11. John Carradine

Actor | The Grapes of Wrath

John Carradine, the son of a reporter/artist and a surgeon, grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York. He attended Christ Church School and Graphic Art School, studying sculpture, and afterward roamed the South selling sketches. He made his acting debut in "Camille" in a New Orleans theatre in 1925. ...

Recommended performances: The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Stagecoach (1939)

12. Jean Hagen

Actress | Singin' in the Rain

Jean Shirley Verhagen (later shortened to Hagen) was born in Chicago, Illinois on August 3, 1923. Her father was a Dutch immigrant. Hagen and her family moved to Elkhart, Indiana when she was twelve; she subsequently graduated from Elkhart High School. Afterwards, she graduated from Northwestern ...

Recommended performances: Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

13. Charles Coburn

Actor | The More the Merrier

A cigar-smoking, monocled, swag-bellied character actor known for his Old South manners and charm. In 1918 he and his first wife formed the Coburn Players and appeared on Broadway in many plays. With her death in 1937, he accepted a Hollywood contract and began making films at the age of sixty.

Recommended performances: The Devil and Miss Jones (1942), The Lady Eve (1941), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

14. Donald Crisp

Actor | How Green Was My Valley

Donald Crisp was born George William Crisp at the family home in Bow, London. Donald's parents were James Crisp and Elizabeth Crisp, his birth was registered by his mother on 4th September 1882. Donald's sisters were Elizabeth, Ann, Alice (known as Louisa) and Eliza and his brothers were James, ...

Recommended performances: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), How Green Was My Valley (1944)

15. Jane Darwell

Actress | The Grapes of Wrath

Missouri-born Jane Darwell was the daughter of a railroad president and grew up on a ranch in Missouri. She nursed ambitions to be an opera singer, but put it off because of her father's disapproval (she eventually changed her name to Darwell from the family name of Woodward so as not to "sully" ...

Recommended performances: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

16. Edward Everett Horton

Actor | Arsenic and Old Lace

It seemed like Edward Everett Horton appeared in just about every Hollywood comedy made in the 1930s. He was always the perfect counterpart to the great gentlemen and protagonists of the films. Horton was born in Brooklyn, New York City, to Isabella S. (Diack) and Edward Everett Horton, a ...

Recommended performances: Holiday (1938), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

17. Cecil Kellaway

Actor | Harvey

Though a native of South Africa, Cecil Kellaway spent many years as an actor, author and director in the Australian film industry until he tried his luck in Hollywood in the 1930s. Finding he could get only gangster bit parts, he got discouraged and returned to Australia. Then William Wyler called ...

Recommended performances: Harvey (1950), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)

18. Margaret O'Brien

Actress | Meet Me in St. Louis

Born Angela Maxine O'Brien on January 15, 1937 in San Diego, California. Her film debut was one-minute shot in MGM's Babes on Broadway (1941). Her big moment came when she was cast in Journey for Margaret (1942). This film shot her into instant stardom and also resulted in Angela changing her name ...

Recommended performances: Meet Me in St Louis (1944), Little Women (1949)

19. John Qualen

Actor | Casablanca

One of the best and most familiar character actors of the first four decades of sound films, although few who knew his face also knew his name, John Qualen was born in Canada to Norwegian parents. His father was a minister. The family moved to the United States and Qualen (whose real name was ...

Recommended performances: Angels Over Broadway (1940), His Girl Friday (1940)

20. Louis Calhern

Actor | Duck Soup

Tall, distinguished, aristocratic Louis Calhern seemed to be the poster boy for old-money, upper-crust urban society, but he was actually born Carl Vogt, to middle-class parents in New York City. His family moved to St. Louis when he was a child, and it was while playing football in high school ...

Recommended performances: The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Duck Soup (1933)

21. Billie Burke

Actress | The Wizard of Oz

Billie Burke was born Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke on August 7, 1885 in Washington, D.C. Her father was a circus clown, and as a child she toured the United States and Europe with the circus (before motion pictures and after the stage, circuses were the biggest form of entertainment in the...

Recommended performances: Dinner at Eight (1933), The Wizard of Oz (1939)

22. Dan Duryea

Actor | Too Late for Tears

Dan Duryea was educated at Cornell University and worked in the advertising business before pursuing his career as an actor. Duryea made his Broadway debut in the play "Dead End." The critical acclaim he won for his performance as Leo Hubbard in the Broadway production of "The Little Foxes" led to ...

Recommended performances: The Little Foxes (1941), The Woman in the Window (1944), Winchester '73 (1950)

23. Fred Clark

Actor | Sunset Blvd.

This popular, baggy-eyed, bald-domed, big lug of a character actor had few peers when called upon to display that special "slow burn" style of comedy few others perfected. But perfect he did -- on stage, film and TV. In fact, he pretty much cornered the market during the 50s and 60s as the dour, ...

Recommended performances: How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Auntie Mame (1958)

24. Albert Dekker

Actor | The Wild Bunch

A stage actor from 1927, Albert Dekker was an established Broadway star when he made his film debut ten years later. Tall and with rugged good looks, he often played aggressive character roles, a prime example being his double-crossing gang leader in the classic The Killers (1946). From 1944-46 he ...

Recommended performances: The Killers (1946), East of Eden (1955)

25. Lucile Watson

Actress | The Razor's Edge

Unsmiling character player Lucile Watson was one of Hollywood's most indomitable mothers of the 1930s and 1940s...and you can take that both ways. The archetypal matriarch who enhanced scores of plush, soapy, Victorian-styled drama, her prickly pears could be insufferable indeed and heaven help ...

Recommended performances: Little Women (1949), Waterloo Bridge (1940)