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.
“ Recommended performances: Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Stagecoach (1939), It's a Wonderful Life (1946) ” - Robert Siney
Jovial, somewhat flamboyant Frank Morgan (born Francis Wuppermann) will forever be remembered as the title character in The Wizard of Oz
, 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 11 children of a wealthy manufacturer...
“ Recommended performances: The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940) ” - Robert Siney
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
. In the movie she played a weary Xmas shopper. Her performance in the short scene was noticed by Darryl F. Zanuck
who insisted her role be expanded...
“ Recommended performances: Pickup on South Street (1953), Rear Window (1954), The Misfits (1961) ” - Robert Siney
Lee J. Cobb
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 harmonica...
“ Recommended performances: On The Waterfront (1954), Golden Boy (1939), 12 Angry Men (1957) ” - Robert Siney
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 Opera as a dancer and singer for four years...
“ Recommended performances: The Magnificent Ambersons (1943), Dark Passage (1947) ” - Robert Siney
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 performed in school plays...
“ Recommended performances: To Have and Have Not (1944), Sergeant York (1941) ” - Robert Siney
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. Martin caught the acting bug in high school where he participated in the drama club...
“ Recommended performances: Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Psycho (1960) ” - Robert Siney
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 offered her the same minor roles...
“ Recommended performances: Stage Door (1937), Anatomy of a Murder (1959) ” - Robert Siney
With his lanky frame, big nose, toothbrush moustache and horn-rimmed glasses, he looked like someone had decided to cross Groucho Marx
with Albert Einstein
. The perennial scene-stealer Felix Bressart had two distinct careers as a comic actor: an earlier one, on stage and screen in his native Germany; and a later...
“ Recommended performances: Ninotchka (!939), To Be or Not To Be (1941), The Shop Around the Corner (1940) ” - Robert Siney
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 and superb baritone voice...
“ Recommended performances: Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Johnny Eager (1942) ” - Robert Siney
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. Arriving in Los Angeles in 1927...
“ Recommended performances: The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Stagecoach (1939) ” - Robert Siney
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 University, where she studied drama and was a roommate of fellow actress Patricia Neal
“ Recommended performances: Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Asphalt Jungle (1950) ” - Robert Siney
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) ” - Robert Siney
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, John and Mark...
“ Recommended performances: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), How Green
Was My Valley (1944) ” - Robert Siney
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" the family name)...
“ Recommended performances: The Grapes of Wrath (1940) ” - Robert Siney
Edward Everett Horton
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 compositor for the NY Times...
“ Recommended performances: Holiday (1938), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) ” - Robert Siney
“ Recommended performances: Harvey (1950), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) ” - Robert Siney
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
. Her big moment came when she was cast in Journey for Margaret
. This film shot her into instant stardom and also resulted in Angela changing her name to Margaret. Throughout the 1940s Margaret was a major child star...
“ Recommended performances: Meet Me in St Louis (1944), Little Women (1949) ” - Robert Siney
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 Kvalen) grew up in Elgin...
“ Recommended performances: Angels Over Broadway (1940), His Girl Friday (1940) ” - Robert Siney
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 there that he was spotted by a representative of a touring acting troupe and hired as an actor...
“ Recommended performances: The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Duck Soup (1933) ” - Robert Siney
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 world)...
“ Recommended performances: Dinner at Eight (1933), The Wizard of Oz (1939) ” - Robert Siney
Dan Duryea was definitely the man you went to the movies for and loved to hate. His sniveling, deliberately taunting demeanor and snarling flat, nasal tones set the actor apart from other similar slimeballs of the 1940s and 1950s. From his very first picture, the highly acclaimed The Little Foxes
, in which he portrayed the snotty...
“ Recommended performances: The Little Foxes (1941), The Woman in the Window (1944), Winchester '73 (1950) ” - Robert Siney
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, ill-tempered guy you loved to hate...
“ Recommended performances: How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Auntie Mame (1958) ” - Robert Siney
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
. From 1944-46 he served a term in the California legislature representing the Hollywood district...
“ Recommended performances: The Killers (1946), East of Eden (1955) ” - Robert Siney
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 anyone who gathered up the courage to take them on...
“ Recommended performances: Little Women (1949), Waterloo Bridge (1940) ” - Robert Siney