The Best Character Actors of Classic Cinema

Whenever you see one of these names in the opening credits, you can count on a little extra color in the film!
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1.
Lionel Barrymore
The legendary Lionel Barrymore, one of the great cinema character actors, was the oldest of the three Barrymmore siblings. Along with Ethel Barrymore and John Barrymore, he shares a prominent place in American acting in the first half of the 20th Century. In addition to winning a Best Actor Academy Award (for A Free Soul)...
 
2.
Elsa Lanchester
Elsa Sullivan Lanchester was born into an unconventional a family at the turn of the 20th century. Her parents, James "Shamus" Sullivan and Edith "Biddy" Lanchester, were socialists - very active members of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in a rather broad sense and did not believe in the institution of marriage and being tied to any conventions of legality for that matter...
 
3.
Beulah Bondi
Character actress Beulah Bondi was a favorite of directors and audiences and is one of the reasons so many films from the 1930s and 1940s remain so enjoyable, as she was an integral part of many of the ensemble casts (a hallmark of the studio system) of major and/or great films, including The Trail of the Lonesome Pine...
 
4.
Harry Carey
Born in New York City to a Judge of Special Sessions who was also president of a sewing machine company. Grew up on City Island, New York. Attended Hamilton Military Academy and turned down an appointment to West Point to attend New York Law School, where his law school classmates included future New York City mayor James J...
 
6.
Charles Coburn
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.
 
7.
Harry Davenport
Character fame on film came quite late for long-time stage actor Harry Davenport at age 70, but he made up for lost time in very quick fashion with well over a hundred film roles registered from the advent of sound to the time of his death in 1949. Beloved for his twinkle-eyed avuncular and/or grandfatherly types in both comedy and drama...
 
8.
Walter Brennan
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...
 
9.
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. 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...
 
10.
Edward Arnold
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...
 
11.
Thomas Mitchell
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; Stagecoach; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Gone with the Wind; It's a Wonderful Life and High Noon. His portrayals are so diverse and convincing that most people don't even realize that one actor could have played them all...
 
12.
Judith Anderson
Actress, Rebecca
Dame Judith Anderson was born Frances Margaret Anderson on February 10, 1897 in Adelaide, South Australia. She began her acting career in Australia before moving to New York in 1918. There she established herself as one of the greatest theatrical actresses and was a major star on Broadway throughout the 1930s...
 
13.
C. Aubrey Smith
Actor, Rebecca
Movie roles are sometimes based upon what the audience expects to see. If the role called for the tall stereotypical Englishmen with the stiff upper lip and stern determination, that man would be C. Aubrey Smith, graduate of Cambridge University, a leading Freemason and a test cricketer for England...
 
14.
Nigel Bruce
Actor, Rebecca
Nigel was, from the beginning, typecast as bumbling English aristocrats, military types or drawing room society snobs and, within the narrow parameters of his range, he was very, very good at playing these parts. Nigel Bruce was born in Mexico, where his father, Sir William W. Bruce, worked as an engineer...
 
15.
Louis Calhern
Actor, Notorious
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...
 
16.
Charles Bickford
American character actor of gruff voice and appearance who was a fixture in Hollywood pictures from the earliest days of the talkies. The fifth of seven children, he was born in the first minute of 1891. He was a boisterous child, and at nine was tried and acquitted for attempted murder in the shooting of a motorman who had run over his dog...
 
17.
Millard Mitchell
Millard Mitchell was born of American parents in Havana, Cuba. He was a popular stage and radio actor in the 1930s in New York. His first cinema appearances were in industrial short features, filmed in New York. His first Hollywood role was in Mr. and Mrs. North. After World War II, Mitchell acted in a goodly number of movies...
 
18.
Dan Duryea
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 his appearance in the film version, in the same role.
 
19.
Henry Travers
British-born Henry Travers was a veteran of the English stage before emigrating to the U.S. in 1917. He gained more stage experience there on Broadway working with the Theatre Guild, and began his long film career with Reunion in Vienna. Travers' kindly, grandfatherly demeanor became familiar to filmgoers over the next 25 years...
 
20.
Victor McLaglen
Rambunctious British leading man (contrary to popular belief, he was of Scottish ancestry, not Irish) and later character actor primarily in American films, Victor McLaglen was a vital presence in a number of great motion pictures, especially those of director John Ford. McLaglen (pronounced Muh-clog-len...
 
21.
Ben Johnson
Born in Oklahoma, Ben Johnson was a ranch hand and rodeo performer when, in 1940, Howard Hughes hired him to take a load of horses to California. He decided to stick around (the pay was good), and for some years was a stunt man, horse wrangler, and double for such stars as John Wayne, Gary Cooper and James Stewart...
 
22.
Edward Brophy
Edward S. Brophy was born on February 27, 1895 in New York City and educated at the University of Virginia. He became a bit and small-part in the movies starting in 1919, but switched to behind-the-scenes work for job security, though he continued appearing in small parts. While serving as a property master for Buster Keaton's production unit at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer...
 
23.
Cedric Hardwicke
Actor, Rope
Sir Cedric Hardwicke, one of the great character actors in the first decades of the talking picture, was born in Lye, England on February 19, 1893. Hardwicke attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and made his stage debut in 1912. His career was interrupted by military service in World War I, but he returned to the stage in 1922 with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre...
 
24.
Frank Morgan
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...
 
25.
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...
 
26.
Hope Emerson
Actress, Adam's Rib
Although there may have been "bigger" actresses in Hollywood's history, there were few "larger" than Hope Emerson. At 6' 2" and 230 pounds, she towered over many of her male co-stars, and her size, brusque voice and stern demeanor typed her for a career in villainous roles, such as her star turn as the sadistic prison matron in Caged...
 
27.
Agnes Moorehead
Actress, Bewitched
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...
 
28.
Slim Pickens
Slim Pickens spent the early part of his career as a real cowboy and the latter part playing cowboys, and he is best remembered for a single "cowboy" image: that of bomber pilot Maj. "King" Kong waving his cowboy hat rodeo-style as he rides a nuclear bomb onto its target in the great black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb...
 
29.
Raymond Walburn
Stalwart character Raymond Walburn is one of those actors whose name may have slipped through the memory cracks over time, but whose valued contribution to 30s and 40s comedy films certainly warrants a reminder. Somewhat reminiscent of the "Mr. Monopoly" character, Walburn was the archetypal bombastic bumbler or supercilious stuffed shirt with the trademark bulgy eyes...
 
30.
Basil Rathbone
Basil Rathbone was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1892, but three years later his family was forced to flee the country because his father was accused by the Boers of being a British spy at a time when Dutch-British conflicts were leading to the Boer War. The Rathbones escaped to England, where Basil and his two younger siblings...
 
31.
Edgar Buchanan
At the age of seven, he and his family moved to Oregon. After studying at the University of Oregon, he followed in his father's footsteps and became a dentist, graduating from North Pacific Dental College. From 1929 to 1937, he practiced oral surgery in Eugene, Oregon. He then moved his practice to Altadena...
 
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33.
Alfonso Bedoya
Mexican character actor who achieved his greatest success in U.S. films. He was born in a tiny village in Mexico of Yaqui heritage and he had a nomadic upbringing, living in numerous places throughout the country including, for a time, Mexico City. He received a private education in Houston, Texas as a teenager...
 
34.
James Gleason
James Gleason was born in New York City to William Gleason and Mina Crolius, who were both in the theatre. He was married to Lucile Gleason (born Lucile Webster), and had a son, Russell Gleason. As a young man James fought in the Spanish-American War. After the war he joined the stock company at the Liberty Theater in Oakland...
 
35.
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...
 
36.
Harry Morgan
Actor, M*A*S*H
Harry Morgan was a prolific character actor who starred in over 100 films and was a stage performer. Known to a younger generation of fans as "Col. Sherman T. Potter" on M*A*S*H. Also known for his commanding personality throughout his career, he tackled movies and television in a way no other actor would do it...
 
37.
Sydney Greenstreet
Actor, Casablanca
Sydney Greenstreet's father was a leather merchant with eight children. Sydney left home at age 18 to make his fortune as a Ceylon tea planter, but drought forced him out of business and back to England. He managed a brewery and, to escape boredom, took acting lessons. His stage debut was as a murderer in a 1902 production of "Sherlock Holmes"...
 
38.
Peter Lorre
Actor, Casablanca
As a youth Peter Lorre ran away from home, worked as a bank clerk and, after stage training in Vienna, made his acting debut in Zurich. He remained unknown, traveling for several years and acting in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, until Fritz Lang cast him as the psychopathic child killer in M...
 
39.
Elisha Cook Jr.
Although this pint-sized actor started out in films often in innocuous college-student roles in mid-30s rah-rahs, playing alongside the likes of a pretty Gloria Stuart or a young, pre-"Oz" Judy Garland, casting directors would soon enough discover his flair for portraying intense neurotics or spineless double-dealers...