Although character actors as a group are associated with the studio period, they are also valued in the New Hollywood. In the more naturalistic context of film acting since the 1960s, the ordinariness of character actors is their stock in trade, belying though it does their idiosyncrasy and frequently their range. In one evening at the movies in September 1979 Charles Durning (b. 1923) was seen in Starting Over , a film then being sneak-previewed; in North Dallas Forty , the theater's regular feature; and in the coming-attractions trailer for yet a third movie, When a Stranger Calls . Continuing this cyclical, generational theme, in 2002 John C. Reilly (b. 1965), the kind of supporting actor, who, like Mitchell and Durning, is called "dependable" by reviewers, had featured roles in three of the five Academy Award ® nominees for Best Picture: Chicago , The Hours , and Gangs of New York . The year before, Jim Broadbent (b. 1951), a "reliable" British character actor, had played key roles alongside three of the Best Actress nominees, Judi Dench (b. 1934) in Iris , Nicole Kidman (b. 1967) in Moulin Rouge , and Renee Zellweger (b. 1969) in Bridget Jones's Diary . After all this fine support, the least the Academy could do was name Broadbent the year's Best Supporting Actor, which it did, for Iris . After films made them known, Durning, Reilly, and Broadbent all found on the stage, where each of them started, a fount of lead roles. Furthermore, Durning, a veteran of D-Day who continued to maintain a full work schedule in his eighties, also found television to be a steadier source of meaty roles than the movies, just as Thomas Mitchell had five decades before.
Very occasionally, actors have broken through to lead roles and stardom after years of character parts: examples are Walter Matthau (1920–2000), Lee Marvin (1924–1987), Tommy Lee Jones (b. 1946), Morgan Freeman (b. 1937), and Paul Giamatti (b. 1967). Others, such as Claude Rains (1899–1967), Kathy Bates (b. 1948), Mary Steenburgen (b. 1953), John Heard (b. 1946), Alfre Woodard (b. 1952), Ed Harris (b. 1950), and Jon Voight (b. 1938), receded into character roles after taking a run at stardom. Women, in the gender caste system of Hollywood, are more likely than men to fall from lead roles to character parts after age forty, and are much more likely to find work on television than in films.
Character actors, unlike some stars, are usually equally adept at drama and comedy. The same qualities that make these actors effective as menacing heavies or pathetic victims can render them comic as well. For example, Durning, a skilled farceur, started in films playing tough cops and other gruff professionals in The Sting (1973), The Front Page (1974), The Hindenburg (1975), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and others. A former hoofer, Durning was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, the only nomination accorded the musical comedy Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), in which he appeared in a single scene as a prevaricating singing governor in a show-stopping number, "Sidestep." The same year he conveyed ardor, hurt feelings, and embarrassment, all with delicate comic timing, as a would-be suitor to Dustin Hoffman-in-drag in Tootsie . Years later he played broad comedy in two Joel and Ethan Coen pastiches, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) (as another dancing governor), which pay homage to the breakneck comedies of Capra and Preston Sturges (1898–1959) with their large retinues of character actors (often the same ones shared between them). Short, overweight, with a bulbous nose, Durning was probably born to play W. C. Fields in some never-tobe-made biopic, but will have to settle instead for the anti-Fields, Santa Claus, whom Durning has portrayed five times to date in TV films or movies made for the children's video market, such as Elmo Saves Christmas (1996).
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