In the casting hierarchy of most films leading men and leading ladies are at the top, followed by actors who populate the cast by colorfully but realistically embodying a range of characters. In films and television virtually all actors below the rank of star and above bit players are supporting actors, although not necessarily all are character actors. The term is ambiguous: to many it is an honor to be called a character actor, as it suggests fully developed skills that enable the actor to play almost any part within limits. It also suggests experience and seasoning, often on stage, film, and television, as in the phrase, "veteran character actor." But to others, it seems a slight, a designation of subordinate rank.
Moreover, the terms "character actor" and "supporting actor" are often confused with each other, although there are clear distinctions between them. A supporting actor plays a role subsidiary to the leads in terms of narrative centrality and screen time. Throughout film history many actors being groomed for stardom, or those who just miss out on the star rank, have played supporting parts, including Macdonald Carey (1913–1994) in Shadow of a Doubt (1943); Teresa Wright (1918–2005) in Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Best Years of Our Lives (1946); Gig Young (1913–1978) in Teacher's Pet (1958); Tony Randall (1920–2004) in Pillow Talk (1959); Colin Farrell (b. 1976) in Minority Report (2002); Alec Baldwin (b. 1958) in Pearl Harbor (2001) and The Aviator (2004). These are lead types in supporting roles. Yet within some films there is no question that the actors are character actors—Thelma Ritter (1905–1969) in Pillow Talk , and Patricia Collinge (1892–1974), Henry Travers (1874–1965), Hume Cronyn (1911–2003), and Wallace Ford (1898–1966) in Shadow of a Doubt . The actors are marked by the eccentricity of their appearances and voices and by the fact that compared to those in the first list they have played a wide range of characters in a great many films. The character actor usually possesses ordinary, though distinctive, looks and is marked by the ability to transform into such a variety of characters that the character in each film, not the actor (or the actor's own personality), predominates. This is why audiences often recognize character actors without being able to name them, a "problem" that Tony Randall probably never had. However, the film industry does need star character actors for lead roles in some films, such as Lon Chaney (1883–1930) or Charles Laughton (1899–1962) as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923, 1939), David Strathairn (b. 1949) as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), or Philip Seymour Hoffman (b. 1967) as Truman Capote in Capote (2005). The 2005 Academy Awards ® played out a full role reversal, with George Clooney (b. 1961), a classic leading man type, winning Supporting Actor (for Syriana , 2005), and Philip Seymour Hoffman, a prototypical character actor, generally in supporting roles, winning Best Actor, for Capote .