A character actor is a supporting actor who plays unusual, interesting, or eccentric characters. The term, often contrasted with that of leading actor, is somewhat abstract and open to interpretation. In a literal sense, all actors can be considered character actors since they all play "characters", but in the usual sense it is an actor who plays a distinctive and important supporting role.
A character actor may play characters who are very different from the actor's off-screen real-life personality, while in another sense a character actor may be one who specializes in minor roles. In either case, character actor roles are more substantial than bit parts or non-speaking extras.
The term is used primarily to describe television and film actors. An early use of the term was in the 1883 edition of The Stage, which defined a character actor as "one who portrays individualities and eccentricities". Actors with a long career history of playing character roles may be difficult for audiences to recognize as being the same actor.
Unlike leading actors, they are generally seen as less glamorous. While a leading actor often has physical beauty needed to play the love interest, a character actor may be short or tall, heavy or thin, balding, older, or simply unconventional-looking and distinctive in some physical way. For example, the face of Chicago character actor William Schutz was disfigured in a car accident when he was five years old, but his appearance despite reconstructive surgery helped him to be memorable and distinctive to theater audiences. Generally, the names of character actors are not featured prominently in movie and television advertising on the marquee, since a character actor's name is not expected to attract film audiences. The roles that character actors play in film or television are often identified by only one name, such as "Officer Fred", while roles of leading actors often have a full name, such as "Captain Jack Sparrow". Some character actors have distinctive voices or accents, or they develop memorable mannerisms. A character actor with a long career may not have a well-known name, yet may be instantly recognizable.
During the course of an acting career, an actor can sometimes shift between leading roles and secondary roles. Some leading actors, as they get older, find that access to leading roles is limited by their increasing age. In the past, actors of color, who were often barred from roles for which they were otherwise suited, found work performing ethnic stereotypes. Sometimes character actors have developed careers based on specific talents needed in genre films, such as dancing, horsemanship, acrobatics, swimming ability, or boxing. Many up-and-coming actors find themselves typecast in character roles due to an early success with a particular part or in a certain genre, such that the actor becomes so strongly identified with a particular type of role that casting directors steer the actor to similar roles. Some character actors play essentially the same character over and over, as with Andy Devine's humorous but resourceful sidekick, while other actors, such as Sir Laurence Olivier, have the capacity of submerging themselves in any role they play. That being said, some character actors can be known as "chameleons", actors who can play roles that vary wildly. One such example of this is Gary Oldman. Some character actors develop a cult following with a particular audience, such as with the fans of Star Trek or The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Character actors tend to play the same type of role throughout their careers, including Harvey Keitel as a "tough and determined guy", Dame Maggie Smith as an "upstanding lady matriarch", Christopher Lloyd as an eccentric, Claude Rains as a "sophisticated, sometimes ambiguously moral man", Abe Vigoda as a "leathery, sunken-eyed" and tired hoodlum on the verge of retirement, Christopher Walken as a "speech maker", Vincent Schiavelli as "the confused guy", Fairuza Balk as a "moody goth girl", Steve Buscemi as "a quirky, smart guy with a mind just outside of reality" and Forest Whitaker as a "calm, composed character with an edge and potential to explode". Ed Lauter usually portrayed a menacing figure because of his "long, angular face" which was easily recognized in public, although audiences rarely knew his name. Character actors can play a variety of types, such as the femme fatale, gunslinger, sidekick, town drunk, villain, whore with a heart of gold, and many others. A character actor's roles are often perceived as being substantially different from their perceived real-life persona, meaning that they do not portray an extension of themselves, but rather a character substantially different from their off-screen persona. Character actors subsume themselves into the characters they portray, such that their off-screen acting persona is practically unrecognizable. According to one view, great character actors are rarely out of work, and often have long careers that span decades. They are also often highly regarded by fellow actors.
- Digital Polyphony, Top 25: Great Character Actors, Retrieved 7 August 2014, "...often in supporting roles - rarely are they leading men or leading ladies, and often times they're put into a certain type of role over and over again..."
- Oxford Dictionaries, character actor, Retrieved 7 August 2014, "...An actor who specializes in playing eccentric or unusual people rather than leading roles...."
- Macmillan Dictionary, Character actor, Retrieved 7 August 2014, "...an actor who plays unusual, strange, or interesting characters instead of being one of the main characters..."
- A Practical Guide to Working in Theatre, Gill Foreman, 2009, A & C Black Publishers, , Retrieved 7 August 2014, (see page 48) "... much less glamorous effect on their audiences ... chameleon-like ability to play a great variety of roles ... subsuming themselves into the part until they are almost unrecognisable... good character actors are rarely out of work".
- 28 April 2013, The New York Acting School, Ten Best Character Actors of All Time, Retrieved 7 August 2014, "..a breed of actor who has the ability to be almost unrecognizable from part to part, and yet play many, many roles convincingly and memorably. .."
- LLOYD GROVE, ELISA LIPSKY-KARASZ, 13 January 2004, New York Daily News, , Retrieved 7 August 2014, ".. definitions for acting are always very tricky. What is a 'character actor'? What is a 'lead'? What is 'supporting'? ... It drives me nuts..."
- David Knox, 4 April 2014, TV Tonight, Good cop, bad cop and Jack Irish, Retrieved 7 August 2014, "... co-leads and cameos ... character actors. But every part plays a character..."
- Adam Pockross, 28 March 2014, Yahoo! Movies, Jon Polito: That Guy From That Thing (Who You Definitely Know), Retrieved 7 August 2014, "..Jon Polito: I think a character actor ... is someone off to the side ... the baddie ... the best friend. A mother role ... stuff that fills in the plot from the center of the movie..."
- Stephen Tobolowsky, Discovery, What does it mean to be defined as a character actor? Archived 11 August 2014 at Archive.today, Retrieved 7 August 2014, "In theater, they almost never use the term "character actor." ... leading actors have two names, like, Captain Jack Sparrow ... Richard Kimble -- parts I play ...Officer Johnson"
- Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., character, n., 19.
- Susan King, May 28, 2010, Los Angeles Times, Hats off to the Wicked Witch of the West and Margaret Hamilton, Retrieved September 2, 2015, "...became one of Hollywood’s most dependable supporting actresses playing, as she once described, "women with a heart of gold and a corset of steel."
- Craig McLean, 21 September 2013, The Observer via The Guardian, James McAvoy: 'There will be people who walk out of the cinema I'm sure', Retrieved 7 August 2014, "Would he rather be a leading man or a character actor?"
- USA Today, Jude Law's new stage: Maturing lead, character actor, Retrieved 7 August 2014, "...one of Hollywood's most prominent rising stars ... the emergence of a great character actor ... beautiful men and women can have the public get past their looks ..."
- 28 May 2009, Trevor Jensen, Chicago Tribune, William Schutz 1961-2009: Veteran character actor on Chicago theater scene, Retrieved 7 August 2014, "..When he was 5, a horrific car crash ... reconstructive surgeries followed, yet could not entirely match the right side of his face with the left..."
- 23 March 2014, Brian Lowry, Variety, Chicago Tribune, James Rebhorn: Remembering the Quintessential Character Actor, Retrieved 7 August 2014, "Rebhorn worked constantly, but seldom above the marquee."
- Staff, July 3, 2013, Indiewire, Oh, That Guy: 15 Character Actor Villains You Love To Hate, Retrieved 7 August 2014, "oversized personalities and penchant for playing villainous goons made them unforgettable (even if you couldn't quite place their names)"
- Matt Schudel, 22 January 2014, The Washington Post, Tom Quinn, boxer and character actor, dies at 79, Retrieved 7 August 2014
- "The best chameleon actors". IMDb. Retrieved 14 April 2018.
- Note: early in her career Maggie Smith played leading roles including her Oscar-winning performance as Jean Brodie in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Oscar-nominated role as Desdemona in Othello
- Associated Press, January 26, 2016, NBC News, Abe Vigoda, Beloved Character Actor, Dead at 94, Retrieved January 26, 2016
- Associated Press, 17 October 2013, USA Today, Character actor Ed Lauter dies, Retrieved 7 August 2014, "...long, angular face and stern bearing made him an instantly recognizable figure.."
- Alvin Klein, 20 October 1985, The New York Times, THEATER; A LEADING CHARACTER ACTOR, Retrieved 7 August 2014, "..consummate professional who evokes admiration and awe in his colleagues..."