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, as opposed to those in the theater. 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.
In contrast to leading actors, they are generally seen as less glamorous. While a leading actor often has the physical attractiveness considered necessary to play the love interest, a character actor typically does not. In fact, some character actors are known for their unusual looks. For example, Chicago character actor William Schutz's face was disfigured in a car accident when he was five years old, but his appearance after reconstructive surgery helped him to be 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. Some character actors have been described as instantly recognizable despite their names being little known.
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 age. 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 and theatrical agents steer the actor to similar roles. Some character actors are known as "chameleons", able to play roles that vary wildly, such as Gary Oldman. Some character actors develop a cult following, like the fans of Star Trek or The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Character actors tend to play the same type of role throughout their careers, like Harvey Keitel as tough and determined, Christopher Lloyd as an eccentric, Claude Rains as sophisticated, sometimes morally ambiguous men, Abe Vigoda as an aging criminal, Fairuza Balk as moody goth girls, Doug Jones playing non-human creatures, and Forest Whitaker as composed characters with underlying volatility. 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, hooker with a heart of gold, and many others. A character actor's roles are often substantially different from their real-life persona. Good character actors are rarely out of work, and they often have long careers that span decades. They are often highly regarded by fellow actors.
- "Top 25: Great Character Actors". Digital Polyphony. Archived from the original on May 13, 2015. Retrieved August 7, 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..."
- Foreman, Gill (2009). A Practical Guide to Working in Theatre. London, England: A & C Black. p. 8. ISBN 9780713687675.
... 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. .."
- Grove, Lloyd; Lipsky-Karasz, Elisa (January 13, 2004). "Busting on the 'Cult Buster'". New York Daily News. Archived from the original on December 30, 2013. Retrieved August 7, 2014.
... definitions for acting are always very tricky. What is a 'character actor'? What is a 'lead'? What is 'supporting'? ... It drives me nuts...
- Knox, David (April 4, 2014). "Good cop, bad cop and Jack Irish". TV Tonight. Retrieved August 7, 2014.
... co-leads and cameos ... character actors. But every part plays a character...
- Pockross, Adam (March 28, 2014). "Jon Polito: That Guy From That Thing (Who You Definitely Know)". Yahoo! Movies. Retrieved August 7, 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.
- King, Susan (May 28, 2010). "Hats off to the Wicked Witch of the West and Margaret Hamilton". Los Angeles Times. 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.
- McLean, Craig (September 21, 2013). "James McAvoy: 'There will be people who walk out of the cinema I'm sure". The Guardian. Retrieved August 7, 2014.
- Gardner, Elysa (January 4, 2014). "Jude Law's new stage: Maturing lead, character actor". USA Today. Retrieved August 7, 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 ...
- Jensen, Trevor (May 28, 2009). "William Schutz 1961-2009: Veteran character actor on Chicago theater scene". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved August 7, 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...
- Lowry, Brian (March 23, 2014). "James Rebhorn: Remembering the Quintessential Character Actor". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved August 7, 2014.
Rebhorn worked constantly, but seldom above the marquee.
- "Oh, That Guy: 15 Character Actor Villains You Love To Hate". Indiewire. July 3, 2013. Retrieved August 7, 2014.
...oversized personalities and penchant for playing villainous goons made them unforgettable (even if you couldn't quite place their names)
- Schudel, Matt (January 22, 2014). "Tom Quinn, boxer and character actor, dies at 79". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 7, 2014.
- Butler, Mark (March 5, 2018). "Gary Oldman: the 'jobbing actor' whose Oscar recognition is long overdue". inews.co.uk. Retrieved June 14, 2022.
- "Abe Vigoda, Beloved Character Actor, Dead at 94". NBC News. Associated Press. January 26, 2016. Retrieved January 26, 2016.
- "Character actor Ed Lauter dies". USA Today. Associated Press. October 17, 2013. Retrieved August 7, 2014.
...long, angular face and stern bearing made him an instantly recognizable figure..
- Alvin, Klein (October 20, 1985). "A Leading Character Actor". Theater. The New York Times. Retrieved August 7, 2014.
...consummate professional who evokes admiration and awe in his colleagues...