Actors don’t get into the business thinking they’ll be a character actor, they simply want to act. Time and taste dictates who will emerge from a long career as a leading man and who will simply continue on, giving audiences their best in the roles they land.
There are tons of characters actors working today (and who stole scenes in the past) but for the sake of brevity, we’ll concentrate on just these guys, the most well-known of the little known and often not recognized supporting actors in character roles. It may not be fair and it certainly isn’t easy but we had to look at the list like a casting agent or judge and make some hard choices. Where’s Paula Abdul when you need her?
The Real A-Lister
He’s played the artist, the politician, the minster, and the devil, and all with masterful skill.
The Hunger Games: Mockingly – Parts 1 & 2, Boardwalk Empire, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Only Lovers Left Alive, Robot Chicken, House M.D., Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Quantum of Solace, W.,Casino Royale, Syriana, Broken Flowers, Angels in America, Basquiat
The Change Over Artist
You need a tough guy? A military guy? An Old West no count varmint? A fixer? He’s played them all.
Bosch, Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Good Wife, Argo, The Mentalist, The Town, Gone Baby Gone,Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Promised Land, Sons of Anarchy, Lost, Deadwood
He brings an understated quality to his characters with often hilarious results. His deadpan is so deadpan, you’ll get the joke long after the show has ended. It’s all right there on the face.
Broad City, Alpha House, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Monuments Men, Girls, Family Tree, Moonrise Kingdom, The Good Wife, Howl, Web Therapy, A Mighty Wind, Waiting for Guffman, Seinfeld, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Ghost World
The Actor’s Actor
He puts a compelling twist on characters like no other actor, adding levels to the cop, the street boss, the slave, the pastor, the professor, and the entrepreneur.
Boardwalk Empire, Inherent Vice, The Purge: Anarchy, 12 Years a Slave, Community, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, RoboCop, The Road, The Wire, Gone Baby Gone
Michael K. Williams
He’s been stoic, heartbreaking, hilarious, and chilling. He is that man in gray who is instantly recognizable once the focus shifts.
Olive Kitteridge, Lullaby, God’s Pocket, A.C.O.D., Jack Reacher, Killing Them Softly, The Cabin in the Woods, The Rum Diary, Let Me In, Eat Pray Love, Burn After Reading, Step Brothers, The Visitor, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Six Feet Under, Witches of Eastwick, Silverado
The Seinfeld Doorman
Hot in Cleveland, The Penguins of Madagascar, God Bless America, NCIS, Boston Legal, Burn Notice, Get Smart, Monk, For Your Consideration, Desperate Housewives, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, 8 Simple Rules, Law & Order, A Mighty Wind, My Wife and Kids, Best in Show, 10 Things I Hate About You, Mad About You, Dream On, Seinfeld, Pretty Woman
Everybody Loves This Guy
It’s a long walk from the back of the squad car to the front seat and this actor has played both of those guys. He’s been both the moral compass and the harbinger of impending doom. He’s always electrifying to watch.
Better Call Saul, Major Crimes, Lauren, Breaking Bad, Clear and Present Danger, Training Day, The Closer,White Collar, Los Americans, The Division, Nip/Tuck, My Name is Earl
Raymond Cruz (Minor Spoiler Within)
Not Andre Braugher
From cops to voodoo priests, this actor’s range is as wide as it gets. He’s known more for playing the serious type, but he’s wickedly funny as well.
Bosch, Fringe, The Wire, John Wick, Key and Peele, Intelligence, The Blacklist, American Horror Story,Oldboy, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Lost, White House Down, The Wire, Oz, The West Wing
The Beautiful Menace
He’s not afraid to play the bad guy and, man, does he it play the role to perfection. He can be so many shades of darkness, Christian Grey should take notes. See what we did there? He can also play dramatic roles with heartbreaking subtly.
American Horror Story, The Normal Heart, Dallas Buyers Club, The Good Wife, C.O.G., Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, True Blood, The American Experience, Brothers & Sisters, Michael Clayton, Milk
Trust him, he’s a doctor, agent, lawyer, scientist… this actor can make you believe just about anything.
Jane Got a Gun, The Americans, Blood Ties, Warrior, Super 8, The Walking Dead, White Collar, The Truman Show, Little Children
Not a Chinese Guy
He’s the mouthy war vet running for office on Veep. He’s the hopeful dad on Fresh Off the Boat, and he’s played North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un in The Interview like a Katy Perry-loving baller.
Fresh Off the Boat, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, Newsreaders, The Interview, Neighbors,Sex Tape, Newsreaders, Veep, The Mindy Project, They Came Together, Larry Crowne
This actor has a way of moving you to the core with one sad look. He can also turn that look into a shiver-inducing cringe. He’s been the good guy husband to Marge Gunderson on Fargo and he’s messed with our heads as a clown.
American Horror Story; The Americans; House of Lies; Do No Harm; The Glades; Body of Proof; Crazy, Stupid, Love; Shutter Island; Gran Torino; Big Love; Zodiac
John Carroll Lynch
The Good Ol’ Boy
He’s an actor who’s definitely been dealt the black hat hand but instead of letting it run him out of the business, he’s perfected the bad guy. He’s found new currents in that overfished stream that have made his Merle Dixon on The Walking Dead unforgettable and an upgrade to the tired murderous redneck.
Guardians of the Galaxy, The Walking Dead, Criminal Minds, Chuck, Law & Order, Psych, Burn Notice,Archer, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Slither, Cliffhanger, Jumper, The Bone Collector, Tremors
The Crossover King
He’s been very astute at picking roles, demonstrating that over the course of time, the tides will slowly turn in a dedicated actor’s favor.
Whiplash; Terminator Genisys; Marvel’s Avenger’s Assemble; Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H.; The Legend of Korra; Ultimate Spider-Man; Men, Women & Children; BoJack Horseman; Robot Chicken; Men at Work; Parks and Recreation; The Venture Bros.; The Closer; American Dad!; Party Down; Juno; Oz
The Code Breaker
He’s played the cop, the CIA agent, and the Lorax. Seriously. When he shows up during a zombie apocalypse, brace yourself. The news could be mixed. And he may just gross you out with his gummy, bloody smile.
The Gettysburg Address, Treme, Horns, World War Z, Medium, The Hurt Locker, John Adams, House M.D., The Rock, Contact, The Green Mile
Not Peter Krause
Gang member, outlaw, serial killer, slave master, savior, funny dad… he can easily shift from the good guy to villain in the snap of a finger. In real life, we call that bipolar. On screen, we call it great acting.
Justified, Raising Hope, 12 Years a Slave, Burn Notice, Newsreaders, Killing Them Softly, Winter’s Bone,Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Damages, No Country for Old Men, Deadwood
The Surprise Package
He’s been the regular dude, the extraordinary fellow, the goofball, the spy killer, and the sinister guy… but it all started with long hair, head banging, and surfing.
Tooken, American Horror Story, Alpha House, Hawaii Five-0, The Blacklist, Longmire, The Americans, The Following, Person of Interest, Copper, The Big C, Army Wives, Law & Order, Castle, Lie to Me, Criminal Minds, House M.D., Royal Pains, The Closer, The New Adventures of Old Christine, Desperate Housewives, Monster, Generation Kill, Wayne’s World, Weird Science, Point Break, Oz
I Know That Guy, It’s… That Guy
His is a face that can break into a dazzling smile and somehow no one is too happy about it. When he shows up as the hero, though, you feel really relieved.
House of Cards, Now You See Me, Person of Interest, The Good Wife, Criminals Minds: Suspect Behavior,Generation Kill, The Sopranos
He’s deep CIA, he’s a consultant, he’s a rat and he’s your doctor. His name may be hard to pronounce, but we all learned how to say Mariska Hargitay just fine!
12 Monkeys, Madam Secretary, Suits, True Blood, The Americans, Banshee, Revolution, The Mob Doctor,Heroes, Damages, Argo, Donnie Brasco, John Adams, In Bruges, 24, The Event, The Bourne Legacy
The Scene Stealer
No one really wants to mess with this guy. And the way he plays the good, the bad, and the smugly makes a scene work.
The Good Wife, The Blacklist, RoboCop, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Deadwood, CSI, 24, Rescue Dawn, Swordfish, Fight Club, Donnie Brasco, Deadwood
Brother from Another Planet
He’s messed with Olivia Pope on Scandal, he messed with fate, and he’s messed with the natural order of universe. Doctor, agent, politician, alien… he’s been doing this for a while and it’s fun to watch him do his thing on screens big and small.
Scandal, Eureka, The Good Wife, Brothers & Sisters, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The American Experience, Law & Order, Smallville
Not Powers Boothe
He’s played so many levels of the smarmy conman, he could probably start his own religion about now. He’s played a lot of lawmen and lawless men and knows how to rock a suit while also plotting a murder or digging a hole for a body.
The Following, Hell on Wheels, The Killing, Guardians of the Galaxy, Scandal, NCIS: Los Angeles, The Riches, Payback, Super, Slither, Body Double
Not Lance Reddick
Without him on the imaginary streets, a lot of imaginary criminals would have gone free. He played the lead law enforcement guy with such authority, people thought he actually had powers of arrest. Now he’s playing that authority figure for laughs (and people still think he has powers of arrest).
Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, House M.D., Men of a Certain Age, Salt,Andromeda Strain, The Mist, Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Thief, Homicide: Life on the Street
TPS Reports Emperor
Wherever smarm and smartassery are needed, he’ll be there. Whenever a guy needs a nonsensical talking to, he’ll be there. Whenever someone needs some bad news and you want a guy who will relish giving it, he’ll be there.
Family Guy; Tammy; Veep; Bob’s Burgers; Archer; The Good Wife; Suits; Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated; 30 Rock; Royal Pains; Hart of Dixie; The Penguins of Madagascar; True Blood; Chuck; The Closer; Entourage; Numb3rs; Psych; Pineapple Express; Desperate Housewives; Kim Possible; Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law; Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby; The West Wing; King of the Hill
There Can Be Only One
He’s played some of most low down, no count, Highlander-hunting villains on screen. So why do we want to give him a hug? Must be something about that voice.
The Flash, Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H., Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham, Sleepy Hollow, Ultimate Spider-Man, Robot Chicken DC Comics Special II: Villains in Paradise, Archer, SpongeBob SquarePants, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Starship Troopers, The Shawshank Redemption, Highlander
The Southern Gentleman
He’s turned back room deals on Boardwalk Empire. He’s been the victim of greedy vampires on True Blood. He’s told the God’s honest truth on King of the Hill. He’s handed down sentences, broadcast the news and laid it all on with a slight Southern accent.
Adventure Time, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Big Bang Theory, Selma, Mike Tyson Mysteries, Gravity Falls,Fargo, Justified, DreamWorks Dragons, Boardwalk Empire, The Newsroom, The Lone Ranger, The Cleveland Show, The Good Wife, True Blood, King of the Hill, Finding Nemo, No Country for Old Men,NewsRadio, Office Space