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A Tribute to Character Actors

15 September 2002 by Gnoll 2 Comments

By Noel Wood

You know ‘em, you love ‘em, but you just never really caught their names. They’re the comedic character actors, the guys added to comedy movies to bring the funny in secondary scenes. No, these guys aren’t the kind of folks who are going to get starring roles anytime soon in high-profile films, but they’re there where we need them. And here at Movie Criticism for the Retarded we refuse to let these guys get away without a heartfelt, loving tribute. So here’s to the men that have made so many laugh while asking themselves, “who was that guy?”

A lot of people remember Curtis Armstrong for one role, and it’s the kind of character that pins a label on you forever: “Booger”. Yup, every time most people see this guy in a movie, they immediately recognize him and refer to him by that name. And while his role in the REVENGE OF THE NERDS series may have been his most memorable, it’s only a single block in his career. Armstrong cut his teeth playing the best friend of John Cusack in BETTER OFF DEAD and Tom Cruise in RISKY BUSINESS. He’s also known for a memorable stint on “Moonlighting”. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment is that he holds the honor in appearing in every one of the films of Savage Steve Holland. All three of them. Curtis is still active in Hollywood, recently appearing in VAN WILDER, and is often seen in TV guest appearances.


Eddie Deezen is one of the most memorable-looking actors ever to grace the silver screen. Short, scrawny, with exaggerated facial features and huge glasses, Deezen is often cast as the prototypical nerd character in the films he appears in. His first film role was in GREASE, as the school nerd Eugene. Since then, he has appeared playing similar roles in films like MIDNIGHT MADNESS, LASERBLAST, and ZAPPED!. He was given the opportunity to excel as a leading man in films like MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY and MOB BOSS, but those films wound up becoming huge bombs, which left Deezen with little recourse but to fall from the limelight. Deezen has since faded into obscurity, but can still occasionally be heard doing voiceover work in animated films and television shows.


Taylor Negron delivers. At least in his movies. He has nearly made a career of playing delivery guys of various sorts. It all started in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, where he delivered a pizza to stoned surfer dude Louie Spicoli in Mr. Hand’s classroom. He also plays a mailman in BETTER OFF DEAD and HOW I GOT INTO COLLEGE, as well as a delivery guy in JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY. He’s also played small roles in a plethora of other films, including PUNCH LINE, RIVER’S EDGE, and BIO-DOME, among others. He even got the chance to headline as Milo, the main villain from THE LAST BOY SCOUT. Like Curtis Armstrong, he has the acclaim of appearing in all three Savage Steve Holland movies. And Negron still gets plenty of work in both television and movies, and doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. He even gets a shout-out in the commentary for UHF by Weird Al himself (apparently he was originally cast in the film) for his standup routine about “Area Rugs”. If you’ve seen the routine, you’re probably laughing to yourself right now.


Wallace Shawn might be a little less obscure than most of the other people on this list, but considering most people I know only know of him as “The Inconceivable Guy”, I thought I’d include him. More than just a comic player, Shawn is a talented playwright and screenwriter who first made headlines with his film MY DINNER WITH ANDRE. Since then, he has gone on to do a variety of different movies, but is best known for his comedic roles. His most famous role is obviously Vizzini in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, but has made many people smile with his small roles in CANADIAN BACON, CLUELESS, and VEGAS VACATION, just to name a few. His prominent lispy voice has also been lent to several animated productions, most notably as the voice of Rex the dinosaur in the TOY STORY movies. Shawn is still a player in the movie biz, getting steady work in TV and movies.


Vincent Schiavelli is a classically trained actor and cookbook author that has made his mark in many different films, but is most memorable for his very distinctive look. His tall and lanky frame, Larry Fine hairdo, and sleepy eyes have helped him land character roles in many high profile films. Probably best remembered as Mr. Vargas from Amy Heckerling’s FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, but he has also lent his comedic talents in films like BETTER OFF DEAD, NIGHT SHIFT, and THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI. However, Schiavelli is also apt to play dramatic roles, where the majority of his work lies. Director Milos Forman often casts him in his films, and you’ve probably seen him in AMADEUS, VALMONT, THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, and MAN ON THE MOON. His unique look also has landed him work in several horror movies as well. Vincent is still a player in Hollywood these days as well.


Jeremy Piven has as of late become more of a recognizable name in the motion picture industry over the last several years, but for many years he was merely a face in the crowd. Piven was trained at his family’s theater school, which also produced a pair of siblings known as the Cusacks to Hollywood. Jeremy often has appeared alongside John Cusack in films such as SAY ANYTHING, THE GRIFTERS, ONE CRAZY SUMMER, GROSSE POINTE BLANK, and the recent SERENDIPITY. Generally he portrays a comical sidekick, but he has been known to steal a scene here and there (“Give me my firebird keys!”) He’s also had the opportunity to shine in his own short-lived TV series, “Cupid”. Piven’s usually featured in comedic roles, but he’s also gotten a chance to shine in dramatic roles. Recently he’s gotten a chance to be featured in higher-profile features such as THE FAMILY MAN, RUSH HOUR 2, and BLACK HAWK DOWN.


TO show that we’re not completely sexist here, I figured I’d throw in a member of the fairer sex as well. O-Lan Jones is the former spouse of actor Sam Shepard, who got her in the biz in the late 70’s. Since then, she has become one of the most prolific women character actresses in film. As with many of the actors listed here, she’s worked with Savage Steve Holland in HOW I GOT INTO COLLEGE. She’s also appeared in a couple of Tim Burton’s features, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and MARS ATTACKS!. O-Lan was once quoted as saying “Most actresses make money waitressing while trying to find acting work. I’m the only one who makes her career waitressing on screen”. Indeed, she has portrayed the role of a waitress quite often. You might recognize her as a waitress from NATURAL BORN KILLERS, THE TRUMAN SHOW, or in an episode of “Seinfeld”. O-Lan has been inactive for the last few years in Hollywood, but her presence is always welcomed back.


Perhaps the most prolific person on this list, at least considering his famous sibling; Clint Howard is the younger brother of Oscar-winning director Ron Howard. Since his foray in to acting, Clint has appeared in no less than 100 TV shows and movies. He hasn’t strayed far from his sibling, getting his start alongside his brother on “The Andy Griffith Show” and going on to appear in nearly every one of Ron’s films. Clint has a very distinctive look to him, making him easily recognizable in all of his cameos. You’ll probably recognize him from his appearances in THE WATERBOY, LITTLE NICKY, THAT THING YOU DO!, and All three of the AUSTIN POWERS movies. He’s also got a nice handful of B-grade horror films under his belt, including CARNOSAUR, LEPRECHAUN 2, and even his own starring role as ICE CREAM MAN. Clint’s also a gem of an actor for those who play the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, because just about every actor in Hollywood has appeared with him at some point, and Howard has done three movies with Bacon himself (END OF THE LINE, APOLLO 13, and MY DOG SKIP). As long as his brother’s around, you can bet Clint will be as well.


Josh Mostel is the son of blacklisted comic genius Zero Mostel, famed star of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM…and THE PRODUCERS. Josh’s personal life is not very well known, but he has come in to his own as a character actor over the past thirty years. One of his first prolific roles was as Jim “Bluto” Blutarsky, the role first made famous by John Belushi, in the TV series “Delta House,” based upon NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE. While the show was short-lived, it launched him toward a career of playing comedic character roles in THE MONEY PIT, RADIO DAYS, and CITY SLICKERS, among others. He’s also been featured alongside Adam Sandler in BILLY MADISON as pro-wrestler-turned-high-school-principal Max Anderson and BIG DADDY as DFACS representative Arthur Brooks. He’s also shown his chops in dramatic roles as well in films like SOPHIE’S CHOICE and LITTLE MAN TATE. He’s been inactive in the last few years, but his body of work speaks for itself.


One of my personal favorite character actors in the film industry, Paul Giamatti first struck my eye in Howard Stern’s biopic PRIVATE PARTS as Kenny ‘Pig Vomit’ Rushton. Since then, I’ve always referred to him as ‘Pig Vomit’. Giamatti has been featured in several dramatic films, but often serves as comic relief in his scenes. His roles as an FBI agent in DONNIE BRASCO, a control room director in THE TRUMAN SHOW, and high-strung businessman in THE NEGOTIATOR all stand out as great comedic roles in dramatic films. He’s been in films as diverse as SAFE MEN, CRADLE WILL ROCK, and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Giamatti really got a chance to shine when he was chosen to play Bob Zmuda in the Andy Kaufman biography MAN IN THE MOON, and has since gotten a chance to take larger roles, even getting his own high-profile kids’ film BIG FAT LIAR. Giamatti will likely be around for a long while, and could very well become a breakout star in the future.


So next time you’re watching some little comedy movie and some quirky little side character catches your eye, keep in mind the folks mentioned above, and make sure you appreciate that character actors really make the Hollywood machine run smoothly. Without the Clint Howards and Curtis Armstrongs of the world there would be no need for the Jim Carreys and Tom Cruises.


  • Ericia said:

    Hey, my faves on your list is Paul Giamtti too. I first started to notice him in the movie Saving Private Ryan too. Thanks for featuring him and the rest on the list.


  • Rich said:

    It’s Jeff Spicoli not Louie.

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