If not then maybe I should tell you immediately after this, the title Ghostbusters appears on screen.
The actress shown is Alice Drummond, the embodiment of a Star Character Actor. Her film career is littered with roles that might as well be simply termed “Old Lady”. That was her type and she played it well with various nuances. When thinking about this series she was one of the ones I knew I would do when I got started. In addition to her famous turn in Ghostbusters (1984), I know her well for Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) with her classic line “Laces Out.” straddling the line of manic but adorable. No doubt I recognised her at the time in shows I watched like Ed and Boston Legal and you may recall her from Dark Shadows, Ryan’s Hope, The Equalizer, Grace Under Fire, Friends, Law and Order and Spin City.
From her film debut as Woman in Elevator in Where’s Poppa? in 1970 through to the 2011 short film Open House she amassed 43 film appearances. These included roles I remember like the dreadful Funny Farm (1988) and roles I do not remember like Eyewitness (1981), The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), Running on Empty (1988), Awakenings (1990), Nobody’s Fool (1994), I.Q. (1994), To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), In & Out (1997), Pieces of April (2003), House of D (2004), The Honeymooners (2005), Synecdoche, New York (2008), Doubt (2008) but can almost picture. I’m planning to watch Awakenings in the near future and I’ll be interested to see her performance in it as I mostly remember her for her comedic work.
Despite playing variations of old ladies in her film work for over 3 decades, Drummond was capable of great range. In 1970 she was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance as Mrs Lee in The Chinese and Dr Fish. Just one of those enjoyable discoveries with this series where you found out so much more about the performer and their life achievements. She regularly performed off and on Broadway for the rest of her life. Sadly she passed away last November aged 88. Her work lives on. Where do you remember her from and what was one of her performances that proved a favourite with you?
Character actors are actors who get stuck playing a type in several high profile productions. Maybe over time they become famous for doing several of these roles or they become well known and branch out. Al Leong as a stuntman trained in martial arts with a distinct look was destined to play henchmen and whenever Hollywood went through a martial arts craze he was well placed as an Asian performer to get roles. I never knew his name but as a child from the 80s I never failed to recognise the guy with the long flowing goatee and receding hairline. Looking over his credits at IMDB it’s not hard to see why, he was in almost every damn TV show I watched back then. The Greatest American Hero, The A-Team (re-cast in several episodes as different henchman or thugs), Knight Rider, Airwolf, MacGyver and Magnum fucking P.I.
No wonder I recognised him in his more famous film appearances which include Big Trouble in Little China, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Black Rain uncredited, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure as Genghis Khan rolling around on a skateboard, uncredited in The Last Action Hero and uncredited Big Showdown in Little Tokyo.
In 2000 he wrote, directed and performed in the film Daddy Tell Me A Story, a small film which I don’t recall. Unlike say Stephen Tobolowksy though Mr Leong never really got to branch out into different types of roles. Maybe his range as an actor was limited but we may never know since there are few opportunities to see for ourselves. Two come to mind, his reluctant torturer in Lethal Weapon in which he got a few lines and delivered them well. The other is Die Hard where his henchman in tense moment comically scavenges a chocolate bar. The kind of decision a performer will make to give their character some personality and add some extra flavour to the film. Health issues including beating brain cancer and enduring two strokes led to him doing less film work. You can read more about his life here at Dazed where he was interviewed upon the publication of his memoir The Eight Lives of Al “Ka-Bong” Leong in 2014.
Whatever he’s doing, I hope he’s happy, recent photos suggest he’s remained in tip top shape. We should find out soon as the documentary Henchman: The Al Leong Story is in post production. Al Leong left an indelible impression on my childhood with his professionalism, graceful physicality and a love for Crunch chocolate bars.
Character actors, those talented enough to get noticed and remembered playing the same type of character while most cinemagoers recognise them instantly but can’t place the film or name them. More likely to etch out a living without ever having their name above the marque some have become famous for being character actors. J.T. Walsh was one, looking back over his career you’ll often fine one common streak. He was the antagonist, we loved to hate him and like all good actors he probably wanted to or even sought out playing characters we’d like but there was something about him that made him such a good asshole. Sometimes he was sleazy, sometimes he was macho, often he was authoritarian and sometimes he was deceptive. It took chops to pull that off, maybe as time went on he would have been allowed to move into other roles but as it was he died of a heart attack in 1998 aged 54. Jack Nicholson dedicated his third Oscar to him. He left behind an impressive body of work and son John West who himself has done a variety of work in film most prominently as a production assistant.
He made his film debut in 1983 as ‘Man in Bar’ in Eddie Macon’s Run and in 1999 saw the final film he did released after his death called Hidden Agendas.
In between he blocked a variety of stars trying to complete their character’s arcs.
As Sergeant Major Phillip Dickerson he caused the most trouble for Robin William’s Airman Second Class Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam not even secondary to bomb explosions or getting lost in enemy held jungle. Cronauer can get away with mocking Second Lieutenant Hauk but as Dickerson points out “Don’t call me Sir, I work for a livin!” and proves he is somebody not to fuck with making their last scene together even more satisfying.
There is similar satisfaction in Backdraft when Billy Baldwin repeats J.T.’s Alderman Marty Swayzak’s words back to him after he’s been making life difficult throughout the movie.
There were other times he went toe to toe with the heroes, Nick Nolte in Blue Chips, backing up smarmy Tommy Lee Jones against Susan Sarandon’s tough lawyer in The Clientor pushing Kurt Russel to shake with fear and anger if anything has happened to his wife in Breakdown. Even a small part in Sling Blade where he is finally put in his place shows the nature of the arc of Billy Bob Thornton’s lead character. I mean the guy even had it in for Santa being cast as lawyer Ed Collins in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street where Mr Collins is charged with proving the rather ludicrous assertion that there is no Santa Claus.
There were other roles and a desire as the years went on that the long time theatre actor wanted to play different notes. No doubt in the decades since his death he would’ve gotten his chance. In A Few Good Men he is bottled up with guilt and loyalty as Lt. Col. Matthew Markinson and sure as Big Bob in Pleasantville he was the closest to a villain you could get in that story but there was nuance there. Something under the surface waiting to spring forth. He certainly seemed to be enjoying himself in The Grifters, one of his films I’m yet to see.
There are many, what were you favourite performances of his, what made him such a good actor to you?
“Who’s that guy? I’ve seen him before but I don’t know where.” is a refrain used often when recognising character actors. Traditionally although not exclusively they’re interesting and dynamic performers who lack movie star good looks, maybe a charismatic persona (although arguably they do) or just that lucky break in their career. Often they’re regulated to similar types of roles, positions of authority, henchmen, working stiffs, parents in teen comedies, ugly ducklings around the office, oddballs in the ensemble. The list goes on. Yet if they play in enough good movies and get enough breaks they sometimes eclipse these roots to become marque names in their own right or at least get supporting or lead roles in straight to video fare or off Broadway theatre productions.
Such an actor is Stephen Tobolowsky who you may recognise from this photo.
If not maybe this might job your memory.
Or maybe more helpfully this.
That’s right Mr Tobolowsky played Ned in Groundhog Day, the annoying guy that Bill Murray has to meet every morning over and over again. That punch is the beginning of Murray’s character deciding to the test the parameters of his predicament.
Character actors specialise in this, communicating the backstory or type of character quickly with little set up, proving a useful even pivotal foil for the star and then fading away. As the Internet Movie Data Base notes Tobolowsky has often played “annoying business-men types that the heroes or villains loathe to deal with”. So it’s interesting to note he’s played bad guys in action films like Bird on a Wireor Glimmer Man of which there is an interesting story that you can find his quote about on IMDB. Probably his most successful roles and most substantial roles came in the late 1980s early 1990s but he had parts throughout in The Philadelphia Experiment, Spaceballs, Mississippi Burning, Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, Sneakers, Basic Instinct, Single White Female, Memento. Over the past decade he has worked more in television and probably become more well known as a result having re-occurring parts in Deadwood, Glee, CSI: Miami, Heroes, Justified, Californication, The Mindy Project and Silicon Valley to name a few.
IMDB can give you a lot of information on his career so rather than crib from them I will simply discuss some favourites of mine.
Community is a television show about adults going to community college to get ahead in life. One of the characters Abed (Danny Pudi) often makes meta references about the nature of television story telling and riffs on pop culture ensure. The best season is arguably Season 2 and Tobolowsky appears in a classic episode Competitive Wine Tasting. Abed’s plot that episode is taking a class with Professor Peter Sheffield who teaches a class about Who’s the Boss? the TV show. Abed takes it upon himself to disprove the teachings of Professor Sheffield with predictable results. It’s not a showy performance per se but Tobolowsky like all great character actors shows up like he’s always been there, tells the story and disappears at episode’s end. It’s just if he wasn’t that good they wouldn’t have put him in that episode. Characters like that need good actors or the whole show fails.
Finally of all the great Tobolowsky’s performances he’s given us there’s a special place in my heart for Max who is Hal Slocumb’s partner (Harvey Keitel) in Thelma and Louise. They come across as two professionals, familiar with each other but different in temperament. In a scene where they were running up to a doorstep in the rain Keitel playfully pushed Stephen off the path unscripted. The kind of choice an actor will make to establish a history and rapport between characters in a quick throwaway moment. Later Hal and Max are briefing Thelma’s no good husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald)about how to talk to her on the phone to try and get information about her whereabouts. The scene is a masterclass in subtle acting from McDonald, Keitel and Tobolowsky as they slowly show the growing disdain the two detectives have for Darryl and him trying to hold onto some sense of their respect. It ends with the deadpan “Women love that shit.” delivered by Tobolowsky. The choices made by the three actors here set up later scenes well.
Stephen Tobolowsky continues to work, happily married to his wife character actress Ann Hearn since 1988 with two kids, Stephen has some interesting real life tales of when he almost bit the bullet quite literally.
You can most likely hear some of them via his podcast The Tobolowsky Files where he relates personal behind the scenes stories. No matter what role, big or small Tobolowksy brings something unique and special to every one. Do you recognise him and do you have a favourite performance of his that you would like to share?