Character actor

Character actor

A character actor is one who predominantly plays unusual or eccentric characters. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a character actor as "an actor who specializes in character parts", defining character part in turn as "an acting role displaying pronounced or unusual characteristics or peculiarities". The earliest example of character actor cited by the OED derives from the 9 November 1883 edition of The Stage, which defined the term as "one who portrays individualities and eccentricities, as opposed to the legitimate actor who [...] endeavours to create the rôle as limned by the author".[1]


Career paths

There are many reasons people might become character actors. Actors may also simply seem better suited to character roles than to leading roles. While any film has a handful of leading roles, it may also require dozens of smaller supporting roles, and there are arguably more opportunities for professional success as a character actor than as a movie star. Although some actors become character actors by choice, others find character work because they are seen as typecast (strongly identified with, or only suitable for certain types of roles), often due to an early success with a particular role or genre. J. T. Walsh and Dennis Hopper made a career of playing villainous characters and Steve Buscemi has made a career of playing scheming deadbeats and offbeat villains. Some actors may become character actors because casting agents believe they lack some of the physical attributes usually associated with movie stars: they may be regarded as too tall, too short, unattractive, overweight, or somehow lacking an ephemeral "star quality".

Some actors may have a perceived over-the-top style or presence that overwhelms or threatens to upstage other actors, which means that directors often choose to limit their screentime, in effect giving more power and value to their performance. An example of strong screen presence is Peter Greene, an actor with a unique look. Some other well known examples include Christopher Lee due to his physical presence and distinctive voice and Malcolm McDowell due to certain idiosyncrasies associated with his style dating back to A Clockwork Orange. Actors may be deemed too old or too young for leading roles. Actors from outside of the U.S. may be famous in their own countries, but find their roles limited in the U.S. for various reasons (see Marcel Dalio, Cantinflas and Jet Li).

Some character actors have distinctive voices or accents which limit their roles. Actors such as James Earl Jones, Tim Curry, Gilbert Gottfried, Selma Diamond and Julie Kavner have been able to turn this to their advantage, often in voice-over work. Sometimes character actors have developed careers because of specific talents that are required in genre films, such as dancing, horsemanship or swimming ability. The stars of movies that fail badly at the box office are often considered part of the reason they failed, and they may have trouble finding work later. Character actors are almost never blamed for these failures, and can continue to find work relatively easily.

In Indian cinema, Aamir Khan and Kamal Hassan are considered to be character actors.

See also

Further reading

  • Quinlan, David (1985). Quinlan's Illustrated Directory of Film Character Actors. Great Britain: The Bath Press. ISBN 0-87000-412-3. 
  • Voisin, Scott (2009). Character Kings: Hollywood's Familiar Faces Discuss the Art & Business of Acting. BearManor Media. ISBN 9-781593-933425. 


  1. ^ OED, 2nd ed., character, n., 19.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • character actor — character actors N COUNT A character actor is an actor who specializes in playing unusual or eccentric people …   English dictionary

  • character actor — n. an actor who specializes in supporting roles with certain pronounced or eccentric characteristics * * * …   Universalium

  • character actor — character .actor n an actor who typically plays unusual characters, rather than the most important characters …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • character actor — character ,actor noun count an actor who plays unusual, strange, or interesting characters instead of being one of the main characters …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • character actor — n. an actor who specializes in supporting roles with certain pronounced or eccentric characteristics …   English World dictionary

  • character actor — noun an actor who specializes in playing supporting roles • Hypernyms: ↑actor, ↑histrion, ↑player, ↑thespian, ↑role player * * * noun, pl ⋯ tors [count] : an actor who is known for playing many different and unusual characters * * * ˈcharacter… …   Useful english dictionary

  • character actor — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms character actor : singular character actor plural character actors theatre an actor who plays unusual, strange, or interesting characters instead of being one of the main characters …   English dictionary

  • character actor — actor who works portraying serious roles …   English contemporary dictionary

  • character actor — noun A supporting actor who specializes in playing more eccentric or unusual roles …   Wiktionary

  • character actor — noun an actor who specializes in playing eccentric or unusual people rather than leading roles …   English new terms dictionary