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Character Actors

by Kirk Fox

We take a look back at the talented character actors who brought life to great, scene-stealing characters in film and television. Whether acting in an ensemble or stealing scenes as a guest star, these amazing actors grabbed our attention in every part, proving the old saying that there are no small roles, just small actors. These outstanding character actors proved themselves to be as big as they come.

Brian Tarantina (1959 – 2019)

Brian Tarantina (Getty Images/Wireimage/Steve Granitz)

Brian Tarantina (1959 – 2019) was great in his role as the Gaslight Cafe’s MC Jackie on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

Brian Tarantina’s Obituary


Billy Drago (1945 – 2019)

Billy Drago (Getty Images/WireImage/J. P. Aussenard)

Billy Drago (1945 – 2019) may be best known for playing a gangster in “The Untouchables” but he also had memorable roles playing a villain in “Charmed” and in many other films and TV series.

Billy Drago’s Obituary

Seymour Cassel (1935 – 2019)

Seymour Cassel (1935 – 2019) was a longtime character actor who starred in many films of indie directors John Cassavetes and Wes Anderson including “Rushmore.”

Morgan Woodward (1925 – 2019)

Morgan Woodward (Getty Images/Albert L. Ortega)

Character actor Morgan Woodward (1925 – 2019) played the sunglass wearing field boss in “Cool Hand Luke” and appeared on “Gunsmoke” a record 19 times.

Morgan Woodward’s Obituary

Ricky Jay (1946 – 2018)

Ricky Jay (Getty Images/Los Angeles Times/Ken Hively)

Ricky Jay (1946 – 2018) was a world class magician and a popular character actor. He was a favorite of David Mamet, appearing in most of his movies, he also starred in “Boogie Nights

Ricky Jay’s Obituary

Katherine MacGregor (1925 – 2018)

Katherine MacGregor (Getty Images/NBC)

Katherine MacGregor’s Obituary

James Karen (1923 – 2018)

James Karen (Getty Images/WireImage/Barry King)

Prolific character actor James Karen (1923 – 2018) appeared in hundreds of movies and TV roles. He may be best known for playing a real estate developer in “Poltergeist.”

James Karen’s Obituary

Robert Mandan (1932 – 2018)

Robert Mandan (Getty Images/ABC)

Actor Robert Mandan (1932 – 2018) was best known for his role as the philandering husband Chester Tate on the TV series “Soap.”

Robert Mandan’s Obituary

Joseph Campanella (1924 – 2018) 

Joseph Campanella (Getty Images/ABC)

Handsome character actor Joseph Campanella (1924 – 2018) started acting in the 1950’s and worked regularly until he retired in 2009. He appeared on the soap operas, The Bold and the Beautiful,” “Dallas,” and “The Colbys.” He also had memorable turns on sitcoms like “One Day at a Time,” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Joseph Campanella ‘s Obituary

Miguel Ferrer (1955 – 2017)

Miguel Ferrer (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Over the decades, Miguel Ferrer (1955 – 2017) made his mark on television, most recently as Owen Granger on “NCIS: Los Angeles.” But fans will also remember his turn on “Twin Peaks” as Albert Rosenfield, a character described perfectly by Wikipedia as an “abrasive forensics expert, whose arrogant façade hides a spiritual nature.”

Miguel Ferrer’s Obituary

Abe Vigoda (1921 – 2016) 

Abe Vigoda (Getty Images/ABC)

Abe Vigoda (1921 – 2016) was best known for roles in the sitcom “Barney Miller” and the Oscar-winning movie “The Godfather.”

Abe Vigoda’s Obituary

Pat Harrington Jr. (1929 – 2016) 

Pat Harrington (Getty Images/CBS)

Pat Harrington Jr. (1929 – 2016) is best remembered for his role as building superintendent Dwayne Schneider on the long-running TV sitcom “One Day at a Time.”

Pat Harrington’s Obituary

Richard Libertini (1933 – 2016) 

Richard Libertini (Getty Images/ABC)

Richard Libertini (1933 – 2016) had many memorable roles including a sidekick to Burt Reynolds in “Sharky’s Machine” and Chevy Chase’s doubting boss in “Fletch.”

Richard Libertini’s Obituary

Taylor Negron (1957 – 2015)

Taylor Negron (Photo by Albert L. Ortega/WireImage)

Taylor Negron (1957 – 2015) was known for playing the Pizza Guy in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” among many other roles.

Taylor Negron’s Obituary

 James Shigeta (1933 – 2014)

James Shigeta (Getty Images/ABC)

One of the first prominent Asian-American actors, James Shigeta (1933 – 2014) is known best for his roles in “Flower Drum Song” and “Die Hard.” He also starred opposite Elvis Presley in “Paradise, Hawaiian Style.”

James Shigeta’s Obituary

Eli Wallach (1915 – 2014) 

Eli Wallach (Getty Images/United Artists)

Eli Wallach (1915 – 2014) is a Mexican gunman in search of $200,000 in a scene from the film “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Wallach’s career onstage and on screen spanned 60 years.

More Eli Wallach

Bob Hoskins (1942 – 2014) 

Bob Hoskins (Photo by Buena Vista/Getty Images)

Bob Hoskins (1942 – 2014) was a versatile actor, portraying characters as diverse as Nikita Khruschev and Mario, the famed videogame plumber. Possibly his most lasting film role will be that of hard-nosed detective Eddie Valiant in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

Bob Hoskins’ Obituary

James Rebhorn (1948 – 2014)

James Rebhorn (Photo by Peter Kramer/Getty Images)

James Rebhorn (1948 – 2014) was famous for playing unlikable characters, such as the Secretary of Defense in “Independence Day.” Recently he was winning praise for his work as the father of Claire Danes’ character on the Showtime series “Homeland.”

James Rebhorn’s Obituary

Dennis Farina (1944 – 2013)

Dennis Farina (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)

Dennis Farina (1944 – 2013) brought realism and credibility to his roles as both cop and crook, thanks to his years of experience as a Chicago police officer. He spent two seasons as a New York City police detective on “Law & Order.”

Dennis Farina’s Obituary

Kumar Pallana (1918 – 2013) 

Kumar Pallana (Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage)

Kumar Pallana (1918 – 2013) was a favorite actor for director Wes Anderson, appearing in four of his films, as well as in several independent films during his 18-year career.

Kumar Pallana’s Obituary

Ed Lauter (1938 – 2013)

Ed Lauter (Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)

Actor and standup comic Ed Lauter (1938 – 2013) had a recurring role on “ER” and appeared in the Oscar-winning film “The Artist” in 2011.

Ed Lauter’s Obituary

Jean Stapleton (1923 – 2013) 

Jean Stapleton (AP Photo)

Jean Stapleton (1923 – 2013) was a Broadway staple for years, as well as one of the most famous television stars of the 1970s when she played Edith Bunker on “All in the Family.”

More Jean Stapleton

Kathryn Joosten (1939 – 2012)

Kathryn Joosten (Photo by /Invision for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences/AP Images)

Kathryn Joosten (1939 – 2012) began acting at age 42, after her divorce. She appeared in dozens of shows such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “ER,” “The X-Files” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” Her biggest TV roles were as Karen in “Desperate Housewives” and Delores Landingham on “The West Wing.”

Kathryn Joosten’s Obituary

Robert Prosky (1930 – 2008)

Robert Prosky (Photo by: Herb Ball/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Robert Prosky (1930 – 2008) was a fixture on “Hill Street Blues” and guest-starred on a slew of television shows from the 1970s through the early 2000s. He also originated the role of Shelly Levene in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

Robert Prosky’s Obituary

Roscoe Lee Browne (1925 – 2007) 

Roscoe Lee Browne (Photo by Frank Capri/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Roscoe Lee Browne (1925 – 2007) was a professor in comparative literature as well as a regular on “Soap” and frequent guest-star in such programs as “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son” and “Mannix.”

Roscoe Lee Browne’s Obituary

Yvonne De Carlo (1922 – 2007)

Yvonne De Carlo (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Yvonne De Carlo (1922 – 2007) played Moses’ wife in “The Ten Commandments” as well as the matriarch of “The Munsters” for two seasons.

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Alice Ghostley (1926 – 2007)

Alice Ghostley (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Alice Ghostley (1926 – 2007) won fans as Esmeralda on “Bewitched” and Cousin Alice on “Mayberry R.F.D.” Her performance as Bernice on “Designing Women” earned her an Emmy nomination in 1992.

Alice Ghostley’s Obituary

Tom Poston (1921 – 2007) 

Tom Poston (Photo by Jim Smeal/WireImage)

Tom Poston (1921 – 2007) was a regular on television for more than 50 years, appearing on such shows as “Mork & Mindy,” “The Simpsons” and “That ’70s Show.” He was a recurring guest-star on “The Bob Newhart Show” and co-starred with Newhart again when he played handyman George Utley on “Newhart.”

Tom Poston’s Obituary

 Jack Palance (1919 – 2006)

Jack Palance (AP Photo/John Hayes)

For more than 50 years, Jack Palance (1919 – 2006) was one of Hollywood’s great character actors. Rarely the leading man, he still caught our attention in films like “Sudden Fear” and “City Slickers” with his striking looks and strong talent.

More Jack Palance

Vincent Schiavelli (1948 – 2005)

Vincent Schiavelli (AP Photo/Keystone, Martial Trezzini)

With his unique look and mannerisms, Vincent Schiavelli (1948 – 2005) stole scenes in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Ghost,” “Amadeus” and many other classic films, as well as cult favorites like “Better Off Dead” and “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.”

Vincent Schiavelli’s Obituary

Paul Winfield (1939 – 2004)

Paul Winfield (AP Photo/Tonya Evatt)

Paul Winfield (1939 – 2004) was nominated for an Oscar for his work in “Sounder,” and will always be in the hearts of Star Trek fans for his role in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”

Paul Winfield’s Best Roles

Lynne Thigpen (1948 – 2003) 

Lynne Thigpen (PBS)

Lynne Thigpen (1948 – 2003) appeared in many notable films (“Godspell,” “Tootsie,” “Lean on Me”) and television series (“thirtysomething,” “Law & Order,” “The District”). But we loved her as the Chief on the PBS children’s series “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” and “Where in Time Is Carmen Diego?” based on the popular computer games.

Favorite Children’s Entertainers

Nedra Volz (1908 – 2003)

Nedra Volz (Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

Known as “Baby Nedra” during her vaudeville days, Nedra Volz (1908 – 2003) went on to become famous for playing feisty little old ladies like “Diff’rent Strokes” housekeeper Adelaide Brubaker.

Billie Bird (1908 – 2002) 

Billie Bird (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Billie Bird (1908 – 2002) started her career at age 8 while living in an orphanage. She would find success on television in “Dear John” and in films including “Sixteen Candles,” “Home Alone” and “Ernest Saves Christmas.”

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Jonathan Harris (1914 – 2002)

Bill Mumy (left) and Jonathan Harris (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Jonathan Harris (1914 – 2002), right, was the cowardly Dr. Smith in the television show, “Lost in Space.” He also provided the voice of Manny in “A Bug’s Life.”

Ray Walston (1914 – 2001)

Ray Walston (Photo by CBS/Getty Images)

Ray Walston (1914 – 2001) was a source of wisdom as Judge Henry Bone on “Picket Fences,” as well as in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” as the unflappable Mr. Hand. Before that, he was everyone’s “Favorite Martian” from 1963 to 1966.

More Ray Walston

Esther Rolle (1920 – 1998)

Esther Rolle (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Esther Rolle (1920 – 1998) is best remembered today as Florida Evans, the stern but lovable housekeeper on “Maude,” and later the star of her own spinoff, “Good Times.”

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Moses Gunn (1929 – 1993)

Moses Gunn (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Moses Gunn (1929 – 1993) earned a Tony nomination in 1976 for “The Poison,” and won guest spots on “Good Times,” “Little House on the Prairie” and the original “Kung Fu.” His last role was on “Homicide: Life on the Street” shortly before his death.

Moses Gunn: Five Best Roles

Marty Feldman (1934 – 1982) 

Marty Feldman (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)

Marty Feldman (1934 – 1982) made a name for himself as scene- and brain-stealing Igor in “Young Frankenstein.”

Agnes Moorehead (1900 – 1974)

Agnes Moorehead (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Agnes Moorehead (1900 – 1974) was America’s favorite witchy mother-in-law on “Bewitched.” She also was a four-time Oscar nominee.

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Hattie McDaniel (1895 – 1952)

Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Hattie McDaniel (1895 – 1952) was the first black woman to win an Oscar for acting, following her classic performance as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.”

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