Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Character Kings is not the usual collection of canned soundbites from familiar Hollywood players.  It’s a selection of serious profiles of actors you don’t know… but should.  

A few years ago, when I approached character actor Lance Henriksen about writing his biography, he told me a story about the everyday realities of being a character actor.  One day, he said, a FedEx delivery person came to his door.  When Lance answered, the guy simply stood there dumbstruck.  He obviously recognized Lance’s face.  He even knew Lance’s name (because it was printed on the shipping label).  But he couldn’t place him right away, so he fumbled: “Are you YOU?!”  Lance responded casually, “Yeah.  Are you?

Most of the actors in Character Kings have had this experience time and time again. People generally know them as “that guy”—because these are not the celebrity personas who get movies financed, but rather the hardworking chameleons who bring authenticity to screen stories.  Because they are so adept at bringing so many different characters to life, the actors themselves are often forgotten.  If remembered, they are usually remembered for one particular role – as in the case of Jeffrey Combs (Herbert West in the RE-ANIMATOR films), Tony Todd (the title character in the CANDYMAN series), and Tobin Bell (Jigsaw in the SAW franchise). 

With the exception of these genre stalwarts, the names on the cover of the Character Kings books probably won’t draw you in… but a few photos might. 

Ronny Cox got his start as the hero of DELIVERANCE, but he’s best known to younger viewers as the villain in BEVERLY HILLS COP 2, ROBOCOP and TOTAL RECALL.

William Forsythe is another irrepressible screen villain, appearing in a wide variety of films from DICK TRACY to THE DEVIL'S REJECTS.  I remember him best as the maniacal Richie in OUT FOR JUSTICE (Steven Seagal’s most formidable nemesis), and as Lance Henriksen’s hand-of-the-king in STONE COLD.

William Atherton has made his mark on pop culture in comedic love-to-hate-him roles.  He was the EPA bureaucrat who tangled with Bill Murray in GHOSTBUSTERS and the slimy reporter who tangled with Bonnie Bedelia in DIE HARD 1 and 2.

James Karen played Craig T. Nelson’s boss—the one who “only moved the headstones!”—in POLTERGEIST, as well as the manager of Uneeda Medical Supply in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. 

Keith David needs no introduction for John Carpenter fans.  He was Kurt Russell’s toughest ally in THE THING and Rowdy Roddy Piper’s rasslin’ partner in THEY LIVE.  He also had made an unforgettable appearance in Darren Aronofsky’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM.

I could go on…. About the ancient sorcerer Lo Pan from BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, the hardass principal from THE BREAKFAST CLUB, the corrupt prison warden from THE SHANSHANK REDEMPTION, the mumbling pyromaniac from OFFICE SPACE, or the enigmatic Leland Palmer from TWIN PEAKS… but I should stop now, because I’m selling all of these performers short by identifying them with only one or two characters.  (I’m also giving away my age by referring mostly to movies from the late 80s / early 90s – in spite of the fact that all of these actors have been around for at least three or four decades, and each played dozens if not hundreds of roles.) 

The remarkable thing about Voisin’s books is that they examine these guys not as iconic characters, but as working actors.  These "chaacter kings" are men of a certain age and a certain generation, and they have enough acting experience and enough life experience to make us believe anything and everything they say.   That’s why they are get hired so frequently, and probably also why they are routinely cast as “heavies.” 

At times Voisin’s book often reminded me of Courtney Joyner’s The Westerners: Interviews with Actors, Directors, Writers and Producers, making me wish that more of these guys had been around when Hollywood was still making westerns.   Peter Jason tells a great story about getting hired to work with Howard Hawks on RIO LOBO, and offers some equally amusing anecdotes about working on the hidden westerns of Walter Hill and John Carpenter.   Martin Kove (John Kreese from THE KARATE KID) reveals that his biggest ambition is to make a western... and that's something I’d really like to see.  Even better: I’d like to see someone pull together the entire cast of Voisin’s books and make the greatest western film of all time.  Think THE EXPENDABLES… only good.   

I digress.

I can’t imagine a more practical tutorial for aspiring actors than Character Kings.  The interviewees expound insightfully on the differences between theater and film acting, the differences between film and television acting, the advantages and disadvantages of improvisation (Tobin Bell’s anecdote about Patton is perfect!).  They also offer advice on how to choose good roles, how to live with bad reviews, and (above all) how to make a living in Hollywood.  Again and again, the interviewees remind us that working actors don’t always have much freedom in choosing about their roles… Sometimes they have to take roles for purely financial reasons.  Other times they take less desirable jobs because, well, actors act.  They don't make excuses.  They take opportunities.  In art, as in life, you may not get to choose your role, but you can still it well.  More than that: Once you've been cast, you have an obligation to play your part well.  Filmmaking, after all, is a team sport.

What resonates in so many of these interviews is a genuine appreciation for the collaborative art of filmmaking.  Raymond J. Barry, who plays the incorrigible Arlo Givens on the FX series JUSTIFIED, talks eloquently about the difference between thinking like an actor and thinking like a writer.  (He is both.)  Filmmaker Charles Martin Smith, who in my mind will always be the kid from AMERICAN GRAFFITI who “lost his I.D. in a flood,” insightfully compares the creative process of actors to the creative process of directors.  Dale Dye, an ex-Marine who established a foothold in Hollywood as a military advisor on PLATOON, presents a completely different path for getting into the business, and a unique perspective on moviemaking. 

As a result, Voisin’s books are important not just for actors, but for anyone connected to the entertainment industry.  We are all playing a team sport, and we have to understand each other’s creative processes in order to collaborate effectively and to do our own best work.  Now that I think about it, I suppose that's true of anyone in any creative industry or any art.   These interviews should be inspiring to everyone who takes their creative life seriously.

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