This book contains the biographies of special kinds of actors (male and female) who have appeared in movies since the early years of the 20th Century. They are known as “supporting actors,” meaning all those that appear in films other than in leading roles. Often, supporting actors are called “character actors,” those that compliment the lead either with comedy, drama, or by other means. Today, there are hundreds of supporting actors of various kinds appearing in films. They are the backbone of any good film, television program, or stage performance.
Many supporting actors will never be well known. They are depended upon to give a strong performance, yet they rarely receive top billing. Often, supporting actors have become known because their performances are continually outstanding. Hollywood producers employ them because they can greatly increase a film’s popularity. Sometimes, this boost moves them into leading roles. Others never seem to advance in stature over the years. Aging is a factor for all performers.
This book includes the histories of over 300 supporting actors from the early days of sound to
the present. Those included have been carefully chosen while realizing that many other supporting actors have not been included. They remain for a future follow-up to this book. The big names of Hollywood are obviously not included because the vast majority of them are in leading roles. Some of them occasionally go from top roles to supporting ones. In reverse, some supporting actors move to leading roles.
The book is divided into five sections of supporting actors. They include:
1. Supporting actors from the early sound films of the 1930s through the war years of the 1940s
and into the 1950s with the emergence of television.
2. Supporting actors from the 1960s into the 1970s with the development of studio driven pictures in the 1980s.
3. Supporting actors from the 1990s with its computer-generated films and high budget productions
into the growth of millennium actors in the 2000s.
4. Comic characters of the movies.
5. Future stars of the 21st century.
Supporting actors from the early sound years of the movies are mostly familiar to older film enthusiasts. The question often seems to be: we have seen the face, so why can’t we identify the name or anything about the career? This book should answer those questions.
In the early to middle 1930s, there was a wealth of supporting actors who came from the silent
film world. Others arrived from vaudeville, burlesque, and the Broadway stage. They looked to films as a steady way of making a living with the possibility of becoming a high paid star. Many succeeded, and a much larger number failed.
Actors’ working conditions in the early sound years were not equitable. Salaries varied, not always fairly. This helped to promote the birth of the Screen Actors Guild, an organization that stabilized the conditions for actors starting in 1933. Four years later, it included supporting actors. Also in 1937, the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor began to be annually awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. At the 9th Academy Awards ceremony in 1937, Walter Brennan from the film Come and Get It (1936) was the first winner of this award. It was given in honor of “an actor who has delivered an outstanding performance in a supporting role while working within the film industry.”
When sound took over Hollywood, many people were skeptical that it would last. They were
wrong. Sound films swept the industry. By 1930, theaters quickly adapted to sound or went out of business. Many supporting actors from the silent era made the switch to the new innovation. A few supporting actors that made it were Edward Everett Horton, Russell Simpson, Rex Ingram, Andy Devine, Victor Moore, Zasu Pitts, and Eric Blore. A few that did not were, Buster Keaton, Roscoe Arbuckle, Francis X. Bushman, and Chester Conklin. Why were so many unsuccessful in making the switch? The problems centered on age, voice, adaptability, appearance, and changing times.
In the 1960s, historical films continued to be made such as Ben-Hur (1959), Cleopatra (1963), and modern time films such as Guns of Navarone (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965). This was an advantage for supporting actors since the casts for these films were more than double. In the middle of the decade due to the beginning of the Cultural Revolution and the abolition of the Hays Code, films often became experimental concerning language and visual expression. This also was an advantage for supporting actors, as more were needed to play new types of roles.
In the 1970s, Hollywood became interested in the younger generation with films such as The Graduate (1967). But some supposedly solid films, like Tora, Tora, Tora (1970), were a flop. This was such a financial problem for 20th Century Fox that Darryl F. Zanuck began selling off his back lots to make up for the loss. Perhaps the most successful film of the era was Love Story (1970).
The 1980s saw the return of the studio-driven pictures of previous days. Nudity in film saw an increased emphasis. Much of the success of these kinds of films was because of Star Wars (1977) and the new cinematic effects. Also, Indiana Jones (1984) was released, which showed violent content. Many supporting actors made their initial appearance in this decade. The widespread introduction of the videocassette recorder opened up new methods for the distribution of films.
The 1990s was the decade of mega-spending and special effects. 3-D and IMAX motion pictures became commonplace. Cinema attendance increased mostly at the multi-screen complexes throughout the country. Many films were made costing over $100 million to produce. This was also the decade of pampered leading actors, who demanded top salaries and never-imagined perks from the studios. Supporting actors were nowhere in the class of the leading actors but also were well paid. However, the growing amount of supporting actors makes it difficult for many to find roles. There are no “B” films or serials anymore. But the growth of television sitcoms featuring supporting actors has been of enormous benefit.
Films in the 21st century have become more digitally oriented. Animation at the new Dreamworks Studios has become even more commonplace. Voiceover animation has continued to become a growing industry. It has provided a new avenue for employment of supporting actors. The output of films released in Hollywood and throughout the world has been greater than any one could have anticipated. Part of this book has been dedicated to comedy characters. Comedy today in the movies is totally unlike it was in the early days. Comedians appear in modern films but do not stand out as stars as much as they once did. The comedians presented in this book include mostly those from the early years of the movies. They are gone but never will be forgotten.
The “Future Stars of the 21st Century” section of this book includes many actors but by no means all of them. It is difficult to predict who will rise and who will not. Enjoy the book!