Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I Collect Character Actors

No one is impressed when you walk into a room where folks are watching a movie and ask, "Oh, is that Angelina Jolie?" I'm not that kind of person. Never have been. When I was maybe 13 or 14 I first warmed to the concept of the character actor in the person of Joe O'Connor, the ruddy-faced, pleasant middle-aged guy who brought all sorts of class to his role as the dad on "Clarissa Explains It All" -- and about a dozen other family sitcoms. I recently read a very long piece in the New York Times magazine about Philip Seymour Hoffman, "greatest character actor of his generation," and although I love me some Scotty J., I really felt as if they were missing the point. Hoffman played the villain in a Mission Impossible sequel. He gets nominated for Oscars on the regular. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a terrific actor, but he doesn't fit my idea of the "character actor" in the very least. He's a movie star. He's a little pudgy and he doesn't fit anyone's idea of a sex symbol, but that's the case with plenty of other (male) movie stars. He's just a popular, eclectic actor who isn't traditionally handsome, which isn't what I think of when I hear "character actor."

What I think of is more guys and girls like O'Connor, Danny Trejo (tattooed, scarred Mexican-American actor who's ubiquitous in prison settings; maybe his most visible role was as the bartender towards the climax of Anchorman), Conor O'Farrell (who's played so many generals and colonels he probably draws a military pension by now), or Lindsay Hollister (Hollywood's current stock really, really obese girl, as seen in "Scrubs," Get Smart, and "My Name Is Earl") who for reasons of their physical appearance and/or vibe can only play one kind of role, but do it so beautifully well that they eke out a career for themselves. Maybe a bittersweet, not highly lucrative career, and one likely to only be noticed or appreciated by a few detail-obsessed nerds like myself, but a living.

Whenever I see a particular actor of whom I've never heard repeatedly making an impression in different roles, I usually make a mental note. If it gets to the point where the next time I see them I've retained their name already, then they're in the collection.

Today's very special character actor is Malcolm Barrett. I saw him for the first time on "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," then noticed him again in a Bud Light "drinkability" commercial, and it was his guest spot in a "Pysch" rerun that finally convinced me I had to look this guy's name up. Barrett's hook -- and this is a little hard to explain delicately -- is that he's an obviously black guy who doesn't play stereotypically black. He's NYU educated, a poet and a theater director, and he absolutely radiates intelligence. I don't know if he could play a thug if he wanted to. On his TV roles that I've seen, casting directors have played towards this rather than against it. On "Always Sunny," this worked perfectly for the concept of the episode ("The Gang Gets Racist") because his character Terrell was constantly playing against the expectations of the bigoted Paddy's crew. On "Psych," the writers rather deftly cast him as a guy being left out of the loop by his criminal buddies, who didn't perceive him as street enough for the drug game. He tried to turn the tables on them using his wits, and totally would have gotten away with it if not for the meddling of Shawn and Gus.

Barrett has the gift of gab, as his selection as a Bud Light pitchman confirms. (I still can't stand the beer but those are some good ads. I don't know her name but the girl in that one ad with the football shirt is foxy.) "Psych," which nearly always saves the good rambling dialogue asides for its heroes, really let him go off. His "Sunny" character even managed to convince Dennis and Mac to turn their place into a gay bar, albeit temporarily.

I'm going to seek out more Malcolm Barrett performances. Looks like he did a "Monk" shortly after his "Psych," so basic cable's got a lot of love for him. You keep an eye out for him too.


  1. I happened to record this on TiVo from the first season of Law & Order, and it's got a great cast that I thought fit in well with what you're saying here.


    PSH, SLJ, "Tommy" from Shawshank AND the replacement Harley Keiner!

  2. Thanks for the love. I hope you've been watchin "Better Off Ted" It's on HULU... and tomorrow at 9 for an hour on ABC... Keep it gangsta... always.