Let’s face it. Most individuals that want to get into the acting dream of seeing their names in lights. They want to be box office darlings that command seven-figure salaries and whose escapades are regular fodder for TMZ and Page Six. Then there are those people that have their hearts set on being the next Robert De Niro or Meryl Streep.
However, it is rare that anyone ever sets out to create a career as a “working” actor. These talented thespians are the ones that sometimes transition into leading roles but for them, it isn’t about the fame and fortune, it is about crafting believable characters.
These well-rounded performers won’t be hounded by paparazzi or fans. In fact, most of the time, they can live their lives without the constant barrage of strangers accosting them. They are comfortable with disappearing into their parts in a movie or TV series. For them, anonymity isn’t daunting, instead, it’s liberating giving them free rein to exercise their creativity.
Yet, there is something charismatic about those actors that are outside the mainstream. For example, Tony Randall is definitely a huge part of the success of Rock Hudson and Doris Day comedies. His over-the-top bordering on histrionic routines are hilarious and memorable. Yes, he isn’t leading man handsome but he definitely has an appealing persona.
Kathy Bates is another creative who is so versatile, there isn’t any role she can’t play. From her Oscar-winning terrifying turn as the unstable Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990) to submissive housewife Evelyn Couch in Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) her range is incredible. Her characters are real and tangible to movie-going audiences.
So, I have reached into the past to single out the following actors, seasoned veterans who deserve to be recognized for their contributions to cinema. They paved the way for all on-screen “weirdos.” It’s time to celebrate their achievements.
An arresting looking fellow with striking, preternaturally green/blue eyes, Udo Kier is someone who is definitely unforgettable. He made his debut at the tender age of 22 in Michael Sarne’s short film, Road to Saint Tropez (1966) playing a gigolo in this effort which at the time, was labeled an “anti-travelogue.”
His somewhat unique appearance is probably what propelled him into the horror genre. In 1970, he joined the cast of the controversial Michael Armstrong feature, Mark of the Devil (1970). Made during the “video nasty” panic sick bags were actually handed out to theater patrons.
Known for its graphic torture scenes which included tongues being ripped out, nuns being raped and vicious beatings, the effort was deemed “provocative.” Kier plays Count Christian von Meruh, a witch hunter who is apprenticed to Herbert Lom’s Lord Cumberland. When he stumbles upon Cumberland murdering a man who called him impotent, Meruh soon figures out that the trials are a ruse to pillage the village and seduce the women that live there.
It isn’t surprising that the actor collaborated with one of the most distinctive artists of the 1960s and founder of The Factory, Andy Warhol. Kier was part of Warhol’s eclectic ensemble and frequently worked with his leading man, Joe Dallesandro.
Their association began in 1973 with the cult favorite, Flesh for Frankenstein (1973). An allegory to Hitler’s regime in Germany and James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Paul Morrissey’s script tells the story of Baron Frankenstein (Kier) who creates two zombies with the hopes of his “Adam and Eve” propagating their own master race.
The following year, Warhol, Udo and Dallesandro teamed up again in Morrissey’s take on the Dracula legend, Blood for Dracula (1974). This time, Kier’s count is searching for a bride in Italy accompanied by his faithful servant, Mario (Dallesandro).
More bold art house partnerships continued with other directors throughout the decades like Dario Argento (Suspiria, 1977), Werner Herzog (My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, 2009), Lars Von Trier (almost all of Trier’s films beginning with Epidemic, 1987) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (5 features starting with Lola, 1981). Even though he is mostly known for his unconventional roles, he has also done his fair share of television comedies appearing on such shows as Funny or Die Presents (2017), Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010-2013), Chuck (2010) and Tracey Takes On (1996). Udo Kier is the epitome of versatility.
Klaus Kinski, much like Udo Kier is another very distinctive looking actor who made his mark in independent films. If you are a fan of Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood westerns, you will be surprised to see him turn up playing a Mexican gang member named Juan Wild, The Hunchback in For a Few Dollars More (1965).
The veteran performer’s resume is extensive beginning with his very first appearance on film in Morituri (1948) where he played a Dutch prisoner in the WWII epic about the liberation of concentration camp inmates. He really came into his own as an actor in the sixties where he found himself working in “mod” productions like Gerry O’Hara’s The Pleasure Girls (1965), the Christopher Lee horror flick, Psycho-Circus (1966) and even Sir David Lean’s expansive romance, Doctor Zhivago (1965).
In 1969, Kinski, ever the intrepid thespian took on the daunting role of the Marquis de Sade in Jess Franco’s version of the kinky sex legend’s life, Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1969). He would work with the cult director again in 1969 in the revenge thriller, Venus in Furs with former teen idol, James Darren.
During the 70’s and 80’s, Klaus turned to horror playing scribe Edgar Allan Poe in Web of the Spider (1971). It was during this time period that he established himself as one of the best Dracula’s to ever grace the silver screen in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, the Vampyre (1979).
Herzog tapped Kinski for the lead in his 1982 masterpiece, Fitzcarraldo about a passionate opera fanatic who is determined to build an opera house in the middle of the jungle. The movie garnered several prestigious awards including the Best Director and Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Unfortunately, this bright light left our mortal coil in 1991 at the age of 65. His eccentric legacy lives on celluloid for film fans everywhere to enjoy.
Everyone knows Peter Lorre. He is one of the most imitated classic movie stars in the world. His recognizable voice being one of his best gifts to cinema. His illustrious career as one of the most preeminent character actors in the world began with his first appearance onscreen in 1930 in Alexandre Volkoff’s The White Devil. From there, he was cast in Fritz Lang’s legendary crime thriller, M (1931). Lorre took on a rather contentious role for that time period as Hans Beckert, a pedophile serial killer who targets young girls. His performance as the tormented murderer caused quite a sensation in Hollywood. At the time, critics weren’t kind to Lang’s effort labeling it “too long and slow.” Although, Lorre’s work in M kickstarted his career.
Prominent offers were on the way for the thespian and during the 40’s, he found himself in two blockbuster efforts, John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) with box office matinee idol, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet and Michael Curtiz’s timeless love story, Casablanca (1942).
Cutting a memorable figure in The Maltese Falcon as one of the many antagonists, his Joel Cairo is manipulative and intimidating as the partner of Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman. His impeccable character is the polar opposite of Bogart’s working gumshoe, Sam Spade and the perfect foil.
Teaming with Bogie again in Casablanca, Lorre is cast as Guillermo Ugarte, a black marketeer and gambler. Once again, the performer finds himself in morally compromising territory. Ugarte steals letters of transit (passports) from German couriers that he has murdered. Despite Rick Blaine’s (Bogart) disdain for the opportunistic profiteer, he ends up holding on to the passports for him. However, he doesn’t assist Ugarte with an alibi when he is finally caught by German officers for his crimes. This is why we can’t take our eyes off Lorre. Whenever a character straddles that line between ethical and unethical, he/she is compelling to watch because in real life, we are faced with these dilemmas on a daily basis.
A sparkling ball of sarcasm, Ms. Ritter began her career in George Seaton’s version of Miracle on 34th Street (1947). This dramedy about a trial of a department store Santa who is declared insane and an earnest attorney who wants to prove that he is Saint Nick, was filled with household names like Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, John Payne and a very young Natalie Wood. Even though Thelma appears briefly in one scene it is memorable largely in part because of her dry, matter of fact diehard New Yorker delivery.
The actress plays a mother who is searching for the perfect gift for her son in the picture. She manages to turn this dialogue into an unforgettable moment:
“Listen. I want to congratulate you and Macy’s on this wonderful new stunt you’re pulling. Imagine, sending people to other stores. I don’t get it… Imagine a big outfit like Macy’s putting the spirit of Christmas ahead of the commercial. It’s wonderful. Well, I’ll tell you, I never done much shopping here before… but I’ll tell you one thing, from now on, I’m going to be a regular Macy’s customer.”
Segue to 1950 and Ritter holds her own with the inimitable Bette Davis in the powerhouse Joseph L. Mankiewicz production, All About Eve. This tale of a scheming, seemingly naïve ingenue who dethrones an aging Broadway star is one of the best representations of the Golden Age of Tinseltown.
Thelma puts her indelible spin on every piece of dialogue. Her assistant Birdie goes toe to toe with Ms. Davis as Margo Channing in every exchange. The result is simply sublime.
Margo : You bought the new girdles a size smaller, I can feel it.
Birdie : Something maybe grew a size larger.
Margo : When we get home, you’re going to get into one of those girdles and act for two and a half hours.
Birdie : I couldn’t get into the girdle in two and a half hours.
Her turn as Doris Day’s housekeeper, Alma in Michael Gordon’s Pillow Talk (1959) lends just the right amount of sass to this early rom-com about a womanizing songwriter and an independent career woman who fall head over heels in love via a ruse and a party-line. When Thelma’s character proceeds to drink Rock Hudson’s cad, Brad Allen under the table while he is trying to obtain information on her boss both stars are at the top of their game. The result is hilarious.
She starred in the last picture that Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe made, The Misfits (1961), as well as the award-winning John Frankenheimer film, Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) with Burt Lancaster and that same year, she found herself working for John Ford and Henry Hathaway in the western opus, How the West Was Won.
Personally, her filmography should be mandatory viewing for anyone who wants to get into acting. She is the embodiment of a “working” actress who was busy right up until the day she died in 1969.
Ruth Gordon is like Katharine Hepburn’s older cousin. A no-nonsense Yankee (she was born in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1896) who tells it like it is. She had to convince her father to allow her to pursue acting. Thank the universe for small favors. In 1915, she made her debut (uncredited) in the silent film, The Whirl of Life.
She emerged twenty-five years later in John Cromwell’s (actor James Cromwell’s father) 1940 biopic, Abe Lincoln in Illinois opposite Raymond Massey in the titular role. She played the future president’s unstable wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.
Unlike most of the actors we have discussed, Ms. Gordon’s resume is a bit erratic. That is because she married prominent writer, Garson Kanin in 1942. Not only did they have one of Hollywood’s personal best love stories, but the pair also teamed up to write several high-profile scripts (Adam’s Rib, 1949 and Pat and Mike, 1952) for another power couple, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Together, they also penned the award-winning A Double Life (1947) and The Marrying Kind (1952).
In addition to conquering the silver screen, Ruth also wrote plays. The swinging ’60s saw her back on screen in the satirical George Axelrod cult classic, Lord Love a Duck (1966) as the perpetually intoxicated Mrs. Stella Barnard.
Then in 1968, Roman Polanski cast her as Minnie Castevet, the Satanist neighbor of Mia Farrow’s Rosemary Woodhouse in the terrifying Rosemary’s Baby. Based on the Ira Levin novel, Gordon was perfect as the nosy but friendly intrusive Mrs. Castevet who invariably facilitates (with the help of her husband and several other residents in the Woodhouse’s apartment building) the birth of the devil utilizing Rosemary’s ambitious and self-absorbed actor husband, Guy (John Cassavetes).
You couldn’t help but like Ruth’s character. Minnie was adept at masking her true self that when the ghastly plot was revealed, it made the outcome for Farrow’s Rosemary even more horrific. As a result, for her efforts, Gordon received an Academy Award for her portrayal.
It is interesting to note that after spending time doing traditional features in Hollywood, toward the end of her acting career, she transitioned into cult/arthouse cinema with her role in the quirky May-December love story, Harold and Maude (1971). Her adventurous 70-year-old falls head over heels for Bud Cort in Hal Ashby’s production. Once again, Ms. Gordon wowed her peers with her performance garnering her another Oscar nomination.
During this time period, she also managed to become part of Clint Eastwood’s Every Which Way but Loose (1978) franchise starring as Ma in both features (Any Which Way You Can, 1980). She even starred in the beloved 80’s teen classic, My Bodyguard (1980) as Gramma.
After shooting Maxie (1985) with Glenn Close and Mandy Patinkin, Ms. Gordon passed away. Thankfully, she left us with a body of work that serves as a testament to how much we love the “weirdos” of cinema.