For the next few days I am going to focus on character actors, beginning with what I believe are (or were) the ten most ‘interesting’ faces. The old adage, ‘his face was his fortune’, applies as much to character actors as it does to the stars. If you are a movie fan you will almost certainly have seen most of my choices at some time or another, although remembering their names is a different kettle of fish altogether. Despite enjoying their performances over many years, I still had to look up the names of four of the ten! Anyway, here are the ten people I chose as having faces that were made for the movies.
No 10 Jack Lambert
When I was a boy growing up with westerns and war pictures there were three supporting actors who seemed to be in just about everything; three guys that were always ‘baddies’, although I never bothered to learn their names. Since then I have become familiar with two of them, Leo Gordon and Robert J Wilke, but I had to go searching for Mr Lambert’s name. His face really was his fortune. A slit-eyed, scowling New Yorker, he was a regular menace to Jimmy Stewart and Audie Murphy, even playing a zombie in the Martin & Lewis comedy Scared Stiff (1953). His career spanned 25 years and 115 credits in film and television, a much sought after player.
Robert J Wilke
No 9 Rowan Atkinson
I must say that I have never been a fan of Rowan Atkinson, which puts me in a minority I suppose, for he is genuinely loved throughout much of the world. However, as far as faces go, his has served him very well indeed, particularly in films such as Four Weddings & a Funeral, Bean, and the Blackadder TV series. Great comedians do not necessarily need a funny face to help them along. In my opinion, Mr Atkinson does.
No 8 Mary Wickes
Mary Wickes was a gangly 5’10” (1.78m) comedic actress who livened up a lot of movies over a sixty-year career. Probably her best-remembered role was as the acid-tongued nurse, Miss Preen, (above), to wheel-chair bound Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), but she was memorable in many, many movies. She was a neighbour and lifelong friend of comedienne Lucille Ball and never married. She died in 1995 at the age of 85. Mary had a face that practically screamed ‘wise-cracking spinster’, so she was forever in demand in those types of roles.
No 7 Neville Brand
Brand was particularly active in the fifties and sixties, mostly in westerns and war pictures, but also as a guest on numerous TV shows. With his menacing looks and gravelly voice he was perfect for casting as a heavy. In real life he was a war hero, winning a Silver Star for gallantry fighting the Germans in Europe. On screen he got to kill Elvis Presley in the singer’s first picture, Love Me Tender (1956). Despite his rather murderous features he was the gentlest of men.
No 6 Tobin Bell
He is probably best known for his portrayal of ‘Jigsaw’ in the Saw movie series, although I personally have never seen him in one of them because I only lasted about 20 minutes in film one before turning the disgusting thing off. I do recall seeing him in The Firm, Mississippi Burning and In the Line of Fire, plus many times on TV, and was always impressed by his albino features and usually cold expressionless eyes. A face made to play villains, although he once said that he always expected to play romantic leads.
No 5 Vincent Schiavelli
He has played villains in both Batman and James Bond films, in Batman Returns (1992) and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), but I will always remember him haunting the New York City Subway in the Patrick Swayze film Ghost (1990). The 6’6” (1.98m) American-Italian actor (born in Brooklyn) owed his distinctive looks to Marfan syndrome, although it was lung cancer that claimed him at 57 in 2005.
No 4 Linda Hunt
Linda Hunt is a 4’9” (1.45m) actress who achieved prominence in 1982 by becoming the first performer to win an Academy Award for portraying a member of the opposite sex. In the film The Year of Living Dangerously she played a Chinese-Australian male photographer. Why the casting people chose a woman to play the part mystifies me, unless it was their intention to go after an Oscar. It never dawned on me that Miss Hunt was anything but a female right from the beginning of the movie, so seeing her pretending to be a man distracted me from the plot. Dumb movie anyway.
No 3 Jack Elam
I have always enjoyed watching Jack Elam. So have a lot of cinema-goers. He started out playing bad guys, primarily because his craggy features and bulging eyes made him look sinister, but later in his career he developed a wonderful comedic trait, particularly evident with his performance in the funniest western ever made, James Garner’s Support Your Local Sheriff (1969). He had a sightless left eye, courtesy of a fight at a Boy Scout meeting when he was young. His protagonist threw a pencil at him and permanently damaged it. Its ‘off-centre’ positioning added unique character to his already interesting features.
No 2 Lee Van Cleef
Just about everybody’s favourite western villain, everybody over the age of forty anyway; Lee Van Cleef had the kind of face that did not require dialogue to convince a cinema-goer that this guy was no good. In fact, he was cast in plenty of pictures in his early years where he had no lines to speak at all. His first screen appearance, in fact, the classic (so-called) western High Noon (1952) is a perfect example of this. His rat-like features, especially his squinty-eyes, were enough to make him a regular bit player in westerns and gangster films. All that changed in 1966 when he played ‘the bad’ in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Van Cleef suddenly found himself a star, and rightly so. His 172 credits over almost 40 years testify to his popularity. Unfortunately, he died in 1989 at the age of 64. Incidentally, he always wore contact lenses in his movies because he had one green eye and one blue one.
No 1 Marty Feldman
If Helen of Troy had a face ‘that launched a thousand ships’, then Marty Feldman’s could quite possibly have sunk the lot of them. What an extraordinary looking man! He suffered from Graves’ disease as a child and this, combined with the effects of a badly conducted operation, resulted in his protruding and misaligned eyes. As terrible as this was for a young person, it proved to be much of the reason why he achieved world-wide fame and considerable fortune. His most remembered role would have to be as Igor in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974). He died at 49 in Mexico City in 1982, from a massive heart attack after consuming some contaminated shellfish, on the final day of shooting the woefully un-funny ‘comedy’ Yellowbeard.