15 Best Character Actors in Movies

Throughout the history of cinema, character acting has been looking for an exact definition, the term being somewhat abstract and open to interpretation. However, one could argue that anyone who’s not playing the lead characters are actually character actors. Those who may not be present in the majority portion of the film, but still play an important role in carrying the story forward. Some character actors have played the same type of role throughout their careers, with Harvey Keitel and Christopher Walken being prime examples in this regard. Whereas, some like to mix it up. We are thinking Samuel L. Jackson.

Anyway, you get the idea what’s a character actor. Here’s the list of top characters actors in movies. Some of them have also played lead roles, but it is their supporting characters that they are best known by.

15. Steve Buscemi

Buscemi moved to Manhattan early in his life to pursue acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute and debuted with the No Wave Cinema film The way it is. He rose to success when he played Chet, the bellboy in the 1991 Coen Brothers film Barton Fink. In 1992 Buscemi shot to fame with the role of Mr Pink in Quentin Tarantino’s first feature, Reservoir Dogs. Often playing characters that are neurotic and paranoid, Buscemi has worked with eminent directors like Jim Jarmusch, Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Burton.

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14. Sam Rockwell

A recent Academy Award winner, Sam Rockwell has been one of the major character actors of modern times. He is best known for movies like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), Matchstick Men (2003), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005), Moon (2009) where he played lead roles, but his supporting roles in some of the best films of the last two decades are also well-remembered. Rockwell was a part of The Green Mile (). The Assassination of Jesse James(), and Frost/Nixon () among others.

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13. Alan Rickman

Probably one of the few character actors who has become a cultural phenomenon through his portrayal of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter franchise, Rickman’s first film role was that of the villain Hans Gruber in Die Hard. He had had a successful career on the stage as well, being trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Rickman had always played a wide variety of roles, from romantic leads to murderous villains, and his character in Die Hard has been voted the 46th best villain of all time by the AFI.

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12. Michael Madsen

Madsen has been one of the most popular character actors of the 1990s, being part of some of the most important films of that decade. Born to an Emmy-winning writer, producer and poet, Madsen has been a part of films like Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, Donnie Brasco, Die Another Day, Thelma and Louise among others. Besides being an actor, Madsen is also an accomplished poet, his works receiving international acclaim.

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11. William H. Macy

One of the most popular character actors of all time, Macey studied under David Mamet at Goddard College in London. Macey is the winner of two Emmy awards and four SAG Awards, having mostly appeared in independent films. His powerful performance in 1995’s Fargo helped put him on the map but also typecast him into the character of a worried man down on his luck.

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10. Harry Dean Stanton

This prolific character actor has been famous for his drooping, weather-beaten appearance and powerful acting chops which have helped him find a place in more than 100 feature films. Though his first feature, Tomahawk Trail is forgettable, however, he became a popular face after that movie and worked with eminent actors like Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke). He was also a part of  Dillinger (1973), The Godfather: Part II (1974), and Alien (1979). Wim Wenders cast him as the zoned-out father of a young boy who is out looking for his wife in the film Paris, Texas which would go on to win the Palme d’Or and establish him as a major star.

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9. Brian Cox

This Emmy award-winning character actor has been a part of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he gained popularity with his performance in King Lear as the old emperor. Cox has been a part of several movies playing a government official in which another actor has amnesia but later discovers they are secret government assassins: The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) where the amnesia victim is actress Geena Davis, The Bourne Identity(2002) with Matt Damon having the amnesia, and also X-Men 2 (2003) where the victim is played by Hugh Jackman.

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8. James Cromwell

Born in Los Angeles but raised in New York, this son of famous film director John Cromwell started his acting career with theatre, acting in plays ranging from Shakespeare to experimental. He started his television career with 1971’s All in The Family. Cromwell has also been a part of films like Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Star Trek: First Contact (1996) and the surprise classic about a charming pig, Babe (1995). However, Cromwell received extensive adulation as a corrpupt police official in the 1997 crime thriller, L.A. Confidential.

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7. David Carradine

The eldest son of another actor on this list, David Carradine started off his career as a commercial artist and also worked on stage. He found fame on Broadway in “The Deputy” and “The Royal Hunt of the Sun” opposite Christopher Plummer. He received immense popularity for his role in the iconic television series Kung Fu (1972). Carradine received the Best Actor Award from the National Board of Film Review as well as a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory (1976). In the new millennium, he is fondly remembered as Bill, the antagonist of Quentin Tarantino’s 2003-2004 epic saga, Kill Bill.

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6. John Carradine

The father of David Carradine, John was a legendary character actor of Western films, having been inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 2003. He is among the actors who have the highest number of movies to their name. He has been a part of some of the most remembered films like The Grapes of Wrath, Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

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5. Karl Malden

Malden started off his acting career on the stage with acting in plays directed by Elia Kazan. He won the Oscar for the Best Supporting Actor in the film A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). His misshapen nose, strong, commanding voice and expansive manner was the key to him being a part of numerous films during his career, Malden was also the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) from 1989 to 1992 and a member of the jury at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1963.

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4. Richard Farnsworth

After being a stuntman for more than 30 years, Farnsworth shifted to acting and became an acclaimed character actor. When he won an Academy Award nomination for his role in Comes a Horseman (1978), it came as a surprise to many in the industry that this “newcomer” had been around since the 1930s. This performance was followed by several other fine achievements in movies like  The Grey Fox(1982) and The Natural (1984). In 1999 he came out of semi-retirement for a tour-de-force portrayal in The Straight Story (1999).

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3. Bruce Dern

Bruce Dern is another legendary character actor who is mainly known for playing villainous characters of unstable nature. He has worked with some of the most iconic directord\s of all time ranging from Hitchcock to Sam Peckinpah and Quentin Tarantino. Dern is also a celebrated stage actor, having been coached by Elia Kazan himself. In the ’60s, Dern went on to work with director Roger Corman and appeared in several of his classic and decade-defining films including “Wild Angels.”

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2. Christopher Walken

Walken, a lead as well as a supporting character actor created an image for himself with his unusual voice, sand-coloured hair and a nervous disposition. He won the Oscar for his role in the classic Deer Hunter (1978), and often portrays psychologically unstable individuals, though that generalization would not do justice to Walken’s depth and breadth of performances. He has been a part of many great films in his career, playing supporting roles in films like Catch Me If You Can (2002), as the Bond Villian Zorin in 1985’s A View To A Kill and as Captain Koons in Pulp Fictoin (1994).

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1. Samuel L. Jackson

The highest-grossing character actor of all time, Sam Jackson is an acting powerhouse and his range is limitless. From nonsense action films like Snakes On a Plane to high-budget Marvel movies to Palme d’Or winners, his versatility is quite unmatched in the movie industry. Born in Washington, Jackson joined the theatre group called the Negro Ensemble Company and later shot to fame with movies like Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989). His most iconic role is definitely in Pulp Fiction, where he plays the hitman Jules Winfield.

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