A second look at second bananas Supporting actors get the thankless roles and play the glamour-challenged characters. They're ignored -- and indispensable.

March 08, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

J.T. Who?

That's the usual comeback when the subject of J.T. Walsh came up.

Walsh, who appeared in more than 60 films, died Feb. 27 of a heart attack at the age of 54. Most recently he played the scheming husband in John Dahl's "Red Rock West," the scary pedophile in "Sling Blade" and the trucker terrorizing Kurt Russell in "Breakdown." His career capitalized on his ability to convey innocence and malignancy simultaneously; he almost never stopped working in 33 years.

And most filmgoers probably have a difficult time conjuring his face.

J.T. Walsh was a supporting actor, the guy who thanklessly keeps the plot moving; keeps the spirit of the production on point; gives hazily written characters the stamp of individuality without stealing thunder from the lead players; inspires those players to a higher level of work. All while suffering the ignominious, yet unavoidable, moniker of "second banana."

Walsh epitomized a classic type on which supporting careers are built: the villain. With his uncanny blend of innocence and malice, anonymity and menace, he embodied the banality of evil, just as Christopher Walken personifies its alien, more psychotic aspects, and James Woods its haunted, wounded side. He was a torch-carrier in the grand tradition of Akim Tamiroff, Richard Widmark and Peter Lorre.

"The thing that's too bad about J.T.'s early death is that he didn't have much of an opportunity yet to show what he could do outside the villain," said Kurt Russell, who worked with Walsh on four films. "He could do anything. I always saw 'Breakdown' as the coup de grace of those kinds of roles for him. I always hoped to do something with him in the future that turned the tables, with him being the lead."

Russell suggested Walsh for "Breakdown," but the film's director, Jonathan Mostow, already had Walsh on his list. "J. T. was sort of the engine that drove the plot," Mostow recalled of Walsh's role as the ringleader of a cadre of villains. "J. T. inhabited the characters that he played. And he defended his character and always made sure his character was making the smartest choices, which also served the film, because the smarter the bad guy, the more difficult it is for the good guy.

"Almost every day, he'd come to me and he'd say, 'I don't think my character would say that, what if he said this instead,' " Mostow continued. "And it was never about, 'This will make me look good.' It was always about what was best for the character in the service of the story."

Russell concurred. "J. T. understood that what was called for was someone who would slip by unnoticed by the audience in the first few scenes and hopefully be invisible, then become this absolute horror show that has to be totally believable."

"Unnoticed." "Invisible." "Totally believable." These words are the stock in trade of the supporting actor who, if he's good, is at once distinctive and unseen. And Walsh's passing invites reflection: Whither the career supporting actor? He hasn't disappeared, of course, but he seems in increasing danger of extinction, reduced to a wispy walk-on or a stereotype, by the stars and special effects that are driving movies. More of a movie's budget is going to pay for astronomical star salaries and special effects; a character who made $50,000 a week five or 10 years ago is now being offered a fraction of that. "In my discussions with actors, they feel a tremendous economic pinch over the last five years, and a lot of them are literally being driven from the business," said Mostow. "A lot of actors are sitting at home because their agents can't match their last quote."

(No doubt the supporting actress has felt the pinch as well. But there's something about the supporting actor -- who can't benefit from the ingenue image and must sacrifice his ego while the guy he's 'supporting' is making $20 million -- that invites a sympathy reserved for the most valiant underdog. Pity the James Caans, the James Coburns, the Bill Paxtons, all of whom have done hard time with Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

Consider the nominees for this year's Academy Award for best supporting actor: two comebacks of waning careers, two stars gracing worthy productions with their presence, and a young actor who could be his generation's Gig Young if his eyes aren't on bigger things. What's missing from the list, at least this year, is the career utility man.

These days, our best character actors can be found on television, in the repertory companies of "N.Y.P.D. Blue" and "Seinfeld" and "E.R.," their talents only rarely used on the big screen.

Jason Alexander, Dennis Franz and Anthony Edwards have good careers, but in another era, they might have become cinematic institutions mentioned in the same breath as Edward Albert, Sydney Greenstreet and Paul Henreid.

The Golden Age

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