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Character Actors

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Everyone has their favorite “stars” but who else here has their favorite character actor? You know, the familiar face playing the neighborhood gossip or the wise-cracking butler. The mustachioed villain or the town floozy. Character actors are the unsung heroes of the cinema. They do all of the work that the big stars do but get none of the notoriety (or at least a tiny fraction of what the Gables and Garlands get) and substantially less pay. They are in the background of the scene and they usually play the same role from film to film. Yet despite all of this we do notice them and remember them fondly. Who can forget the raspy-voiced, Andy Devine riding shotgun for the Stagecoach in John Ford’s quintessential western. Or Gary Cooper’s toothless sidekick, Walter Brennan going on about the “heelots” in Frank Capra’s classic cautionary tale of the corrupting power of the media and what one man can do against the system. And who else makes the perfect celluloid mother than Spring Byington? Possibly Beulah Bondi, for one.
So behind the cut you will find some of my favorite character actors that I have seen time and time again in many of my most favorite films (Coincidence? I think not.) and a short list of their more popular credits. Enjoy.



Edward Arnold

---Typecast as grasping tycoon, a sinister businessman, or crooked politician. Frank Capra's go to villain.
Film Highlights-
You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Meet John Doe (1941)
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
Annie Get Your Gun (1950)




Eric Blore

---The gentleman's gentleman. Usually cast as a servant or butler with a sharp wit, most notably in several of the Astaire/Rogers musicals.
Film Highlights-
Top Hat (1935)
Swing Time (1936)
Shall We Dance (1937)
The Lady Eve (1941)
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
The Sky’s the Limit (1943)




Walter Brennan

---The perfect "old man" sidekick to the most virile of male stars including John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Bogart. Often steals the scene from the star [see Rio Bravo]. Winner of 3 Academy Awards: Come and Get It (1936), Kentucky (1938), The Westerner (1940). Also nominated for Sergeant York (1941).
Film Highlights-
Fury (1936)
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)
Meet John Doe (1941)
Sergeant York (1941)
The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
To Have and Have Not (1944)
My Darling Clementine (1946)
Red River (1948)
Bad Day at Black Rock (1954)
Rio Bravo (1959)





Felix Bressart

---Soft spoken German emigre with the knack of bringing a deep sense of warmth and an old gentle soul to his roles making him a memorable character.
Film Highlights-
Ninotchka (1939)
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
To Be or Not To Be (1942)
Portrait of Jennie (1948)




Charles Coburn

---Usually appeared in comedic films in fatherly figures, such as Barbara Stanwyck's card shark father in The Lady Eve, Jimmy Stewart's rich father in Vivacious Lady, and Benjamin Dingle in The More the Merrier, a roomer of Jean Arthur in crowded wartime Washington D.C. a role that earned him an Academy Award. Two other nominations: The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), The Green Years (1946)
Film Highlights-
Vivacious Lady (1938)
Bachelor Mother (1939)
The Lady Eve (1941)
The More the Merrier (1943)
Gentlemen Prefer Blonds(1953)




Walter Connolly

---A versatile actor originally on Broadway. Capable of screwball comedy (It Happened One Night, 20th Century) as well as high drama (The Good Earth) but always with a bit of comedy to lighten the mood.
Film Highlights-
It Happened One Night (1934)
20th Century (1934)
Libeled Lady (1936)
Nothing Sacred (1937)
Fifth Avenue Girl (1939)




Andy Devine

---Trademark rasp-voice and rotund figure. Appeared in over 400 films. Easily moved between "B" westerns to "A" pictures. Appeared in some of the best classics the western genre had to offer.
Film Highlights-
Destry Rides Again (1932)
A Star is Born (1937)
Stagecoach (1939)
The Red Badge of Courage (1951)
Two Rode Together (1961)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)




William Demarest

---Member of Preston Sturges "stock" troupe of actors. Replaced William Frawley as Uncle Charley on the hit '50s TV show "My Three Sons". Only Academy Award nomination for The Jolson Story.
Film Highlights-
Love on the Run (1936)
Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
The Lady Eve (1941)
Sullivan's Travels (1941)
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)



Edward Everett Horton

---His character were usually "pleasant and dignified, but politely hesitant when faced with a potentially embarrassing situation."
*PIC #3 - the 47 year old Horton with 17 year old Betty Grable dancing in The Gay Divorcee
Film Highlights-
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
The Gay Divorcee (1934)
Top Hat (1935)
Shall We Dance (1937)
Holiday (1938)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)





James Gleason

---Known by his hard exterior and Brooklynese/Irish manner of speech. Usually played army officers or law enforcement. Oscar nominated for Supporting role in Here Comes Mr Jordan.
Film Highlights-
Meet John Doe (1941)
Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)
A Guy Named Joe (1943)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
The Clock (1945)
The Bishop's Wife (1947)




Cecil Kellaway

---Nominated for two Oscars: Luck of the Irish (1949), Guess Who is Coming to Dinner (1967).
Film Highlights-
Wuthering Heights (1939)
Gunga Din (1939)
The Letter (1940)
The Post Man Always Rings Twice (1946)
Portrait of Jennie (1948)
Harvey (1950)
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)




Guy Kibbee

---Specialty: daft and jovial characters. Jolly old uncles. Interesting link about "Guy Kibbee eggs"
Film Highlights-
42nd Street (1933)
Joy of Living (1938)
Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Fort Apache (1948)




Thomas Mitchell

---Appeared in five classic films from that much fabled year 1939- Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Only Angels Have Wings, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Gone with the Wind. Oscar winner for Stagecoach (1939). Also nominated for The Hurricane (1937).
Film Highlights-
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Stagecoach (1939)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Gone with the Wind (1939)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
High Noon (1952)





Alan Mowbray

---Often played a butler during the screwball days of the 1930s with a "pompous blowhard" quality. One of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild.
Film Highlights-
My Man Godfrey (1936)
Topper (1937)
Merrily We Live (1938)




Eugene Pallette

---"The typical Pallette role was the comically exasperated head of the family (as in My Man Godfrey and The Lady Eve), the cynical backroom sharpy (as in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), or the gruff detective. However, Pallette's best known role may be as Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)." Trademark: frog-like voice, pot belly.
Film Highlights-
My Man Godfrey (1936)
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
The Lady Eve (1941)




Franklin Pangborn

---Portrayed "a lot of clerk, floorwalker, and, perhaps most of all, hotel manager roles. These latter were the basis for Pangborn typed as the straight-laced, nervous minor official or service provider or manager of whatever whose smug self-assurance in his orderly world is sorely tested."
Film Highlights-
Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
My Man Godfrey (1936)
Carefree (1938)
Now, Voyager (1942)




S.Z. Sakall

---"Often playing a lovable if somewhat excitable and/or befuddled uncle, businessman or neighborhood eccentric... Because of his befuddled amiability on-screen, his trademark jowls and comical exasperation, he was nicknamed "Cuddles" and was often billed that way."
Film Highlights-
Ball of Fire (1941)
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Casablanca (1942)
Shine on Harvest Moon (1944)
In the Good Old Summertime (1949)




Phil Silvers

---Often the supplier of quick witted one-liners and sarcastic cracks. Later starred in the widely popular TV sitcom, The Phil Silvers Show. Wrote the lyrics for the Frank Sinatra classic "Nancy (with the Smiling Face)" in honor of Sinatra's daughter.
Film Highlights-
Tom Dick and Harry (1941)
A Lady Takes a Chance (1943)
Covergirl (1944)
Summerstock (1950)




Walter Slezak

---usually portrayed the villain or thug, of Austrian decent so many opportunities to portray Nazis, such as in Hitchcock's Lifeboat [pictured above].
Film Highlights-
Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942)
Lifeboat (1944)
The Pirate (1948)



C. Aubrey Smith

---portrayed the stereotypical Englishman of stern determination, a man "who know about honor, tradition, and the correct path."
Film Highlights-
Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Rebecca (1940)
Waterloo Bridge (1940)
Madame Curie (1943)


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Clinton Sundberg

---"his rather meek countenance and light, raspy tenor tones befitted a comfortable niche playing courteous servile types as various desk clerks, waiters and menservants in mostly sentimental tales." played opposite a large list of the greatest musical stars even though he himself was not a singer.
Film Highlights-
Song of the Thin Man (1947)
Good News (1947)
Easter Parade (1948)
Words and Music (1948)
The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
Annie Get Your Gun (1950)





Keenan Wynn

---Urged his father the Vaudevillian, Ed Wynn, into film acting. Appeared together in: The Hucksters (1947), Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and Kiss Me Kate (1953).
Film Highlights-
For Me and My Gal (1942)
Since You Went Away (1944)
Week-End at the Waldorf (1945)
Three Little Words (1950)
Royal Wedding (1951)
Angels in the Outfield (1951)

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Eve Arden

---Known for her quick witted replies, she usually played the "the wise-cracking, fast-talking friend to the lead." Nominated for Supporting Oscar for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945) [pictured above].
Film Highlights-
Stage Door (1937)
Cover Girl (1944)
Mildred Pierce (1945
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)






Beulah Bondi

---"Typecast as mothers and, later, grandmothers, and played James Stewart's mother four times, most famously as "Ma Bailey" in It's a Wonderful Life (1946)." Two Oscar Nominations: The Gorgeous Hussy (1936), Of Human Hearts (1938).
Film Highlights-
Vivacious Lady (1938)
Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Penny Serenade (1941)
One Foot in Heaven (1941)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)




Billie Burke

---During the 1930s frequently played the scatter brained wife in many a screwball comedy, all stemming from her breakout portrayal of Mrs Jordan in Dinner at Eight. Nominated for Oscar: Merrily We Live (1938). Most commonly recognized as Glinda, The Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz
Film Highlights-
Dinner at Eight (1933)
Topper (1937)
Merrily We Live (1938)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
Father of the Bride (1950)




Spring Byington

---"She became the quintessentially wise, concerned and understanding mother/relative in scores of films, often to her detriment. The roles were so kind, polite and conservative that it was hard for her to display any of her obvious scene-stealing abilities. As a result, she was often overlooked in her pictures. Her best parts came as a pixilated parent, snooty socialite, flaky eccentric, inveterate gossip or merry mischief-maker." One Oscar nomination for You Can't Take It With You (1938)
Film Highlights-
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Dodsworth (1936)
Theodora Goes Wild (1936)
Jezebel (1938)
You Can't Take It With You (1938)
Meet John Doe (1941)
In the Good Old Summertime (1949)




Elsa Lancaster

---Many roles as maids or nannies, such as the short cameo in Mary Poppins as the departing "Kattie Nana." Made ten films with her husband Charles Laughton. Two Oscar nominations: Come to the Stable (1949), Witness for the Prosecution (1957).
Film Highlights-
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
The Bishop's Wife (1947)
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Marry Poppins (1964)





Marjorie Main

---Always played the no-nonsense, straight-talking mother or house keeper, the mother hen looking over the little chicks. Portrayed "Ma Kettle" in ten films. Oscar nomination for The Egg and I (1947).
Film Highlights-
Stella Dallas (1937)
The Women (1939)
Another Thin Man (1939)
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
The Harvey Girls (1949)
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On December 26th, 2007 02:29 am (UTC), indy788 commented:
I've always always loved Walter Brennon. He never fails to make me laugh in any movie he's in with that cackle. Also, Kathleen Freeman is a great character actress who isn't on this list.

I also love Hans Conreid who was a character actor in many films and tv shows, but I love him most as Uncle Tanoose in the tv show Make Room for Daddy.
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On December 26th, 2007 03:13 am (UTC), ai88uglybug commented:
Honestly, I haven't heard of most of those you mentioned, but I do absolutely love Eve Arden. Some of my favorites are Thelma Ritter, Jack Carson, Ed Wynn (my earliest exposure to him was in a number of Disney films) and Charles Lane (of "I Love Lucy" fame, and who recently died at 102).
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On December 27th, 2007 05:14 am (UTC), bwayboogiewooge replied:
Ed Wynn, the man who loved to laugh. Father of Keenan Wynn who is included in the above list
Love Thelma Ritter and i also recognize Jack Carson from Love Crazy and Mildred Pierce.
Two examples whose names i couldn't think of, thanks.
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On December 26th, 2007 03:52 am (UTC), negiplease commented:
One of Keenan Wynn's best known roles was as "Bat" Guano ("if that really is your name") in Dr. Strangelove: or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. He delivered the famous line, "All right, mister, but you're gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola company" before shooting the Coke machine.
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On December 26th, 2007 06:51 am (UTC), unique_wonder commented:
Eric Blore is definitely one of my favourite character actors - incredibly funny, particularly in Top Hat. I also like Charles Coburn, he was really good in The More the Merrier.

But my favourite would have to be Edward Everett Horton - he was the first character actor that I actually took notice of. I really liked him in Shall We Dance, Top Hat and Holiday.
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On December 27th, 2007 05:32 am (UTC), bwayboogiewooge replied:
loved The More the Merrier. i just love Jean Arthur so...
i first saw Edward Everett Horton in an episode of "I Love Lucy" but since i started watching classic films he just keeps popping up all over, especially in the Astaire/Rogers musicals. he was great in Holiday.
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On December 26th, 2007 10:44 am (UTC), amy_jeanne commented:
I've always loved character actors more than the stars. My very favourite is Allen Jenkins. I also love Edward Everett Horton, Guy Kibbee, Hugh Herbert, Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, and Karl Dane.
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On December 27th, 2007 05:49 am (UTC), bwayboogiewooge replied:
i just saw Allen Jenkins in Tortilla Flat earlier today. [and didn't even know it]
and Ruth Donnelly is in two of my most favorite films (Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Mr Deeds Goes to Town) and didn't even recognize the name [or the face for that matter]
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On December 26th, 2007 12:08 pm (UTC), nerweniel commented:
I adore Walter Brennan... I loved him in 'To Have and Have Not' ("Was you ever bit by a dead bee?") and 'Meet John Doe". Great post :)!
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On December 27th, 2007 06:02 am (UTC), bwayboogiewooge replied:
Brennan has some great lines in Rio Bravo. seems to me he stole the film.

some Meet John Doe quotes-

The Colonel: I don't read no papers, and I don't listen to radios either. I know the world's been shaved by a drunken barber, and I don't have to read it.

Long John Willoughby: Hey, stop worryin', Colonel, fifty bucks ain't gonna ruin me.
The Colonel: I've seen plenty of fellas start out with fifty bucks and wind up with a *bank* account!
Beany: Hey, what's wrong with a bank account, anyway?
The Colonel: And let me tell you, Long John, when you become a guy with a bank account, they gotcha! Yes sir, they gotcha!
Beany: Who's got him?
The Colonel: The helots!

Beany: What's a hee-lot?
The Colonel: You've ever been broke, sonny?
Beany: Sure, mostly often.
The Colonel: All right. You're walking along, not a nickel in your jeans, your free as the wind, nobody bothers ya. Hundreds of people pass you by in every line of business: shoes, hats, automobiles, radios, everything, and there all nice lovable people and they lets you alone, is that right? Then you get a hold of some dough and what happens, all those nice sweet lovable people become hee-lots, a lotta heels. They begin to creep up on ya, trying to sell ya something: they get long claws and they get a stranglehold on ya, and you squirm and you duck and you holler and you try to push them away but you haven't got the chance. They gots ya. First thing ya know you own things, a car for instance, now your whole life is messed up with a lot more stuff: you get license fees and number plates and gas and oil and taxes and insurance and identification cards and letters and bills and flat tires and dents and traffic tickets and motorcycle cops and tickets and courtrooms and lawyers and fines and... a million and one other things. What happens? You're not the free and happy guy you used to be. You need to have money to pay for all those things, so you go after what the other fellas got. There you are, you're a hee-lot yourself.

The Colonel: $5,000. Holy mackerel! I can see the hee-lots coming now. A whole army of them.
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On December 26th, 2007 03:00 pm (UTC), ephemeraltoast commented:
Cuddles!!! <3
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On December 26th, 2007 03:26 pm (UTC), jawsgirly commented:
I always liked Norma Varden. She was in Casablanca, Random Harvest, National Velvet, Fancy Pants, Strangers On A Train, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Three Coins In The Fountain, The Sound Of Music, and Doctor Dolittle.
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On December 27th, 2007 06:15 am (UTC), bwayboogiewooge replied:
vaguely remember her from an episode of "I Love Lucy" when she looked like this and a little bit from The Sound of Music, but don't remember in any of those films. i guess i just have to keep an eye out for her in the White Cliffs of Dover which is on TCM tomorrow
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On December 26th, 2007 04:29 pm (UTC), stillsparkling commented:
Thank you for this extensive list which contains many of my favorites! The character actors contribute as much to a good movie than the pricipals; both together only make the movies shine. Just look at your average Frank Capra movie, or the John Ford crew. I don't know, would it be selling him short if I suggest the great Lionel Barrymore as another favorite character actor? Donald Meek is another name that comes to mind, and Thelma Ritter, of course. I'm sure there are many more I'm (sadly) forgetting about right now.

Edited at 2007-12-26 04:31 pm (UTC)
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On December 27th, 2007 06:22 am (UTC), bwayboogiewooge replied:
i don't know if i would put Lionel Barrymore in the character actor category. and i thought of Donald Meek just after i posted this. i just saw him [briefly] in Tortilla Flat earlier today
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On December 26th, 2007 07:07 pm (UTC), anardana commented:
I love Charles Coburn and Thelma Ritter.
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On December 27th, 2007 01:19 am (UTC), emaline5678 commented:
Such a great list! I recognized so many of those actors, but didn't know their names. I love character actors. They have the ability to appear in so many films and since we usually don't know their names, they can blend in even better.

Some of my faves are Thelma Ritter, Edward Everett Horton (I LOVE his reactions in "Shall We Dance") and Eve Arden.

And didn't "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" have so many of the great character actors mixed in with the comics?

Do you think it's harder to be a character actor today? Mmmm. That's a good question.
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On December 27th, 2007 06:34 am (UTC), bwayboogiewooge replied:
I recognized so many of those actors, but didn't know their names

exactly why i posted this in the first place.

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World had so many A-list stars and supporting players in it its hard to tell who's who.

And i am not even sure if we even have "character actors" today. someone mentioned Gary Oldman in the other comm that i posted this in and i don't really see Oldman as a character actor. i think with out the studio system the true sense of a character actor is lost in current Hollywood films. there are so many people trying to make it as a "star" today that if they haven't made a name by the time they are in their late 30s they just quit the biz and a character actor is usually an older actor with a history of a certain type of character behind him/her.
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On December 28th, 2007 05:53 am (UTC), emaline5678 commented:
There are some out there I think. It's harder for them to survive as long as the character actors in the classic films though.

I don't really see Oldman as a character actor either. I see folks like James Cromwell or Fiona Shaw as character actors. They're still around, just maybe not as many?
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On December 28th, 2007 06:11 pm (UTC), bwayboogiewooge replied:
yeah now that i have thought about it i guess there are character actors around but it just seems like they aren't as visible or memorable now. no names pop out to me as much as Brennan or Kibbee do. I'm not sure why that is but i couldn't really name as much current character actors as i did with the above list.

although i would put the two you mentioned in the character actor category. i always thing of James Cromwell as Zefram Cochrane from Star Trek: First Contact.
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On December 29th, 2007 04:23 am (UTC), emaline5678 commented:
I think it is true, the names aren't as memorable as in back in the day. I forgot James Cromwell was in Star Trek. Haha. I always remember him as the guy in "Babe". "That will do pig." :D
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On December 29th, 2007 11:19 pm (UTC), bwayboogiewooge replied:
yeah and more recently in I, Robot as well.
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On March 1st, 2013 09:02 pm (UTC), tp3931 commented:
I love Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton in the Astaire and Rodgers movies. Edward Arnold was a great heavy, and Thomas Mitchell appeared in many of my favorite movies in all different genres. Three other character actors that I especially liked were George Sanders (I remeber him for his roles in Hitchcock movies and as the voice of Sher Khan in Disney's The Jungle Book, Frank Morgan (Oz the Great and Powerful and the owner in the Shop Around the Corner), and John Qualen (he spent a lot of time in a roll-up desk in His Girl Friday).
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On March 2nd, 2013 12:55 pm (UTC), tp3931 commented:
Some others that I can't believe I forgot to mention earlier are Charles Ruggles (a distinguished looking guy with a nervous, jumpy delivery that became increasingly more so as he got flustered--he was memorable as Makor Horace Applegate in Bringing Up Baby), Barry Fitzgerald, Peter Lorre (he had a starring role in Fritz Lang's M, but is probably more remembered for supporting Bogart in various films and as the Doctor in Arsenic and Old Lace), Sydney Greenstreet, and Everett Sloane. There was also Claude Rains, a fine actor with many memorable supporting roles, and Sterling Holloway, who, apart from announcing on the phone that John Doe had dunkers in the cafe where he works, is probably best remembered as the voice of Winnie the Pooh.
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On June 29th, 2016 11:53 am (UTC), Gary L. Jackson replied:
Henry Daniell
Please add him to your list - was in so many films in support role, often as a bad guy - always a powerful presence onscreen.
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