A Bunch of Characters


Photograph by Larry Hirshowitz

In the space of twenty minutes, a customer at Smart & Final may mistake them for a bag boy, and a Gelson’s bag boy may ask them for an autograph.  They are the actors we recognize, though we can’t necessarily identify them. They are part of our lives. Our criteria for selecting the fifteen actors herein were simple: We wanted to celebrate the working actors of Los Angeles, to shine a spotlight on familiar faces without which no movie or TV show would be complete. What would Groundhog Day be without Stephen Tobolowsky’s drippy insurance salesman, Ned, reminding Bill Murray’s Phil of his miserably frozen existence? Can you imagine Boogie Nights without the coked-up energy of disco owner TT Rodriguez, as played by Luis Guzman? Would the pain of the murdered girl’s parents in Dead Man Walking have been as wrenching if not for Celia Weston’s heartbreaking performance as the girl’s mother? None of the actors here would admit to ever stealing a scene, and we’ll give them that: They’ve stolen entire movies. 

The Heavy’

Best known as: Captain Knauer in The Longest Yard. Would rather be known as: Joe Maloney in Family Plot. A favorite moment: “The scenes and moments in The Longest Yard, where I was cast perfectly, were among my best.”Standard answer to “Where have I seen you before?” “I turn my head to show my profile and say, ‘You must have seen me on the back of the nickel,’ because I have an Indian profile.” Admires: Anthony Hopkins, Robert DeNiro, Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek. Why he acts: “You get to touch people and give them memories.  We tell stories and put out images and people remember them. And then they pay you for having a good time.”

‘The Funny Older Woman’

Best known as: The rapping grandmother in The Wedding Singer. Would rather be known as: Disco Dottie in 54. A favorite moment: “The dying scene in 54, and the charming scene in The Wedding Singer when I sing ‘Till There Was You.’ I love the softness there.” Standard answer to “Where have I seen you before?” “If they’re young, I spend time with them. I’ve been a teacher, so I first say, ‘Do you study?’ and ‘Make sure to go to school!’” Admires: George C. Scott, Jaclyn Smith (“She is the loveliest to work with”). Why he acts: “One great reward that makes me very happy is when people laugh at my roles, because I don’t think of myself as a funny person.”

‘The Evil Genius’

Best known as: David Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China, Hannibal Chew in Blade Runner, Kahn in Chinatown. Would rather be known as:Big Trouble was so much fun, so I’ll choose that.” A favorite moment: “In Black Widow as the detective, I love the first scene with Debra Winger when she first comes to see me.” Standard answer to “Where have I seen you before?” “I say, ‘Just keep looking,’ because I’m everywhere!” Admires: Jack Nicholson (“His freedom in acting is wonderful”). Why he acts: “I am never at rest and am always creating.  There is so much more to be done. The Asian community looks to me as a leader—I have responsibilities and an obligation to lead them.”

‘The bad Guy You Love to Hate’

Best known as: Todd in Terminator 2, the traitorous Secret Service agent in Air Force One. Would rather be known as: George Mason in 24. A favorite moment: “In Sid & Nancy, after we first shot one scene, we realized tht the characters were still in control of the junkie, when in reality, that’s never true. The junkie’s always in control. We improvised and redid the scene.” Standard answer to “Where have I seen you before?” “I like to do something different every time and try and be in the moment.” Admires: Daniel Day-Lewis, Gary Oldman, Peer Sellers, Robert Mitchum, Alec Guinness. Why he acts: “Acting provides an incentive to be awake, to be present, to pay attention, and to take people in.”

‘The Tough Broad With a Heart of Gold’

Best known as: Officer Barbara Semanski in Northern Exposure, Nurse Glass on Popular, Bailiff Rhonda Vasek on l.A. Law. A favorite moment: “In Northern Exposure, where I was insatiable sexually with Maurice and I wouldn’t get off him.  It was a wonderful role reversal.” Standard answer to “Where have I seen you before?” “If it’s a guy, I say, ‘Perhaps I’ve had your children,’ or, ‘I was your cell mate.’ I say ‘Here’s what you might have seen me on’ and name a few things.” Admires: Tom Hanks, Scott Glenn, Delta Burke, Bonnie Bedelia. Why he acts: “It is very freeing to put what’s deep in my gut through someone else’s mouth, and to have my essence be transformed into an entirely different being.”

‘The Coldhearted Son of a Bitch’

Best known as: D.A. Irwin Bernstein on hill Street Blues. A favorite moment: “My role in Tail Gunner Joe. It was a unique and interesting challenge to play a person who was still alive. Everybody except the real Roy Cohn liked the performance.” Standard answer to “Where have I seen you before?”Spaceballs if they’re younger; if they’re in their mid-twenties, I go with Fletch. If they’re older, I try Hill Street Blues.” Admires: Mel Brooks, Steven Boncho. Why he acts: “When it works, you feel a sense that it’s added something to who you are.  I can always try to achieve that, and it’s so satisfying when you get it right. And when you don’t it gives you the incentive to try again.”

‘The Wacko’

Best known as: Charles Embry in Erin Brokovich, Bob the Goon in Batman, Miller in Repo Man. Would rather be known as: Malak in Conan the Destroyer. A favorite moment: “In Repo Man. I’m talking about the lattice of coincidence and how I refuse to drive because you do your best thinking on the bus.” Standard answer to “Where have I seen you before?” “They’re not quite sure whether you’re the pool guy or an actor. I don’t blurt out my resume unless they know I’m an actor.  I’m as polite as possible.” Admires: Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito. Why he acts: “Acting fills you with joy and gratitude because it’s a challenging world.  I’ the son of a truck driver, but I managed to have this career.”

‘The Wailing Mother’
or ‘The Latina Maid’

Best known as: Camilla in Dolly Dearest, Beverly in Chuck and Buck. Would rather be known as: Carmen in Real Women Have Curves. A favorite moment: “In Real Women Have Curves where the mother—me—is sitting on the curb and is pouring her heart out. It seems melodramatic to her daughter, but we shouldn’t be cynical of our parents.” Standard answer to “Where have I seen you before?” “I stop and talk to people, and I’m very appreciative of their gratitude for my work, especially Latinos.” Admires: Kathy Bates, Jane Fonda. Why he acts: “It takes a great deal of control and focused centered thinking to allow yourself to go into those emotional extremes and still survive.”

‘The Really Good Best Friend’

Best known as: Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. Would rather be known as: Kazihiro in Gung Ho. A favorite moment: “The drunk scenes with Michael Keaton in Gung Ho.” Standard answer to “Where have I seen you before?” “I first ask what high school they went to in order to throw them off the scent. If it doesn’t go well, then I say I’m an actor.” Admires: “When I was young and living in Utah, I thought about acting, but being a minority it could have been a struggle.  One person that gave hope was Sidney Poitier.” Why he acts: “Even with Sixteen Candles, people still keep talking so much about the character, and this fascinates me.  I feel like an alien watching how people react to my work.”

‘The Quirky Best Friend’

Best known as: Mercutio in Romeo + Juliet, the narrator in the HBO series Oz, Link in the last two Matrix movies. Would rather be known as: “I’m happy being known for Mercutio and Oz.” A favorite moment: “I guess the scene when Mercutio takes on Tybalt and get wounded.  I like to watch the scene even now.” Standard answer to “Where have I seen you before?” “I say, ‘I don’t know.’ Sometimes people bait you and say, ‘You act, right?’” Admires: Don Cheadle, Jeffrey Wright. Why he acts: “It makes me a more interesting human being, not because of the profile but because of the journey of learning a new person.”

‘The Kick-Ass Bitch’

Best known as: Alice Baxter in Working Girl. Would rather be known as: Dr. Toni Pavone in Felicity. “I wasn’t in the least concerned about how I looked, so I could relax and be myself.” A favorite moment: “I loved the Picket Fences character, who was a whirlwind and brassy.” Standard answer to “Where have I seen you before?” “I’ll start with whatever is popular on TV currently, such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, Felicity, or ER. If none of those works, then I’ll say Working Girl.” Admires: Holland Taylor, “just about anybody on West Wing.” Why he acts: “I love to create a person that really surprises—someone that’s not predictable, someone who makes you go, ‘Oh!’”

‘The Zany Guy’
or ‘The Deranged Child Molester’

Best known as: Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day. Would rather be known as: “Ned is fine. I am glad to be associated with such a great film.” A favorite moment: “In Sneakers, I had very little to do, but I played a scene at a Chinese dinner with Mary McDonnell that made a big impression in the theater.” Standard answer to “Where have I seen you before?”Groundhog Day. When they say no, I say Sneakers. If no again, I say Mississippi Burning, and then Memento, and then Thelma and Louise.” Admires: Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon, Al Pacino, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall. Why he acts: “It’s never done—the work never stops.”

‘The Badass Mother-Jumper’

Best known as: Maurice in Boogie Nights, Ray in Traffic, Jacopo in The Count of Monte Cristo. Would rather be known as: Pachanga in Carlito’s Way. A favorite moment: “Maybe in Out of Sight, where I was apprehended by a federal agent and continued asking questions about a magic trick even while I was being dragged away.” Standard answer to “Where have I seen you before?” “Usually I say, ‘I hit the lotto for $40 million,’ and throw them for a loop. Or maybe I say I danced with you at a club or saw you at the post office.” Admires: Don Cheadle Why he acts: “I can be other people that I can’t be in my own life and can experience things that others go through.”

‘The Nice Russian’

Best known as: Anatoly in Moscow on the Hudson. Would rather be known as: Severinus in The Name of the Rose. A favorite moment: “The scene in Bloomingdale’s in Moscow on the Hudson when my character’s dream was to stay in America but he couldn’t do it, he got afraid.” Standard answer to “Where have I seen you before?” “I say, ‘I get around.’ Or that I live in the neighborhood or come here often.” Admires: Geoffrey Rush (“I’m always surprised by his work”), Al Pacino. Why he acts: “It’s more like a disease. I can’t help it. Even if you mentally want to get away after a while, you go back, you feel helpless.”

‘The Neighbor’
or ‘The Mother’ or ‘The Aunt’

Best known as: The mother in Dead Man Walking, the friend in In The Bedroom. Would rather be known as: “I wish more people had seen Snow Falling on Cedars.” A favorite moment: “In Dead Man Walking, when Susan Sarandon, as Sister Helen, comes to visit the bereaved parents of the girl who was murdered.” Standard answer to “Where have I seen you before?” “People will insist you tell them what you’ve done, and you say one film after another and they say no.” Admires: Max von Sydow (“The consummate actor”). Why he acts: “We don’t get to choose our gifts and I feel obliged to honor them and I’m lucky to make a living by them.”

Related Content