Bit Players

Katharine Hepburn was terrific in Alice Adams, for which she received an Oscar nomination in 1935. But as we watched the black and white movie on TCM, my husband asked, “Isn’t that the guy who played Sam Wainwright on It’s a Wonderful Life?”

“I don’t think so,”  I said.  “Wonderful Life was at least a dozen years later.”  So I looked him up on the movie site IMDb, and yes, the characters of Katharine H.’s brother and Jimmy S.’s friend were played by the same actor, Frank Albertson.  He was the one always saying “Hee haw!” in the Christmas classic of 1947.

Then we noticed Charlie Grapewin in the part of the town rich guy.  He would soon be Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz.  Fred Stone, veteran stage and silent film actor, played Hepburn’s down-on-his-luck father in Alice Adams.  Stone was the original Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz on Broadway.  In 1902.  He’d started his career in show business with the circus.

There are all kinds of familiar faces in the movies and on TV.  They didn’t get the large salaries or the covers of magazines, but they made the stories what they were.  I think George Kennedy must have been in more movies than any living actor.  Charles Durning played memorable roles, the best of which I think is in The Final Countdown, a time travel flick about the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The beautiful Agnes Moorehead appeared in many, many motion pictures before she was  Samantha Stevens’ mother in Bewitched.

My favorite character actor is Jane Darwell, whose final role was the bird woman in Mary Poppins.  She was one of the older southern ladies in Gone With the Wind and probably best known for playing Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.  There is only kindness in that face.  I could watch her in every movie ever made, if she’d been in them.

These are the people who make stories real.  They seem like family and neighbors, and we are fortunate to have known them.  Do you have a memorable character actor in mind?

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