The Real Reason You Don’t See J.T Walsh or Five Other Legendary Character Actors in Big Movies Anymore
Character actors. They just plain make life, and movies, more interesting. We may not always know their names or their stories, but we invariably recognize their faces and appreciate the way they liven up even the dreariest projects with much-needed injections of energy and personality.
But over time some of the greatest and most beloved character actors have disappeared from the big screen altogether. The Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place investigative unit looked into this puzzling phenomenon and uncovered the surprising reason some of our favorite faces have gone AWOL for years, or even decades.
6. J.T Walsh
Critics hailed master character actor J.T Walsh’s virtuoso turns in movies like The Big Picture, where he played the ultimate pompous studio executive, The Negotiator, Good Morning Vietnam and many more. The movie’s weren’t always great, or even good, as evidenced by Walsh’s turn as muckraking journalist Bob Woodward in the widely and rightly reviled adaptation of the John Belushi tell-all Wired but Walsh was never anything less than rock-solid, no matter how bad the project.
Walsh’s thriving career hit a major roadblock on February 27th, 1998, when, after collapsing at the Optimum Health Institute, he died of a fatal heart attack. The roadblock proved insurmountable and, sadly, Walsh has been off the screen and inside a coffin for the past two decades.
For many years, J.T Walsh was the man to call if you needed an actor skilled at conveying both menace and authority. These days, however, if you were to call Walsh’s agent seeking him for a new project or a new role, the person on the other end of the line would probably consider you insane.
5. John Huston
Film icons don’t get much more larger than life than John Huston. The writer and director’s outsized legacy would be secure even if he’d never even contemplated stepping in front of the camera as an actor after achieving considerable fame and success (not to mention a pair of Academy Awards for Treasure of Sierra Madre) for his work as a writer and director.
Sure enough, success as an actor came quickly to the over-achieving member of one of our most impressive film dynasties. Huston was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his very first major, credited film role, in Otto Preminger’s 1963 drama The Cardinal. But Huston’s signature role is undoubtedly Noah Cross, sinister patriarch of a seriously messed up family in Chinatown.
Huston’s legendary role in Roman Polanski’s classic neo-noir led to countless other roles as evil patriarchs in art, entertainment and straight-up schlock. Huston wasn't always terribly discriminating when it came to acting in movies, as evidenced by credits like The Visitor, The Bermuda Triangle and Candy. On August 28th, 1987, Huston permanently lost the ability to say yes or no to anything when he died at 81 of complications from pneumonia.
True, Huston might return to the big screen if Orson Welles’ long-in-the-works final film The Other Side of the Wind finally gets distributed theatrically but he’ll be entirely too busy being dead to promote the movie.
4. Lionel Stander
Speaking of typecasting, Lionel Stander reigned as Hollywood’ tough guy of choice with his performances in classic movies like The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, Unfaithfully Yours and Once Upon a Time in The West. With his brick spark plug of a body and gravelly voice, Stander wasn’t just a quintessential bruiser: he was toughness personified. He worked regularly in film and onstage and his instantly recognizable voice unsurprisingly paved the way for radio success as well.
If comic book movie had been a big phenomenon in Stander’s time he would have been the perfect choice to bring The Thing to life but Stander certainly wasn't hurting for work until his controversial political beliefs led to him being blackballed repeatedly over a period of decades in different mediums, a situation that caused the politically engaged screen legend to seek work in Europe.
Being blackballed for his Marxist sympathies seriously derailed Stander’s career as an in-demand supporting player, but nowhere near as much as dying of lung cancer at 86 in 1994 did. Stander came back from being blacklisted, but, alas, no one comes back from death, no matter how tough.
3. Jon Polito
You’d have to go back to the good old days of Preston Sturges to find filmmakers who made better use of a crackerjack stable of character actors than the Coen Brothers. The Coen Brothers are good to character actors, consistently writing juicy, meaty roles that allow the likes of John Turturro, Steve Buscemi and John Goodman to do some of their best, most acclaimed work.
Polito wasn’t quite on that tier of heavyweight thespian but he was undeniably an essential component of some of the most beloved cult films of the past three decades, including Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy and The Big Lebowski. Polito also did fine work outside of the Coen Brothers camp.
He was perfectly cast as Danny Devito’s brother in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and scored another memorable TV appearance on Seinfeld.
With his trademark child molester mustache and prototypically New York rasp, Jon Polito was unmistakable. Like far too many performers, however, Polito solid career ran into a brick wall called “death” when the popular character actor died of Cancer on September 1st, 2016. It would not be an exaggeration to say that dying literally killed Polito’s career and made it physically impossible for him to appear in new movies, no matter how choice the role.
2. Eli Wallach
After making an unforgettable screen debut as in Elia Kazan's hilarious dark comedy Baby Doll, Eli Wallach enjoyed a career on film, stage and the small screen of tremendous quantity as well as quality. For a solid half century he was an unmissable presence throughout American pop culture thanks to scene-stealing performances in classics like The Magnificent Seven, How the West Was Won and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
The tenacious, diminutive actor continued to be active deep into his nineties. Studio 60 fans know him as the show-business legend who teaches young people that the Blacklist was bad but that the golden age of television was not just good, but good as gold.
Wallach held off death for a very long time but eventually it caught up with him, as it catches up with all of us, when he died in 2014 of natural causes at 98. If you want Wallach to appear in a film these days you'll need to dig up his grave, then open his coffin, and you're probably not going to like what you find. So there's very good reason Wallach's big screen credits end with 2010's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps: he's dead, and consequently unavailable.
1. James Woods
James Woods won a reputation as one of our gutsiest and most intense thespians with his gritty, acclaimed, method actor performances in movies like Salvador, Casino, The Boost—where he famously drew upon his own experiences as one of the worst cocaine addicts in the history of show-business to play a coke head—The Onion Field, Videodrome and Once Upon a Time in America.
Woods was ubiquitous on screens big and small as both a leading man and a character actor, but that’s changed over the past decade or so. Why? Well, physically, the seventy-one year old outspoken Conservative and Donald Trump super-fan is doing just fine. He’s just too big of a belligerent right-wing asshole for filmmakers and studios to want to work with him again, in any capacity. Can you blame them?
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