By Larry Teren
Shakespeare wrote, ‘all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players’. This dovetails with something I got out of reading Oscar winning actor George Kennedy’s recent autobiography.
is in his mid 80’s and presumably has hung up the greasepaint. In his book, he reflected on the type of roles he played in the movies. They were primarily, with very few exceptions, co-starring and secondary roles. In his early years he played a villain in classic movies such as Charade (Cary Grant hero), Sons of Katie Elder (John Wayne) and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (Clint Eastwood). There was never a misunderstanding when called by a producer’s casting director. His job was to facilitate the star and make him look good by comparison. This does not mean that he was to provide a subdued performance- on the contrary. Most heroes were tall and stalwart and needed someone of near-to-equal proportions to go against. They didn’t want movie audiences to react in horror if the tall good-guy beat up a much shorter troublemaker. Film-goers expected Grant and Wayne to knock the stuffing out of those who posed a good challenge.
George said that the actors he most admired were those of similar skills and craft. The ones whose name would be listed a few lines down on the credits after the title just like him. When you would see their name listed at the beginning of a movie, you would smile and think to yourself- “good, now I know what type of movie to expect. Even if the plot is a stinker, I know that this guy can liven up a bunch of scenes.”
One name he cited as the perfect supporting player was Strother Martin. You remember him, right? He’s the guy who had the great line in Cool Hand Luke. It was Paul Newman’s picture but everyone remembers two scenes- the one with the young lady teasingly washing a car and the other where Strother Martin, as the sidekick to the chain gang boss, menacingly blurted out to the prisoners, “what we got here is .. failure to communicate.” George pointed out that the script read “a failure to” but that Strother took it upon himself to forget to say the ‘a’ to give it more dramatic emphasis. It worked very well as the line became a catchphrase all over the country for several weeks afterward.
He mentioned other great character actors who livened up what could have been droll scenes. Each of them were not the reason audiences went to watch the film but were grateful they helped turn them into worthy of seeing over and over again on television. Think of Wallace Shawn matching wits with Cary Elwes on who has the poisoned cup in The Princess Bride. There was Martin Balsam sneezing at the end of The Taking of Pelham 123 which results as the final proof the detectives need in solving the case. Or Eli Wallach, sitting in a tub of water, with a hidden gun in the basin in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. He beats the would-be assassin who dawdles to take extra pleasure in his pursuit to the draw, saying to the now dead interloper, “if you are gonna shoot, shoot!”
Actors know very well the adage that a chain fence is only as good as its weakest link. Once they become successful, they have it written into their contracts who the supporting players are. Or they put together their own production company to ensure who is casted. It is not coincidence that John Wayne felt most comfortable in playing in all those John Ford directed movies because he knew there would be Ward Bond, Harry Carey Jr, Ben Johnson and others to help liven up the scenes. No one went to see a Ward Bond movie, but they were happy to see him in any scene. In today’s Hollywood, Jeremy Piven just doesn’t happen to be in ten John Cusack movies by accident.
In the real world, we often rely on our imagined co-stars to help prop up our own episodes in life. There are no scripts- it is all played out as it happens. For some, our lean-to can be a spouse, for others a sibling, still others- a best friend. Imagine trying to do it all alone with no one to bounce your inner most thoughts off of. As the poem says, “no man is an island”. There may not be awards given to life’s supporting players. But you can thank them just the same. Just remember to leave the lights burning for the next guy when you leave the stage.