It's been a long time since I discussed something truly important -- television. One of the few shows that I watch regularly these days is "Heroes", and one of the joys of this season -- which has been uneven at times -- is Stephen Tobolowsky's portrayal of the enigmatic and silver-tongued Bob, one of the men who runs The Company.
If you don't watch "Heroes", you'd probably recognize Tobolowsky as Ned Ryerson, the obnoxious insurance salesman in "Groundhog Day" who accosts Phil Connors (Bill Murray) on Connors' way to Gobbler's Knob. ("I dated your sister Mary Pat a couple of times until you told me not to anymore.") I've seen Tobolowsky dozens of times in movies and on TV, but rarely has he been given a chance to shine as he has this year on "Heroes."
It seems that one thing great television shows have in common these days is their ability to craft good roles for character actors like Tobolowsky, or for actors whose best days seemed long behind them. Tobolowsky himself had a nice turn on "Deadwood" as the weasely politician Hugo Jarry. "Deadwood" also featured Brad Dourif in arguably his most affecting role since "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", as well as Jeffrey Jones and Powers Boothe among others. "The Sopranos" had Robert Loggia and John Heard, who turned in an exquisitely fine-tuned performance as the corrupt and self-loathing Det. Vin Makazian during the show's first season.
Perhaps one of the best examples is Terry O'Quinn's role as John Locke on "Lost". Locke is the show's most engaging character, and O'Quinn is consistently its best actor. And yet, what did O'Quinn do before "Lost"? He had dozens of minor roles in which he more or less disappeared into the scenery, and a lead role here and there in B-movies. (He had several recurring television roles with which I'm not familar.) But on "Lost", he's all but indispensible.
What is responsible for this trend? It could be mere necessity: In addition to five broadcast networks, several basic cable channels -- plus HBO and Showtime -- now have original series, so producers need to rely on a deeper pool of talent than ever before. A lot of these shows are character-driven, with ensemble casts, so they need actors to fill a range of character types.
I also suspect we are seeing the influence of independent film directors like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, not to mention the Coen brothers and Wes Anderson. Tarantino is famous for reviving the career of John Travolta and bringing out of hibernation actors such as Pam Grier and Robert Forster. Paul Thomas Anderson has given great roles to Philip Baker Hall, Burt Reynolds, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Luis Guzman. Wes Anderson and the Coens have their own stable of quirky performers who make their films consistently entertaining.
Of course, much of the movie industry remains focused on churning out blockbuster films, which require blockbuster names. Just as some of the best screenwriting these days can be found television, so to some of the best and most inventive acting.
UPDATE: Thanks to the folks over at The House Next Door for linking to me.