Saturday, November 24, 2007


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.

Labels: ,


Blogger Vince said...

The Little Woman's addicted to "Lost," and I've watched it with her from time to time...I just remember Terry O'Quinn as Howard Hughes from "The Rocketeer," which also starred perpetual TV ensemble caster Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly when she was still regarded as just a pair of boobs.

11:29 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I never saw "The Rocketeer." But after I started watching "Lost" I started recognizing O'Quinn in a host of films I'd seen many times -- i.e. "Tombstone", "All the Right Moves", etc.

8:39 AM

Blogger Vince said...

It's one of those "whole is less than the sum of its parts" movies, boasting two Oscar winners in Connelly and Alan Arkin, and those character actors you like so much: Campbell, O'Quinn, Paul Sorvino, Timothy Dalton, Jon Polito...
I'm one of those fans of the "Who Is That Guy?" character actors

1:31 AM

Blogger Michael Grant said...

Mr. Bennett is one of the more interesting characters on Heroes. He is someone that keeps us guessing, and who has began to grow on the viewers. Similar situation was Entourage: the agent Ari was never supposed to be the star of the show, but has become a pivotal character. I wonder if the writers can predict these things…

11:40 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

He's definitely a great character. I'm glad to see that they show did not dispense with his dark side.

By the way, I haven't seen this week's episode yet, so if you choose to respond, please don't include any spoilers without a warning. Thanks!

10:39 AM

Blogger Bram Reichbaum said...

Heroes just never held me. I've given it ten minutes about a dozen times now. And I'm into sci-fi. Does. Not. Do it for me.

What are we going to do when 30 Rock gets hit with the writer's strike? I can't wait until it's over so they can make fun of it all self-referential like.

Hey Jonathan, I hate to hit you over the head ... but make with the Schenley. You got me all jazzed up about the Duquesne School District, you've GOTTA have an opinion on this.

11:05 AM

Blogger Michael Grant said...

You do know how much that little piece of property where Schenly is located is worth? If the school is in financial trouble, it makes economic sense to utilize other schools. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was something going on behind the scenes to close that school.

Mike Grant

11:26 AM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...


I haven't had much time to think about it. I'm less concerned with the fate of Schenley than I am the entire high school reform plan. Is there research to support a 6-12 model? I've never heard of such a thing. Sure, some very small school districts have had K-12 buildings. I'm of a mind to think such small districts shouldn't exist.

I might come up with more later.

1:45 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Let me amend my statement somewhat. There are school districts in which the junior and senior high, or middle school and senior high, share a campus. I went to a junior high that was connected by a tunnel to the senior high, and as a seventh-grader I took German classes in the high school.

8:43 AM

Blogger Bram Reichbaum said...

You asked if there's research to support the 6-12 model. My understanding is that there is very little research, and it is exceeding hard to find.

Why? Because we do not do it in this country. The only outfit we've heard of that is pursuing 6-12 education in the United Nations. You'd have to look at results in Lithuania, Madagascar, and Afghanistan, then extrapolate whether or not that would mean anything for U.S. students.

9:39 AM


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home