Since I started this blog I have been thinking about what actually defines a bit part. Let's look at the types of careers available to the film and TV industries. Of course, this is only my opinion, or rather my suggestion. I am not a film scholar, just a buff.
Extras - Almost every movie requires an army of extras. These are the people you see walking on the street or sitting in restaurants, etc. They don't get lines, except for an occasional, "'s'cuse me" or some other single word that just happens. I have known some extras and they tell me that it is important to be invisible in your part. In fact, I know a man who was an extra in Atlantic City, with Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon. I know exactly what scene he is in, but I can't see him! If you can be recognized, your career may become limited.
Bit Actor/Actress - I think maybe a pit part could include a line or two of dialog and, let's be flexible, maybe more. The point is to add something to the movie. Extras are like set decorations, a bit part adds to the tone or color of the film. An example I mentioned on the TCM Message Boards on this topic is John Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He interacted several times with Bogart and Holt, and he helped define the depth of their desperation.
Supporting Actress/Actor - Now you get bigger parts and a chance to win an Oscar! A supporting part should be consistent through the story, or at least though a portion of the story. There would be much more interaction with the leads. A chance for some real acting! Ocean's Eleven from 1960 was a Frank Sinatra movie. I would consider most of the Rat Pack members as supporting parts. Sammy Davis, Jr., Angie Dickinson and Joey Bishop for example.
Stars and Co-Stars - Watch how the cast is listed in the titles of a film. The first name is always the star of the movie. If his/her name appears before the title of the film, they are a major star. Occasionally you will see two names on the same screen. The one on the left, or the one higher up, is the more important (higher paid) star. You will probably see supporting actors/actresses listed after the title and the stars.
You can win an Oscar or an Emmy for starring or as a supporting actor, but not for a bit part and certainly not as an extra. That doesn't mean those parts are less important, though. Everything that goes into a movie is melted down and becomes the finished product.
I have added a thread about Bit Actors on the Turner Classic Films message boards if you'd like to join in the discussion. Just look for BitPartBlogger in the Film and Filmmakers forum.
And please hit the Comments button below and let me know your definition of Bit Parts. Don't worry, this is my blog and I will continue to discuss almost everything, with just a focus on bit parts!