The experience of writing about bit actors, or actors, or movies in general, brings some questions to mind. Who is your favorite bit part actor or actress? You might as well ask a car nut what is your favorite car, or a movie buff what is your favorite movie. Too many choices are blowin' in the wind.
I suppose it depends a lot on the mood you are in. Sometimes I just want to see a great western. It may be easy to pick a great western bit part actor, like Yakima Canutt, but wait...what about the era? Let's say you are in the mood for Dances with Wolves. Yakima was gone by then, but you may like Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse, who played Smiles A Lot in that movie. A young Native American, just starting out in acting. I thought his part in Dances added a lot to our sympathy for the natives who were ultimately going to be forced out of their homeland. It could be a good subject for a blog, just talking about Native American actors.
It is more difficult to find a favorite bit actor in the context of silent films. The reality is, other than the few real standout stars, most of the people involved in front of the camera in silent films were bit actors. They moved from set to set making several movies every week. I may say they are all my favorites!
War films fall into the same category as westerns. A good detective movie from the 1930's or 1940's, they would be ripe with candidates for a great bit actor. Think of The Maltese Falcon and all the small parts populated with actors like William Hopper (134 acting credits), Charles Drake (137 roles), Creighton Hale (284!), and even Walter Huston had a bit part that was uncredited.
The pickings may be smaller in romantic films because they tend to focus on the lead characters. Comedies may be tough, especially the big ones with Bob Hope or Jerry Lewis. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World had almost every bit comic actor that was alive at the time. Stan Laurel was alive but not in the film, although he was asked. After Ollie died, he said he wouldn't work with anyone else.
Then there are the big musicals. Warner Brothers and Busby Berkeley hired hundreds for each film. MGM made The Wizard of Oz with hundreds of short people. I met Meinhardt Raabe once. He played the coroner in Wizard. A nice fellow and very appreciative of his fame from such a small part with no screen credit. According to IMDB, Wizard was his only screen credit. He worked for Oscar Mayer for 30 years, though. He just passed away in April.
That should get you thinking. Watch something good tonight and see who makes an impression on you. Try to stay away from old black and white TV shows. Too much bit part fodder to think about!