Saturday, June 19, 2010

Defining "Bit Part"

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!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Franklin Pangborn

To really see bit actors en masse, you have to go back to the days of two-reel comedies.  Here we find the likes of James Finlayson, Edgar Kennedy, Billy Gilbert, Charlie Hall, Tiny Sandford, and of course, Franklin Pangborn.

Pangborn was born in 1889 and lived until 1958.  He started acting in plays and went on to silent films.  It takes years to develop a persona for an acting career (if you want one) and he started out doing some very serious parts in dramas.  No one will remember them because he so effectively became a comedian.

Think about almost all of the Pangborn films.  He mostly played a man in some type of authoritarian position who gets flustered with the situation.  In his frustration to keep everything going on his terms, he lets his comic genius escape.  He usually is cast as the hotel manager, store clerk, butler, salesman, and as the bank examiner, J. Pinkerton Snoopington in The Bank Dick.  I loved watching him drink with Fields in that movie.

He started in films after WWI in 1926 and made over 200 movies.  He worked with most of the greats including Bing Crosby, Mack Sennett, Fred Astaire, Our Gang (where he played Otto Phocus, a photographer), with William Powell and Carol Lombard in My Man Godfrey, and so many others.  He was in quite a few films with his friend Edward Everett Horton.

There is a lengthy biography of Pangborn found on IMDb.  Of course, anything you read on the web could be less than accurate (including my blog, but I try to check things out) so check the details if you need to.  This one is worth it.

Watch for him in a more dramatic role in Now, Voyager with Bette Davis.  I have seen that film, but it was a while ago.  I will watch it again and pay more attention to the bit parts!  Later Franklin played a few small cameos on TV.  I guess his character worked well for quite a while, but audiences got more sophisticated and he got older.  It is sad to think about how that happens, and it probably happens to most of us.  Franklin Pangborn will be remembered.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hunt for Red October

The Hunt for Red October from 1990 was on last night, and I like that movie.  Come to think of it, I like most movies.  Red October is based on the Tom Clancy novel and is one of the adventures of CIA agent Jack Ryan.  In this one he is played by Alec Baldwin, but the next two movies, Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), he is played by Harrison Ford.  I have always wondered why Baldwin didn't continue what would become a very good, and probably profitable, trilogy.

Red October won the Oscar for best sound effects editing...not best picture but it is an Oscar.  On to the bit parts.

One of the few women in the movie was Gates McFadden as Ryan's wife in the beginning scenes.  Of course, she was the doctor on the Enterprise in "Star Trek, The Next Generation" from 1987 to 1994.  So Red October was made while she worked on Star Trek TNG.  I am sure she is type cast because of her prominent role in Star Trek TNG, but what else do you need?  The residuals from the movies and the promotional items will keep her wealthy.

I noticed the Russian attack sub commander was played by Stellan Skarsgard.  He was nasty in this film!  I thought he was much more likable as one of the three fathers in Mamma Mia!, the off beat musical that tried to weave together a bunch of ABBA songs that really weren't meant to tell a story.  Yes, I liked that one, too!

Skarsgard's role in Red October was pretty small, so I think he qualifies as a bit actor here.  He had a bigger part in 1997's Good Will Hunting.  I wish he didn't look so much like Liam Neeson.  I keep getting them confused.

Fred Thompson held up well as the Admiral on the aircraft carrier.  I may have voted for him in the last presidential election if he had won the nomination!  He has 44 acting roles in his resume, and now that his political career is over, he's back to acting.  Do you remember him in Fat Man and Little Boy, when he rolled the truck tire into the office to complain?

Lastly let's mention Joss Ackland who played the Russian ambassador.  He has 179 credits on IMDb and his face pops up everywhere.  Born in England in 1928, he did the Russian accent better than most of the sub personnel, and certainly better than Sean Connery (Scottish!) who didn't even try.  No matter, I still like the movie!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Yes, Psycho is 50 years old and is being shown all over the place this year.  So let's talk about Hitchcock.  No, not that one...I mean Patricia Hitchcock. 

Alfred's daughter had several bit parts in her father's movies and on TV.  She appeared in Psycho as Caroline when she was 32 years old.  Before that she was in the 1956 DeMille blockbuster, The Ten Commandments, along with every other actor in Hollywood.  (I can still hear Edward G. Robinson asking, "Where's your Moses now?" like a gangster!)  You can find Pat in 10 episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" as well.  I can only imagine what it was like growing up with Alfred Hitchcock!  I bet she couldn't get any friends to come over at Halloween.

Who else can you find in Psycho?  Of course, in this forum we will ignore the obvious, Tony Perkins and Janet Leigh.  I saw Ted Knight listed as a policeman.  The voice of Norma Bates was played by three people; Virginia Gregg (201 career acting roles), Jeanette Nolan (192 roles), and Jeff Jasmin (only 11 roles).  It seems that most of these people did a lot of TV.

There was also Sam Flint.  A veteran of 344 acting roles over 35 years.  He was in many early TV shows as well as movies.  I also noticed that many of these actors appear in other Hitchcock projects.  I guess Hitch would keep track of his cast and use them again, if they could bring what he needed to a part.

I know that almost anyone who would read this blog has probably seen Psycho at least once.  I guarantee it will be on PBS, or maybe a local TV station in the next few weeks.  Watch it again, but pay attention to the bit parts!  I'll be watching for Ted Knight.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

More Character Actors

Elaine May has a movie tied up that I cannot seem to get on DVD right now.  There are some used copies available on VHS, but the price is a bit steep.  The movie is 1971's A New Leaf with May and Walter Matthau.

It is a story about a millionaire who has spent all of his inheritance.  He goes looking for a rich woman to marry...enter Elaine May.  The movie is brilliantly written and directed by May, but she included a sub-plot that made the movie too long (3 hours) and too dark for a comedy.  When Paramount got hold if it, they re-edited it to make it shorter.  They also used some canned music rather than spending a fortune on new compositions.  This caused a rift between May and Paramount, so it is not available in either length.  The best you can hope for is to catch it on TV.

Almost everyone in the cast is an accomplished character actor.  Jack Weston and James Coco are the big names.  The butler, who has a big part through the movie, was played by George Rose, and you believe he is the consummate gentleman's gentleman.  Rose was in A Night to Remember in 1958, Hawaii in 1966, and he did a lot of TV, including an appearance on "Saturday Night Live" in 1980.

Graham Jarvis played Bo, whom we only see at social events and in the club.  A perfect performance as a millionaire.  Watch him in The Out of Towners (1970) or What's up Doc (1972), for a completely different character.

Even the small role of the desk clerk at the club was played to the max by John O'Leary, who was in All the President's Men (1976) and Airplane! in 1980.

My guess is Elaine May's direction, plus the inspiration of having Walter Matthau on the set, was what inspired the rest of the cast to such sterling performances.  Everyone was perfect in the movie, right down to the smoking, elderly maid going slowly up the stairs, blocking Matthau's progress.

If you have the opportunity, try to catch this one.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hail, Freedonia!

Last night, after coming home from a picnic, I turned on Turner Classic Movies just in time to watch the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup from 1933.  This was Zeppo Marx's last film, and it is not one of my favorite Marx films, although many consider it one of their best.  Of course, the one liners that Groucho uses are always great, and I love watching Harpo perform his sight gags, shearing off everything that sticks out!

What's missing from Duck Soup is Harpo's harp and Chico's piano.  They were amazingly talented, and I think their music brought a lot to the films. 

Zeppo playing the straight man, in my opinion, was a mistake.  Everyone knew he was one of the brothers because they looked so much alike, and they should all be zany.  Leave the straight man part to a supporting actor.  Zeppo felt he was being underutilized so he went on to another profession as an inventor.

Speaking of supporting roles, did you catch Charles Middleton as the prosecutor?  Middleton played in Pack up your Troubles with Laurel and Hardy, also starring Tom Kennedy whom we talked about yesterday.  See how all this fits together?

Duck Soup also had a Kennedy, but this was Edgar Kennedy.  Edgar and Tom were not related, but their careers must have paralleled, and they appeared in about 16 films together.  Edgar made 411 films from 1911 to 1949 and he even directed some L&H films. 

Just watch Edgar in his scenes with Chico and Harpo.  Edgar is a lemonade salesman, while the Marx boys are selling hot peanuts.  They get into a tit for tat, and Edgar loses two hats and a lot of lemonade.  The scenes could have appeared in a silent film without inter titles and it would have worked fine.

I wouldn't consider any of Edgar Kennedy's films major motion pictures, but that wasn't what he was all about.  He was a character actor and comedian.  He made almost half of his films during the silent era, so he knew how to bring his role alive without dialog.  That's why he is so much fun to watch.

Another routine in Duck Soup that could be silent, and actually was in the film, is the mirror scene with Groucho and Harpo.  I wonder if they did something along that line in their vaudeville act.  They almost perfectly copied each other's moves.  And they look so much alike, it is difficult to say which one was which.

I must look up some info on Margaret Dumont.  She was so perfectly cast in the Marx Brothers films.  I can't image she wanted to be a comedienne, she always comes across as so stuffy.  Did she really know what was going on?  Someone on IMDB said that Groucho called her, "practically the fifth Marx brother."

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Tom Kennedy

I have been trying to get a search box on this site so you can enter a word and find it on any page in Bit Part Actors.  Google has this neat application to build one, so I did.  The only trouble is, it doesn't seem to work!  I will keep trying, but in the mean time, I apologize if you have a problem with it.  If you know a solution, please let me know!  E-mail to  Thanks.  On to my topic du jour.

There was a movie that I saw many years ago called The Big House.  It was made in 1930 and is about life in a prison.  Well, the story is a bit more complicated than that, but in 1930 the movies weren't very complicated.  I remember it as being very gritty.  Wallace Beery, Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery star.  Wallace Beery's nephew, Noah Beery, Jr. had a bit part in it at just 17 years old.  Much later in his career he co-starred with James Garner on TV in "The Rockford Files."

One of the names down low on the list, playing Uncle Jed, was Tom Kennedy.  There you go, the quintessential bit actor, and one of my favorites.  Tom lived from 1885 to 1965.  He has 355 roles listed on IMDB, from 1915 to 1965.  He just didn't know when to quit.

Can you imagine the changes Kennedy witnessed in that lifetime?  Making the early silent films, many sound shorts and features, and finally to TV roles.  In his first twenty one years he was in 159 films, making 15 in 1931 and again in 1932.  He worked for Hal Roach so you will see him with Laurel and Hardy, and also in one silent in 1922 with Stan Laurel and no Ollie.  He also worked with W. C. Fields and the Marx brothers.

He had a small part in 42nd Street in 1933.  He appeared in a series of movies in the 1930s based on a character named Torchy Blane.  I am unfamiliar with them, but will try to do some research.  He was in one Blondie film with my friend Penny Singleton.  Many times he played a cop or detective.

How about Man of a Thousand Faces and Some Like it Hot?  He was in both, but just bit parts.  A lot of TV roles followed, and at age 80, Tom left us.  I will continue to look for Tom in pretty much everything, and I hope you will look for The Big House and enjoy it as well.  Tom is remembered for his bit parts, so he needs to be held up high on my blog!