August 14, 1923 – Alice Ghostley:
I have had some real pushback recently over using the term “character actor”, with one reader insisting that I was designating it to describe actors that did not possess conventional beauty. There have always been leading male and female actors who also also character actors. Meryl Streep checks the boxes for leading lady and character actor. But even her Sophie making that choice in 1982, where Streep and her exquisite features are at their most alluring, hers is still very much character work.
In many ways, “character actor” is a stand in for “supporting actor”, someone who is not the lead, who plays unusual, interesting, eccentric characters. The traditional definition of leading actor is somewhat hard to pin down; I mean all actors are character actors since they all play “characters”, but I am writing about actors who play distinctive and important supporting roles.
Character actors play roles that are very different from the actor’s off-screen, civilian personality, and sometimes a character actor specializes in smaller roles. Character actor roles are more substantial than bit parts or extras.
Sometimes a leading actor will seamlessly move into character roles as they get older, think Myrna Loy. Some character actors sometimes have the lead role, think Maureen Stapleton.
The best thing about most character actors is that they can enjoy a long career history of playing character roles and yet may be difficult for audiences to recognize as being the same actor.
A leading man or lady often possess physical beauty, yet a character actor may be short or tall, heavy or thin, balding, older, or simply unconventional-looking and distinctive in some physical way. Think Willem Defoe.
The names of character actors are not featured prominently in advertising or on a marquee, since a character actor’s name is not expected to attract an audience. A character actor with a long career may not have a well-known name yet is instantly recognizable. People will say, “oh, yeah, that guy. I love him. What is his name? “
Some character actors play essentially the same character over and over, as with Edward Everett Horton‘s humorous sidekicks, while other actors, such as Laurence Olivier, have the talent to submerge themselves in any role they play. Some character actors develop a cult, Tim Curry, for instance.
Even character actors can fall into the typecasting dilemma; Harvey Keitel as a tough guy, Maggie Smith as the matriarch, Claude Rains as the sophisticated, ambiguously moral man, Christopher Walken as a speech maker, Steve Buscemi as the quirky, smart guy with a mind outside of reality, and Dennis Haysbert as the calm, composed man with a potential to explode.
Great character actors are rarely out of work, and often have long careers that span decades. They are also often highly regarded by fellow actors, yet performers rarely use the term to describe their peers. Some of my current favorites would be Octavia Spencer, Scoot McNairy, Margo Martindale, Oliver Platt, Carrie Coon, Allison Janney, Kathryn Hahn, Michael Shannon, J.K. Simmons, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, Molly Shannon and Paul Giamatti. How many times have you watched one of these actors and thought they were the very best thing in a film, television series or play? Tilda Swinton would be in the Character Actor Hall of Fame. So, toupees off to these talented performers.
Alice Ghostley was a Tony Award-winning character actor who specialized in playing ditsy women and is now remembered for television supporting roles: twitchy Esmeralda on Bewitched (1964-1972), and the fabulously addled Bernice on Designing Women (1986-1993). Though she is never a credited member of the Designing Women cast, her appearances over seven years and 45 episodes outnumber those of some of the series regulars. By the final season, Bernice appears in almost every episode. Ghostley is one of my most treasured character actors.
Ghostley made more than 90 television appearances in a career that spanned six decades. She made her Broadway debut in New Faces Of 1952, the hit musical revue which ran through 1953, and launched the careers of character actors Paul Lynde, Eartha Kitt, and Mel Brooks (billed as Melvin Brooks).
In New Faces, Ghostley received rave reviews and audience love for singing the satirical sendup of Cole Porter‘s Begin The Beguine, titled The Boston Beguine. It became her signature song.
She came across as rather plain, but the combination of the well-trained voice and her dowdy character was so incongruous and so charming.
Ghostley won her Tony for The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964) by gay playwright Lorraine Hansberry. The play touches on themes of race, suicide, queerness. She also received a Tony nomination for playing several roles in the comedy The Beauty Part (1962) with Bert Lahr.
Reading Ghostley’s credits, I was struck by how much of it is made up of one- time appearances on episodic television series starting in the 1950s, and in many genres: sitcoms such as Car 54, Where Are You? in 1961; action-adventure like It Takes A Thief in 1968, opposite Robert Wagner; soap operas like Passions in 2000; children’s shows such as Rugrats (1997); procedurals like Trapper John, M.D.(1984); crime dramas like Naked City (1963); and variety hours such as the Julie Andrews Hour in 1972.
On Bewitched she first played an inept maid who was hired by Darrin Stephens (played by Dick York) to assist his wife Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) during her pregnancy in 1966. Then, at the end of the 1966 season, Alice Pearce, who played busybody neighbor Gladys Kravitz, had the audacity to die. The Bewitched producers offered the role of Gladys to Ghostley, who refused it, and Sandra Gould took over the role. In September 1969, after the passing of Marion Lorne, who played daffy Aunt Clara, Ghostley joined Bewitched as a regular in the role of Esmeralda, a shy witch who serves as a babysitter to the Stephens’ household. Ghostley’s Esmeralda was created to replace Aunt Clara’s role as the bumbler of magic. She played the part from 1967 through 1971. In a crazy coincidence, Ghostley and Lorne have a scene together in the film The Graduate (1967), filmed before Lorne’s death and before Ghostley was cast in Bewitched.
The late, great Kaye Ballard, a longtime friend appeared with Ghostley as the wicked stepsisters in the 1957 television production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, starring Julie Andrews.
You might remember that both Paul Lynde and Ghostley were on Bewitched, with Lynde playing practical joking warlock Uncle Arthur. It is hard to ignore the amazing resemblance in their voices, cadence and mannerisms. They were longtime friends from the era when they both had their big break in New Faces Of 1952. Some fans accused Ghostley of stealing Lynde’s shtick. The two of them were in that same group of performers of closeted gay character actors that included Ballard and Richard Deacon.
“I knew both Alice and Paul as dear friends. Paul was wonderful but a very troubled, conflicted soul. He admired Alice. Alice had been performing for over a decade when she did New Faces Of 1952. Her delivery was much as she spoke. Paul picked up on her rhythms and comedic movements and started to use it in his stage personality. It was Paul who acquired Alice’s personality, not the other way”.
Although Alice was married for 50 years to actor Felice Orlando, actor Alvin Aronson claimed that he was Felice’s lover for years and that Ghostley was also gay. Many of the performers on Bewitched were gay, including Maurice Evans (Samantha’s father), Dick Sargent ( Darrin Number Two), Agnes Moorhead as Samantha’s mother Endora, Marion Lorne (Aunt Clara) and George Tobias (Abner Kravitz).
Ghostley last appeared on Broadway in Annie, the second actor to play Miss Hannigan, the orphanage supervisor, originated by Dorothy Louden. She played the role from 1978 until 1983.
Ghostley had a sweetly befuddled face. She was diminutive with small eyes and a pixie haircut. She was the best at playing dim or eccentric characters who throw other characters off balance with her mix of sweetness, wacky logic and bold opinion. During her long career, Ghostley easily moved between the stage, cabaret, films and television.
Ghostley appeared in 30 films, including To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), playing, what else, the neighborhood gossip. She appeared in the film version of Grease (1978) as the shop teacher.
She never won an Oscar, but she did accept one in 1970 for Maggie Smith who appeared in New Faces Of 1956. Smith won for The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie.
Ghostley’s final credits rolled in 2007 after a long battle with colon cancer at 84 years old.