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Casting Against Type
by Jon Schuller

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It is highly improbable that when watching The Godfather we could try to imagine another actor in place of the great Marlon Brando as Don Corleone. Many other actors were considered for the part but Brando won out as he quickly impressed Francis Ford Coppola with a first read. He immortalized a screen role into a modern legend and we never tire of seeing his transitions and scenes. But was Brando ever in any parts before this movie in which he played anyone even remotely like the Don? Brando's range of acting styles and characterizations was vast and spanned many decades of films. From the improbable everyman hero in On The Waterfront to a jealous macho husband in A Streetcar Named Desire to a noble Roman Senator in Julius Caesar, Brando could capture any and all emotions and nuances of anyone he portrayed. Many movie actors had the ability to become different people for different films. Charlie Chaplin's Tramp would find himself in different situations and adapted to them. Even though we know immediately it was the same character Chaplin made the Tramp somehow different and kept Chaplin from being typecast. The fact that he could compose music and direct too didn't hurt him at all. There have been literally dozens of actors, however, who had just one or two roles and were forever typecast as that character no matter how many others they played afterwards. Margaret Hamilton, the ultimate Wicked Witch, became typecast as a result of just one movie, The Wizard of Oz. Her career stayed put and even in other roles, everyone associated her with being the nasty one with the scary voice chasing little Dorothy. William Shatner will always be Captain Kirk of the starship Enterprise. There are quite a few actors, however, like Brando, who could be anyone the director and screenwriter wanted him to be and do it flawlessly. I thought about some of these actors and wanted to write about them.

Cary Grant was the quintessential handsome leading man in the movies. His suave sophisticated walk and talk could melt any leading lady's heart as he laughed his way through countless romantic films. But Cary Grant wasn't just another good-looking guy: he was a talented actor who could switch gears any time
he chose and go from laughter to serious drama within a scene. He could be the slightly shady character who ultimately wins Lorraine Day in Mr. Lucky as he fends off bad guys and cops at the same time. As a happy-go-lucky British soldier in India, Grant is joined by Victor McGlaglen and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in Gunga Din as the trio plays together and fights the troublemakers. But beneath his carefree exterior we realize how serious he is; how loyal to his mates and the servant man (Sam Jaffee, a great veteran actor from New York's Yiddish Theatre) they adopt and protect; how much he loves the Army and is willing to die to save his friends' lives. In 1943 Grant became a captain of a U.S. Navy submarine sailing into dangerous waters in Destination Tokyo. With an all-star cast and high-tech special effects (for that time) we see the submarine enter Tokyo Bay in advance of Jimmy Doolittle's Raid on Tokyo. The crew has sailed with Grant before and every man knows and has complete confidence in their fellow sailors and the captain. But Grant is, as usual, his impeccable self, and stays cool under fire no matter what. He is so convincing in this film. It's still one of my all-time favorites. Of course, it's got the usual war propaganda but without doubt, the actors have the look of real sailors in the Silent Service. You know they all trust their captain and so do we.

Ask any movie fan who's played the best James Bond and, even though you might get differing opinions on that topic, most would say Sean Connery's the most memorable and of course, the original. As another leading man type, Connery's early career exuded the sophisticated wit and charm of Cary Grant (along with a delightful Scottish accent) but his characters can display a rather rough exterior, prone to violence and a sharp tongue. Although he's made seven Bond films altogether, I don't think we associate him as simply James Bond. He's played many other divergent parts as he's matured throughout his career. Before Bond there was Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959); The British Army prisoner in The Hill (1965); he earned an Academy Award as the world-weary cop in The Untouchables (1987); he became Indiana Jones'
father in 1989; the Russian submarine captain in The Hunt for Red October (1990); and a not-quite over-the-hill thief in Entrapment (1999). As the reclusive author in Finding Forrester (2000) Connery portrays a sensitive, intelligent man who's brought back to live by a young man who loves to read and write. I think this is one of Connery's finest performances.
We see many movies these days about young men with nothing to do, looking for fun, but not taking life too seriously. Many of the actors playing these parts can only get work in films of this type. Dustin Hoffman also might have become typecast as the dead-pan college kid who can't decide on his future or anything else - in The Graduate. This movie catapulted him to instant fame in 1967. But his list of screen credits since then reads like a veritable who's-who of divergent characters from all over America. Who hasn't seen Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, Straw Dogs, Papillon, Lenny, Marathon Man, All the President's Men, Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie, Rain Man, and Wag the Dog? He played the nasty pirate captain in Hook (1991).I really enjoyed him as the attorney in 1996's Sleepers. He also played a lawyer in The Runaway Jury with Gene Hackman in 2003. There doesn't seem to be a role he can't handle and his acting credits also go to the stage with plays like the revival of Death of a Salesman in 1985. My only problem with this giant of the screen is his appearing in the "Focker" movies which somehow made a lot of money. That's the reason, I guess. Regardless, Dustin Hoffman's body of work over more than forty years covers famous movies and characters we've all come to know and treasure.

One of my favorite actors is Gary Oldman, who has become associated with the Dark Knight Batman movies as Police Commissioner James Gordon along with another talented British actor, Christian Bale. A classically- trained actor from England Oldman might have remained in that honorable profession for British thespians as a Shakespearean player, garnering
praise and awards for his skills. But Mr. Oldman has found he can play diverse roles, including many as an American, with a convincing flair and attitude in each part. His list of credits is impressive and far-reaching:
Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK, Count Dracula in Bram Stoker's Dracula, Drexl Spivey in True Romance, Norman Stansfield in The Professional, Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg in The Fifth Element, Ludwig van Beethoven in Immortal Beloved, Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series, and George Smiley in the 2011 remake of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
He can, with ease, go from rational to irrational in a heartbeat. I mentioned The Professional (1994) starring Jean Reno and introducing Natalie Portman. As Norman Stansfield, a corrupt DEA agent, Oldman exhibits sociopathic tendencies when he takes drugs and hums Beethoven melodies as he and his team systematically murder a drug dealer and his family in a run-down apartment house. This is observed by Reno, a professional hit man, who lives anonymously in the same building. Reno will eventually save the young girl and destroy Stansfield's corrupt organization in the process. The entire movie is great but I enjoy Oldman's performance every time I revisit the film. As Commissioner Gordon in the Batman films Oldman makes his character not only quite human but vulnerable to the many deaths he sees in his beloved Gotham City. He will fight for his beliefs, his friends and his city. I enjoy his scenes and his added realism to what might have become another same-picture-every-time-it's-shown type of film.

There are many other actors (and actresses) I will feature in future columns on this topic. Actors like Robert DeNiro who's also moved away from being typecast as mobsters and wiseguys to more diverse roles. Michael Caine lost his "pretty boy" image as he emigrated to more complex parts is another favorite of mine. Acting is always a difficult profession to work in as the competition is fierce. Someone once said you're only as good as your last film. To display variety and talent consistently is a challenge for anyone who chooses to go public and tries to maintain an image for decades.

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Jan 10, 2014 1:08 PM
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Really enjoyed this well thought out article. very nice.
Jan 10, 2014 2:48 PM
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Thank you. Much appreciated.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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