An actor or actress who builds a career performing in very similar (often stereotypical) and usually supporting roles is known as a character actor. Character roles run the gamut from bit parts to secondary leads. Character and supporting actors may become as well known as leading actors, the difference is often that their voices and faces are known, but their names may not spring to mind as easily.
What defines a 'character' actor?
In times past, the Hollywood Studio system was largely responsible for the casting of men and women in lead roles or supporting roles. These people very quickly became typecast. Leading men and women were stereotypically attractive and glamorous, while those outside of the physical norm were cast in supporting roles no matter what their talent. Foreign actors and American actors of colour were often barred from roles for which they were otherwise suited; some found work performing ethnic stereotypes.
Foreign actors may be famous in their own countries but find themselves limited in the United States under the strict unofficial guidelines of Hollywood casting Marcel Dalio, Cantinflas, Jet Li. Some character actors have distinctive voices or accents which in the opinion of casting directors limit their suitability for most leading roles; actors such as James Earl Jones, Selma Diamond and Julie Kavner have been able to turn this to their advantage, often in voice over work. Sometimes character actors have developed careers because they had specific talents that are required in genre films, such as dancing, horsemanship or swimming ability. Many up-and-coming actors simply find themselves typecast in character roles due to an early success with a particular part or in a certain genre.
Many character actors have, however, become widely known lead actors. Peter Lorre, Gene Wilder, and Lynne Thigpen were all first known for character work, but later performed leading roles as well. Some have eventually gained “movie star” status. Character actors can also attain a degree of fame following the cult success of a particular work with they are associated; the science fiction genre provides many examples, such as the enthusiastic fans of Star Trek or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. However, a defining characteristic of character actors is that their names are not widely known yet their faces or voices are instantly recognizable: Paul Heinreid, Sydney Greenstreet, Barry Fitzgerald and Mel Blanc.