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10 Great Character Actors of Horror Who Have Contributed So Much to the Genre

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10 Great Character Actors of Horror Who Have Contributed So Much to the Genre

They are not the stars of horror films. They rarely receive the publicity that they deserve. And yet, they are often the people who serve as the glue to a film, either as support to the protagonist or as a henchman doing the bidding of the villain. And sometimes they are so good in their brief or supportive roles that we remember them more than the stars awarded the highest billing.

I have long been a fan of character actors. Rather than rely on good looks or glamor, they depend on pure acting ability, uncanny versatility, and a willingness to fill out a cast and advance the plot, all without the glory.

Over the last 60 years, during what some have called the modern era of horror, so many character actors have stood out. I couldn’t begin to rank them, or possibly list them all, but there are a few who have become particular favorites of mine. Here are 10 character actors who have contributed so much to the genre, perhaps even more than they themselves realize.


10. R.G. Armstrong:

R.G. Armstrong The Car

His name is probably unknown to the modern generation of fans, and only slightly more familiar to those who grew up with horror in the sixties and seventies. But Armstrong’s lack of a brand name does nothing to detract from his memorable characterizations. With his grizzled facial features and Southern drawl, Armstrong often stood out in supporting roles—especially in playing rural lawmen and characters of questionable morality.

Armstrong was a prolific actor, but three of his roles stand out in my memory. In 1975’s Race With the Devil, Armstrong plays the role of a seemingly amiable Southern sheriff who tries to help the two couples who have just witnessed a horrific Satanic ritual. Not only does Armstrong look like the epitome of an old-fashioned Texas lawman, but he straddles the line between a charming, friendly old sheriff and a devious man who may be hiding a dark secret. In 1977’s The Car, Armstrong takes on a role as a more virtuous police officer who tries to take a demonic, out-of-control car off the rural roads of the west. And then in the 1984 cult classic, Children of the Corn, Armstrong portrays a car mechanic who attempts to broker a deal with the evil children who have overtaken a small rural town in the Midwest.

Remaining active into his later years, Armstrong continued to act through the early 2000s. While he was often gruff and grizzled on screen, he was far different in real life. A likeable and caring man, Armstrong fittingly lived a long life, passing away in 2012 at the age of 95.


9. Tom Atkins:

Tom Atkins Night of the Creeps

Unlike many character actors, Atkins is a well-known name to genre fans, perhaps because of his many appearances at horror conventions. With only 83 credits to his name, he’s more selective in the films that he makes, but he makes up for the lack of volume with high quality portrayals.

In horror circles, Atkins is perhaps best remembered for playing the funny, wisecracking detective in Night of the Creeps, one of the more popular cult films of the 1980s. In fact, it’s that film that Atkins calls the favorite among his acting credits. But he has done so much good work in other films, including The Fog, Escape From New York, Creepshow, the underrated Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, and more recent fare like My Bloody Valentine and Drive Angry. Atkins is consistently good, regardless of whether he plays heroes or evildoers. He always gives us something memorable in his performances, even if they’re relatively brief.

I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Atkins a few years back at the Scare-A-Con Convention in upstate New York. He’s a personable man, humble and honest, but also willing to give strong opinions on films and co-stars, which he recalls with relative ease. And even though he’s in his mid-eighties, Atkins continues to make the occasional film.


8. Adrienne Barbeau:

Adrienne Barbeau The Fog

An actress who remains incredibly busy into her seventies, Barbeau has compiled an impressive resume of horror and sci-fi films, including The Fog, Escape From New York, Creepshow, and Swamp Thing. In more recent years, Barbeau has taken on leading roles in the underrated and short-lived TV show, Carnevale, and also landed a guest spot in the first episode of the Shudder series, “Creepshow”. Ironically, Barbeau has never been a fan of horror films, but that has not kept her away from genre. Equally adept at playing heroines or thoroughly unlikeable characters, as she did in the original Creepshow, Barbeau has shown the kind of versatility and adaptability that continue to keep her in demand. Her wonderfully strong voice only adds to her appeal.

Several years ago at a horror convention, I had the chance to host a panel featuring Barbeau and several other actors. A delightful and well-spoken person, Adrienne impressed me with her friendly nature, wonderful recall of details, and fond memories of her horror films. She’s a class act, in addition to being a very good actress.


7. Brian Cox:

Brian Cox The Autopsy of Jane Doe

The Scottish-born Cox is such a fine actor that he has been given a few starring roles, but it’s his contributions as a supporting player that have truly established himself as a brilliant performer. In 1986, he became the first actor to portray Hannibal Lecter on screen when he co-starred in Manhunter. Cox’ performance is very different from the Anthony Hopkins interpretation, but still effective in an understated way. Later on, Cox made a mark in the terrifying film, The Ring. Director Gore Verbinski wanted Cox and no one else to play the role of the enigmatic Richard Morgan, and Cox does not disappoint. More recently, Cox has deftly handled a top-billed role in the excellent film, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, where he plays a wise but unsuspecting mortician.

With his ability to showcase different accents and play both villains and victims, Cox has the kind of versatility that makes him stand out in so many roles. He’s good in pretty much everything he does, even if his characters are often stern and serious, and sometimes hard to like. Any horror movie that features Brian Cox becomes that much better as a result.


6. Keith David:

Keith David The Thing

With his wonderful baritone voice and ability to handle a variety of roles, David always seems to deliver a distinctive performance, but is especially effective at playing characters with hot tempers. A classically trained actor, David has done fine work in many horror films, but two in particular come to mind: The Thing and They Live.

In John Carpenter’s The Thing, David plays the character of Childs, a physically imposing and temperamental man who is one of the poor souls stranded at a remote research station in Antarctica. David’s Childs ends up as one of the last two survivors, along with Kurt Russell’s character of Macready, leaving us to wonder who is actually human and who is the alien life force.

Six years later, David took on a much different role in They Live, another Carpenter film. In this one, David plays the sidekick to the late Roddy Piper; he is at first skeptical of Piper’s claims that some humans are not what they seem. David is a more experienced and seasoned actor than Piper was, but he doesn’t upstage him, instead fostering a strange chemistry with his newfound friend, at least after some initial antagonism. In one of the movie’s most memorable sequences, David and Piper engage in a fistfight that lasts five minutes and 20 seconds. The fight scene was supposed to end after 20 seconds, but David and Piper decided to ad-lib the hand-to-hand combat, extending it as long as possible. Carpenter so liked the sequence that he kept all of it in the final print, without any edits or cuts.

Like Atkins, Barbeau, and Cox, Keith David shows few signs of slowing down. A prolific actor who has compiled 330 film, TV, and voice credits, David’s IMDB page indicates 10 of his films that are “just completed” or in “post-production.”


5. Margaret Hamilton:

Margaret Hamilton The Wizard of Oz

I’m cheating somewhat with this selection, given that Hamilton is best known for an iconic portrayal that reaches back to the late 1930s. But her acting career continued well into the 1960s and seventies, so technically she fits our framework encompassing the modern era of horror.

In 1939, Hamilton created one of the greatest portrayals of a villain in film history when she played the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. It’s not a horror movie per se, but Hamilton’s interpretation of the Wicked Witch, with that angular green face, that high-pitched cackling laugh, and the most sinister of speaking styles, made her character arguably the most terrifying witch in film history. Many children who saw Hamilton in that role, including yours truly, would likely agree with that assessment.

In 1960, Hamilton played a memorable role as the weird and mysterious housekeeper in William Castle’s 13 Ghosts and a smaller role as a college professor in The Night Strangler, the made-for-TV movie that starred Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak. Later in her career, Hamilton occasionally reprised her role as the Wicked Witch, or some variation of the character, in guest spots on television shows.

While most young fans came to associate Hamilton with the most evil of witches, she was a far different person in real life. Prior to her Hollywood tenure, she enjoyed a career as a kindergarten schoolteacher. She was known as a particularly kind and loving teacher, one who felt a special kinship with children.

It’s a tribute to her acting skill that Hamilton, who died in 1985 at the age of 82, was able to play so differently from her personality and still make her witch portrayal so effective. Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West was just so believably petrifying to many of us when we were kids—and perhaps even as adults, too.


4. Murray Hamilton:

Murray Hamilton Jaws

Not related to Margaret Hamilton, the lesser known Murray Hamilton was exceptionally good at portraying oily and untrustworthy characters who tried to hide their devious and selfish ways.

Hamilton’s most famous role came in 1975, when he played sleazy Mayor Vaughn in the classic film, Jaws. Showing far more concern for the money that his town of Amity might lose than the actual safety of its citizens, he issued the following proclamation before the Fourth of July: “As you see, it’s a beautiful day, the beaches are open and people are having a wonderful time. Amity, as you know, means ‘friendship.’ ” Soon after, Amity would turn into “lunch” for the great white shark that had come to the shoreline, in part thanks to Vaughn’s incompetence. It was a supporting role that Hamilton nailed from start to finish.

After going toe to toe with Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws, Hamilton played a memorable role as a priest in the original version of The Amityville Horror. Tracing back to some of his earlier work from the early 1960s, Hamilton rather famously portrayed “Mr. Death” in The “Twilight Zone” episode, “One for the Angels.”

Hamilton was at his best when his characters were at their worst. No one could play “smarmy” quite like him. Sadly, we lost Murray Hamilton all too young in 1986, when he died from cancer at the age of 63.


3. Strother Martin:

Strother Martin Sssssss

A phenomenally talented character actor, Martin is probably best remembered for his role as the cold-hearted prison captain in Cool Hand Luke. It was Martin’s character who delivered the most memorable line of the movie: “What we’ve got here… is failure to communicate.”

For the most part, Martin played supporting roles in his career, like his 1979 appearance in the horror film, Nightwing. But when called upon to do horror earlier in the decade, he actually received top billing in two films: The Brotherhood of Satan and the oddly titled, Sssssss.

In 1971’s The Brotherhood of Satan, Marin plays the seemingly friendly Doc Martin, a small-town doctor who is actually the leader of a local satanic cult. This is Martin at his best: on the surface kind and friendly, but underneath, calculating and cruel. And then in Sssssss, a 1973 release, Martin portrays another deranged doctor, one who believes that mankind is doomed, prompting him to develop a formula that can convert people into resilient reptiles, including snakes. Admittedly, it’s not a great film, but Martin rises above the material.

With his unusual mannerisms and diverse array of memorable dialects, Martin often stole scenes in his films, regardless of whether he was top-billed or simply a supporting player. Sadly, he developed heart problems in the last year of his life, contributing to a fatal heart attack in August of 1980. Martin was only 61.

Comfortable in just about any genre – drama, comedy, or horror – Martin was a remarkably diverse talent. It’s too bad that we didn’t have him a bit longer.


2. Jason Miller:

Jason Miller Exorcist III

Though he started out as a playwright, Miller made a smooth transition to acting in the early 1970s. It’s hard to believe, but Miller’s remarkable portrayal of Father Karras in The Exorcist was actually his first feature film role. As an actor, Miller brought a brooding intensity to many of his characters, including his work as the sympathetic Father Karras. For all of the great performances in that movie, Miller’s stands out as the best, in my mind.

Later in his career, Miller turned to the Exorcist franchise when he was cast in the underrated Exorcist III. Credited as Patient X, Miller alternates beautifully between his former persona of Father Karras and a completely evil and possessive demon.

As talented as Miller was, he was also tormented, plagued by heavy use of alcohol that may have contributed to his relatively early death. Yet, those who knew him also praised him for being a kind and thoughtful man.

In the mid-1990s, Miller decided to return to writing. He was working on a play when he suffered a fatal heart attack. Miller was only 62, his death leaving a huge void in the worlds of acting and writing.


1. Robert Shaw:

Robert Shaw Jaws

Regardless of genre, Shaw might just have been the greatest character actor who ever lived. In 1975, the British-born Shaw ventured into the world of horror and created what is almost certainly his most famous portrayal. Co-starring in Jaws, Shaw gave us the shark-hunting seaman named Quint. It’s a role that has been imitated and parodied many times over, but no one has ever matched Shaw’s brilliance in portraying the salty, abrasive, and yet strangely charismatic Quint. Mumbling at times, rambling at others, Shaw gave Quint a quirky personality that was part incoherence, part wise old man, and part drunken sailor.

Outside of Jaws, Shaw did not venture into horror very often, but two years later, he appeared in The Deep, a movie about treasure hunters who run afoul of criminals in Bermuda. Shaw is good in the role, even if the material did not come close to rising to the level of Jaws.

Shaw was one of those chameleon-like actors who could change his appearance and his dialect radically from film to film. Sadly, he was also an alcoholic, a man whose heavy drinking and rough lifestyle likely contributed to his early death in 1978. He was only 51, even though he looked about 15 years older.

It’s almost scary to consider what Shaw might have accomplished had he lived another 20 years. But in his all-too-short life, he managed to create one of the most iconic characterizations a horror film has ever seen.

In compiling this list of standout character actors, it was relatively easy to come up with a group of 10 selections. The difficult part involved the exclusion of so many other accomplished actors, including Frances Conroy, Bradford Dillman, Brad Dourif, Yaphet Kotto, and J.T. Walsh, among others. It’s such a large pool of talent to choose from, making another article about character actors a mandatory task. It’s one that we’ll have to tackle at a later date.


Check out what Bruce is up to on his Facebook page: Ghostly Gallery.

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