Top 10 Supporting Actors Who Always Bring Something Special To A Movie

We like to think of our top 10 supporting actors as being a bit like “ketchup”! Simply put, if you have ketchup as a stand alone food, it’s not very good. But add ketchup to many foods and it makes it that much better. Same with these ten stars…

If you allowed these brilliant supporting actors to star in a film as the main selling point, chances are no one is going to be all that interested. But add them to an already decent cast and it becomes that much better. These are my top 10 supporting actors, ones that add panache to a film; stars who make movies taste so much better.

10. Don Cheadle

Ocean's 11, Top 10 Films, George Clooney, Top 10 Supporting ActorsBefore Don Cheadle became known to comic book nerds as Colonel James Rhodes…aka War Machine, for a period of about 15 years, he always showed up in juicy but secondary roles. He had some very minor roles, like the mysterious Cash in the Nic Cage film Family Man and even an uncredited cameo in Rush Hour 2. But most of the time Cheadle was cast as the charismatic supporting actor in films like Traffic, Swordfish and Boogie Nights. The role that put him on the map was the explosives expert, Basher Tarr in the Ocean’s 11 franchise. Cheadle has a smooth delivery and he adds class to any film he’s in. He doesn’t work as much today as he did 15 years ago, but at one time, he was the go-to guy for supporting roles.

9. Stephen Tobolowsky

Top 10 Supporting Actors Who Always Bring Something Special To A MovieHere’s a tall, kind of unconventionally handsome, white actor who was born to play unscrupulous politicians, nerdy insurance salesman and doctors of any sort. He has more than 250 credits to his name and he has been working in films and TV since the 1970s. His big break came either in Spaceballs or in the Alan Parker Oscar-nominated film Mississippi Burning. My guess is he was noticed in the latter. He played the mayor of a small Mississippi Town and he made it known very clearly that he condoned the killing of the three civil rights workers. From there, he never looked back. He was on screen for less than 5 minutes in Basic Instinct, as the clinical psychologist who deconstructs Catherine Trammel and her motives. He was the annoying insurance salesman in Groundhog Day. He’s been in Steven Seagal movies and done lots of voice work. He’s someone who could play a niche role and do it well.

8. Judi Dench

Top 10 Supporting Actors Who Always Bring Something Special To A MovieDame Judi Dench started acting on TV in the late 1950s and yet she is most known for her work as M, the brilliant, ostensibly angry and acerbic boss of James Bond. She began playing M in 1995 and just recently hung up her Bond Glock for good in Skyfall. But beyond Bond, she has won an Oscar for her 15 minutes of screen time in Shakespeare In Love, she has played a rogue character in the Vin Diesel film The Chronicles of Riddick and she’s part of a brilliant ensemble cast in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel. And in between she has been in more than 110 films. She didn’t necessarily get started late but her star has clearly risen in the last 20 years. In today’s cinema, it’s either her or Helen Miren that seem to get cast when you need a spunky but elegant female octogenarian. She’s also one of the best actors working today.

7. Robert Duvall

robert-duvall_top10films_the-great-santini, Top 10 Supporting ActorsRobert Duvall was in a handful of movies before he did The Godfather. He did Bullitt, True Grit and THX-1138 but for the most part his career was in television. After 1972, he was ubiquitous. While Al Pacino and Robert De Niro went on to super stardom, Duvall seemed content with being the supporting guy. He got his Oscar in 1983 when he did Tender Mercies, but he never really became an A-lister. However, scan his credits and you’ll see an actor that could play any role. From a tough street cop in Colors to a doctor trying to stay grounded in reality in Phenomenon to a mentor in Days of Thunder to a cop who understands D-Fens a little more than anyone else does in Falling Down. Duvall works feverishly still to this day as he stars in big budget films like Jack Reacher and The Judge to smaller films like Get Low and Crazy Heart. He’s an actor who has embraced his supporting status and makes any film he’s in that much better.

6. Ving Rhames

Pulp-Fiction_butch_marcellus, Top 10 Supporting ActorsI could leave out every single performance this man has given us and just mention him in one film, and Ving Rhames’ inclusion on this list would be justified. That film, of course, is Pulp Fiction. In my opinion, it’s one of the greatest supporting characters ever created and brought to life like no one else could. Rhames has been around since the 1980s when he had small but somewhat memorable roles in films like Stop or My Mom Will Shoot, Jacob’s Ladder and Casualties of War. Even in his early roles, he commanded the screen. Then he got his pre-Pulp Fiction big break when Ivan Reitman cast him in Dave. Here he played the straight and narrow secret service man assigned to protect the ersatz President, while the real one was in a coma. This film allowed him to show his range and combined with his good looks and deep resonating voice, he made an impression. When Quentin Tarantino cast him in Pulp Fiction, a star was born. For about 15 years, Rhames was cast as a supporting character in just about everything. He worked with Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, he was in one of the best ensembles ever put together when he did Con Air and Zack Snyder cast him in the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Rhames unfortunately is now relegated to direct-to-DVD films but for more than a decade, he was one of the best supporting actors you could cast. He instantly brought swagger to any role he was in.

5. Christopher Walken

King of New York, Christopher Walken, Top 10 Supporting ActorsHere’s an actor with a fascinating rise to the top. Christopher Walker has been acting for seven decades and has a best supporting actor win for his role in The Deer Hunter. Yet a lot of early work, while good, was more in the capacity of lead. He was fantastic in David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone and he had good-sized roles in films like Biloxi Blues and Heaven’s Gate. But then, he was cast in two Quentin Tarantino films, the first of which was True Romance, where he shared five minutes of screen time with Dennis Hopper and the two of them made magic together. Next came Pulp Fiction where he had even less screen time. His explanation and the story he tells Butch, about how he and Butch’s dad spent time in a Vietnamese prison camp and how they had to hide a watch in their ass, gets one of the biggest laughs in the movie. Small role, big payoff. Walken has never looked back and has been cast in many roles since. If you needed someone to play an eccentric father like he did in Catch Me if You Can, or a former CIA operative living in Mexico like he did in Man on Fire or a manager of a rock band like he did in Jersey Boys, Walken was your go to guy.

4. J.T. Walsh

Top 10 Supporting Actors Who Always Bring Something Special To A MovieTragically, J. T. Walsh passed away at the age of 54 or he might have made number one on this list. He has more than 70 credits to his name and many of those credits were small but incredibly memorable performances. He and Kurt Russell had a synergistic working relationship as they starred in four films together. One of his best roles was as the clueless and slimy chief of police Maguire, in Tequila Sunrise. Arguably, his best role, albeit smallest one, was his uncredited performance in Outbreak. He plays the angry, straight shooting and accountable Chief of Staff, who tells a room full of suits that the decision they make, the decision to wipe out an entire town, is going to be a unanimous one. His five minutes of screen time are nothing short of explosive and mesmerizing. Walsh never gained super stardom but he played memorable roles in almost every film he was in.

3. Gary Oldman

JFK-1991-Gary-Oldman, Top 10 Supporting ActorsThere is nothing this actor can’t do, no role he can’t play. Until doing this article, I actually forgot Gary Oldman was British – he has played so many American roles that it’s easy to forget that he is not a Yank. I first got to know of Oldman when he did the 1990 Irish gangster film State of Grace. He commanded the screen and was noticeable, even in a film with strong actors like Sean Penn and John Turturro (an actor that just missed this list). And then came Oliver Stone’s opus JFK, where Oldman played accused Kennedy killer, Lee Harvey Oswald. So convincing was he as Oswald that there are times when you really can’t tell who is Oldman and who is actually Oswald from stock footage. He’s played glib and unscrupulous politicians like he did in The Contender, he’s portrayed a drug dealer with a Jamaican accent and dreads in True Romance, he has been Dracula and he’s starred in the Christopher Nolan Batman films as Commissioner Gordon. Oldman is a chameleon. You really don’t recognize him in some of his roles.

2. Steve Buscemi

Top 10 Films of Steve Buscemi, Top 10 Supporting ActorsSteve Buscemi has the distinction of being one of the most versatile actors ever. He can do slapstick comedy, he can do drama, horror and he’s not afraid to play idiots, morons, dorks, nerds, killers and everything in between. Buscemi is a favourite of directors like The Coens, Quentin Tarantino and Michael Bay. He’s also close friends with Adam Sandler and this has allowed his resume to range from films like Fargo and Reservoir Dogs to Grown Ups and Mr. Deeds. He’s also done a lot of voice work. Buscemi is not traditionally good looking so his chances at a leading man were kind of slim but put him in any film and he adds character and colour to it. I personally will see any film Buscemi is in.

***On a side note, something that has nothing to do with film, but I think should be known about him is that he was a NY City fireman for four years in the 1980s. When 9/11 happened, he went to his former firehouse and went out and worked 12 hour shifts for a week. He did this anonymously. It’s stories like this that need to be told. Buscemi never forgot where he came from even after he became famous.

1. (tie) Samuel L. Jackson & Kevin Bacon

Top 10 Movie Monologues - Pulp Fiction - Top 10 Films, Top 10 Supporting ActorsStarting with Samuel L. Jackson, here’s a guy who has made a career out of playing supporting characters. He even went to George Lucas and told him that he wanted to be in the Star Wars prequels. Lucas, without hesitation, wrote the part of Mace Windu for him. Jackson is also the face of Marvel in a way. He’s also just as famous for his liberal use of colloquial words with mother in it. His famous cheesy line from Snakes on a Plane was added in post production because fans demanded it. Jackson has worked on numerous films with Bruce Willis and he got his big break by being one of Spike Lee’s favourites. Then in the 1990s he just started showing up in everything. He was a truck driver in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, he told us all to hold onto our butts in Jurassic Park and then of course, like a few others on this list, once he was cast in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction as Jules, he never looked back. Sam Jackson adds humour, class, swagger and credibility to almost any film he’s in.

Top 10 Supporting Actors Who Always Bring Something Special To A MovieKevin Bacon started out as the traditional good looking frat type guy in films like Animal House, Friday the 13th and his breakthrough role as Ren in Footloose. However, Bacon never took off as a leading man. Hollywood tried to cast him in the lead in films like She’s Having a Baby, Criminal Law and Tremors. None of them did all that well, although Tremors certainly developed a cult following. But then Bacon started showing up in numerous films in the supporting role. He played Willy O’Keefe, a gay prisoner in JFK, he was in an ensemble in Flatliners and Rob Reiner cast him as Captain Jack Ross, the district attorney in A Few Good Men. This was his calling and from here on out, he seemingly worked with everyone in Hollywood, there’s even a game named after him. Directors like Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard, Mathew Vaughn and many others, all cast Bacon in their films. From what I have read, Kevin Bacon is one of the good guys in Hollywood, having actors like Bill Paxton and Meryl Streep sing his praises. It’s no wonder everyone wants to work with him.

Between Sam Jackson and Kevin Bacon, it seems like they have been in every film ever made in the last 20 years. And for this reason, they share the number one spot on my list.

What do you think? There are probably hundreds of other actors that could have made this list. Bill Paxton, James Caan, Jon Turturro and probably a litany of actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood could all be named here. Narrowing it down to ten was difficult.

Written & Compiled by Dan Grant

Name your “ketchup stars” or tell us your top 10 supporting actors who always bring something special to a movie.

About the Author
Dan Grant is an author and horror film fan from Canada. His first novel Terrified and Defenseless is now available for e-download from Amazon. Follow Dan on Twitter @baumer72.

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  1. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    This one is going to create some great debate, Dan! Great idea.

    Some interesting choices – J.T. Walsh was a great character actor and added something extra to every ensemble he appeared in.

  2. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    Dan. Thanks.

    Id like your opinion….since i dont have a great understanding of the golden age, who do u think could be on here from the Grant, Bogart and Monroe days?

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Good question and one I wouldn’t like to answer without some thinking. I don’t think supporting performers got the respect they deserved until cinema’s revolutions in Europe and the US during the 1960s and 1970s when the old Hollywood star system went out of fashion. Before it, you had the stars, and only the stars. People, including the producers themselves, didn’t care who played the smaller parts. Therefore they weren’t as memorable as they became later in film history. You just turned up, read your lines, and went into a studio down the road to do another small part.

      Another from the modern era – the late Phil Hartman – he was always so watchable whenever he’d turn up in a film, regardless of how small the role might have been. I love him in the Michael J. Fox film Greedy and recently watch Small Soldiers again which he’s terrific in. His comic timing delivered with an acerbic sarcasm never failed to make me laugh.

    • Avatar
      Rory Reply

      Better known for his work from the 1970s onwards but Jack Warden was a great supporting actor from the pre-1960s period. Stand out was his performance in 1957’s 12 Angry Men.

      • Avatar
        Dan Reply

        Around the same time he was terrific in supporting turns in Shampoo and All the President’s Men. Moving forward – love his dual-role performance supporting Jack Russell in Zemeckis’ Used Cars.

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    Callum Reply

    Some good choices here but I think a few would claim to be just as good leading the line as main stars. But you’re right, some of the best performances have come as supporting stars – Kevin Bacon is great as a co-star (one of his best performances is surely in Murder In The First.) Sam Jackson too – great as part of Tarantino’s ensembles. J.T. Walsh is one of the best.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Haven’t seen Murder in the First in years. Great film – and definitely one of Bacon’s finest performances.

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    Rory Reply

    @kostmayer mentioned Chris Cooper and David Morse on Twitter which I think are great additions. Who can forget Cooper’s turn in American Beauty as the militaristic father with latent homosexual tendencies which come out with the most devastating and tragic consequences.

    David Morse is a great addition given that I can’t think of a film he’s actually appeared in that isn’t a supporting role. He was great in The Green Mile playing second fiddle to Tom Hanks.

    • Avatar
      Kost Reply

      makes a great lead when given the chance too. Was brilliant in Lone Star

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    Fulmer Reply

    I always loved the power (The Grifters)and restraint (A Few Good Men) J.T. Walsh brought to his performances. Of course he’ll never win an Oscar, but having Jack Nicholson dedicate his Best Actor Oscar in 1998 to him (and a few others) was a wonderful validation.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      I didn’t know Nicholson dedicated his Oscar to Walsh in 1998. Like you say, it’s a great indication of Walsh’s stature within the industry and among his fellow professionals. And what a wonderful thing for Nicholson to do – top guy!

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    hunter Reply

    Good list.

    While these guys have also played the lead lots of times, they’ve done some top stuffk as supporting players:

    Tom Robbins in Mystic River, High Fidelity, War of the Worlds, Cadillac Man
    Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, Casino, Raging Bull, JFK, Lethal Weapon sequels

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    Social Chameleon Reply

    Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters is the best supporting actor performance ever though….

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      Ren Zelen Reply

      Absolutely! Rick Moranis almost stole ‘Ghostbusters’ from under the leads.

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        Social Chameleon Reply

        Watched now as an adult he’s my favourite character it in.

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    Ross Miller Reply

    Richard Jenkins, Chris Cooper, Sam Rockwell, Bruce McGill, William Fichtner, Gary Cole, David Morse, John Hawkes, Brad Dourif

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    Eyes Skyward Reply

    James Cromwell. Richard Schiff

  10. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Dan: That’s fascinating. I had no idea the supporting actors from the golden age were that expendable….thanks for filling me in on that.

    Chris Cooper is terrific in everything he’s in and David Morse is as well.

    I have seen a few Jack Warden films. He’s certainly worth a mention as well.

  11. Avatar
    fourfoot Reply

    loved your list, would add Scott Glenn, David Morse, Thomas Haden Church…

  12. Avatar
    Hubble Reply

    Good list. If I was to add anyone I’d throw Harvey Keitel into the mix. Although he’s done some good leads, he’s better as a support artist.

  13. Avatar
    Hubble Reply

    Thought of another one: James Cromwell.

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    Sarah Jane Reply

    Recently.. Walter Goggins and Richard Jenkins

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    MattyNegs Reply

    Stanley Tucci

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    Yam Mag Reply

    I like the Olivias xD – Thirlby + Williams

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    Yam Mag Reply

    Patricia Clarkson is also great~

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    CineGirl Reply

    A shout out for a few more girls I think. Judi Dench is a good one but she’s stood out in the lead so many times (Mrs Brown, Iris, Mrs Henderson Presents) that she’s too good to be thought of a supporting artist. A lead who always brings something special to a movie when given a supporting role perhaps? 😉

    Another older generation British star Maggie Smith might be more appropriate – think about her performances in Harry Potter. But it goes right back to Othello in 1965 when she turned heads with her supporting roles. She got an Oscar nomination for that role. In fact, she’s had a number of Oscar nominations for supporting performances since then – a quick check shows she’s had Oscar noms for Othello, California Suite (1978 – which she won), A Room With A View (1985), and Gosford Park (2001). Just goes to show how good she is adding depth to an ensemble.

    Other great female actors who have impressed in numerous supporting roles: Sally Field (Punchline, Forrest Gump, Steel Magnolais), Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny, The Wrestler, Oscar) and Frances McDormand (Almost Famous, Wonder Boys, Mississippi Burning).

    • Avatar
      Rory Reply

      A few others for consideration: Catherine Keener, Holly Hunter and Marcia Gay Harden.

      • Avatar
        Dan Reply

        Kathy Bates?

      • Avatar
        Dan Reply

        Funnily enough just watching Into The Wild where both Keener and Harden appear in supporting roles. Both typically strong.

  19. Avatar
    Louise Reply

    From the past – Thelma Ritter was always great in supporting roles. I’m not sure she ever had a leading role. Gig Young was another brilliant supporting actor.

    Totally agree with suggestion of Stanley Tucci. He makes every film he’s in a little bit better, but not sure he could carry one as the lead.

  20. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    So many terrific comments here.

    Moranis was also terrific the Chris Penn/Eric Stoltz film The Wild Life. He’s really quite good.

    David Morse is really good as well.

    Tucci I agree with as well

  21. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    I love Goggins as well and he certainly has carved out a nice career post The Shield…I kind of feel the same about Jon Bernthal….post Walking Dead, he seems to be in a lot of movies.

  22. Avatar
    Alice Reply

    I think Catherine Keener is a good choice… Good list though… Great choices… Samuel l Jackson is always great… Steve Buscemi is perhaps my fave of your ten though… Always manages to be different in each role he plays…

  23. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    There’s a lot of good women mentioned here as well. Kathy Bates for sure is an excellent choice. I like Annie Potts in a lot of her roles. Something small like Jumping Jack Flash is nice but her bigger ones like Ghostbusters and Pretty in Pink are really juicy.

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    Amanda Reply

    Nice list. I think Kathy Bates is a good suggestion. Love you choice of Steve Buscemi.

  25. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Another one that had a really nice career in the 90’s and then into the 2000’s was Michael Rappaport…..i loved him in Beautiful Girls….so funny and a terrific addition to any film he was in.

  26. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    A stellar list, Dan Grant. I can’t argue with any of the choices. The only other person I would add is John C. Reilly he’s done some outstanding supporting roles like Boogie Nights and Magnolia to name a few. I feel he adds a unique element to every film he is in.

  27. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    Oh and Chris Cooper is also amazing, he’s one of my favorite actors.I love that you have Buscemi at number 2 he’s fantastic!!

  28. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Hi Neal,

    Two excellent actors for sure. Reilly is incredibly versatile as well and Cooper is just terrific in everything he’s in.

  29. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    And lots of love here for Buscemi……he really is one of the more versatile actors perhaps ever.

    There are some really good smaller names as well…..William Forsythe was in a lot of films like Extreme Prejudice, Weeds, The Rock and Out For Justice to name a few. Always liked him. Clancy Brown is another as well as Michael Ironside.

  30. Avatar
    Keith Reply

    Wow! It is really hard to argue with any of these choices. Great job covering a broad spectrum!

  31. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Perhaps a good way to end this is to say that Michael Caine should have been on this list too…..he is excellent in everything and he is certainly a terrific supporting actor.

  32. Avatar
    Evan Crean Reply

    Wow! What a tremendous list of supporting actors. So many of my personal favorites on here: Don Cheadle, Judi Dench, Robert Duvall, Ving Rhames, Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman, Steve Buscemi, Samuel L. Jackson, and Kevin Bacon. I think the only one missing who would have made my list is John Turturro. Side note, nice Days of Thunder and Falling Down references!

  33. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    I think you could probably do a top 50 list of supporting actors. There really are so many terrific actors that aren’t quite lead worthy.

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