Oscar Impact: Typecasting–Ustinov, Peter, Character Actor

The second kind of typecasting is most severely felt by supporting actors, who are doomed for the rest of their careers to play second bananas.

In some respects, the Academy itself is responsible for such typecasting, making the distinction between leading and character players official in the Academy Players Directory, the industry’s chief casting tool. Until the late 1970s, players who won or were nominated for supporting awards tended to remain in this category.

Peter Ustinov and Lee J. Cobb

After making his stage debut in London at seventeen, Peter Ustinov suffered from similar typecasting in Hollywood, where he mostly played older, often eccentric characters.

Forever associated with screen roles of men much older than his own age. Ustinov never became a leading man. “It was a mistake,” Ustinov later conceded. “For years I played nothing but old and freakish men.”

The same fate was met by Lee J. Cobb, a leading man in the theater but mostly a character actor in film. Cobb played secondary roles, often tough racketeers and stern politicians, earning nominations for On the Waterfront and The Brothers Karamazov.

Gig Young

Gig Young’s lifelong dream was to be a leading man, but his Oscar (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They) and his two other nominations were all in the supporting league. Similarly, Angela Lansbury, Celeste Holm, Donna Reed, Shirley Jones, and Teresa Wright began and ended their screen careers as supporting actresses, especially after winning awards in this category, which legitimized their status.

Though typecasting is still a norm in Hollywood, it is not as rigid as it used to be, particularly for men. In the last three decades, several actors, including George C. Scott, Roy Scheider, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, and Robert De Niro, began their careers and won Academy recognition as supporting players, but later made smooth transition to leading roles.

Gene Hackman

Gene Hackman began his career as a character actor, distinguishing himself in secondary parts in films such as Bonnie and Clyde (his first nomination). Hackman’s part in I Never Sang for My Father brought a second supporting nomination–“I guess the Academy is trying to tell me something,” he said. Even so, Hackman was proud to state: “I never approach a film as if I’m playing a supporting character. If I do, then I’m just a supporting character. I approach it as if it’s the most important thing in my life.”

In 1971, Hackman won the Best Actor for The French Connection, after which he has played both leading and supporting roles’ by choice. For his role as a sadistic sheriff in Unforgiven, Hackman won a second, supporting Oscar. Hackman belongs to the new breed of star character actors who get lead roles without conforming to Hollywood’s traditional typecasting, demanding that leading men be attractive and project a romantic image.