No slackers in sight: The great supporting actors – Part 1

Photo: Supplied

Photo: Supplied

John Cazale

Born: August 12 1935
Died: March 12 1978

best supporting actors

John Cazale (The Godfather, The Deer Hunter) is considered one of the great character actors of all time. Photo: Supplied

Most famous role:

It’s hard to go past his iconic performance of Fredo, the second son of Vito Corleone, who receives the kiss of death from Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part II. Despite his character’s big heart, he never seemed to fit into the family’s scheme of life.

Don’t forget he appeared in The Godfather: Part III in archival footage, and when Pacino’s character called his name over and over again as he suffers a stroke – highlighting the guilt Pacino’s character still felt towards his death.

Other film roles:

In total Cazale appeared in 5 films (plus The Godfather III as archival footage).

He was Pacino’s partner in crime as they robbed a bank in Dog Day Afternoon. In The Conversation, he joined Gene Hackman in bugging the conversation of a couple as they walked through busy San Francisco.

The Deer Hunter was his final film role – as part of the tight-knit community of steelworkers in Pennsylvania. All his scenes were filmed first as he was dying from cancer.


Cazale died at age 42 and left behind his broken-hearted partner Meryl Streep. All six films he appeared in were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.  In 2009 Cazale was the subject of a documentary called I Knew It Was You.

Thelma Ritter

Born: February 14 1902
Died: February 5 1969


Thelma Ritter (right), with Doris Day in a scene from the 1959 hit film Pillow Talk. Photo: Supplied

Most famous role:

You would most likely recognise her as Jimmy Stewart’s in-call nurse ‘Stella’ in Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant Rear Window.

Initially, she is dismissive of Stewart’s observation of a possible murder across the courtyard, but is slowly drawn into the investigation with the help of Grace Kelly.

Other film roles:

In Miracle on 34th Street, Ritter was the mother unable to find the toy that Santa had promised her son. In All About Eve, she was ‘Birdie’ – the outspoken maid of Bette Davis, and in Pillow Talk she played Doris Day’s drunken housekeeper.

Ritter was cast as Burt Lancaster’s mother fighting for his release in the 1962 film Birdman of Alcatraz.

But, if you can, seek out Pickup on South Street, where she plays the informer in Sam Fuller’s wonderful film noir about pickpocketing.


Ritter was nominated for an Oscar six times – all in the supporting category – and six times she lost.

Joe Turkel

Born: July 15 1927

Great supporting actors

Joe Turkel in his most famous film role, the bartender in The Shining. Photo: Supplied

Most famous role:

Surely it is as Lloyd, the ghostly bartender who Jack Nicholson sees in the hotel Gold Room in The Shining. It is his only scene in the film.

Other film roles:

If the face looks familiar then it’s probably because you remember him as Tyrell, the creator of the Nexus-6 replicants in the outstanding Blade Runner. He meets his death, literally, at the hands of the man he created – Roy Batty. It’s one of the great scenes of sci-fi cinema.

In Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, he is one of the three soldiers unfairly sentenced to death for cowardice.


Joe is one of two actors to appear in three Stanley Kubrick films (the other man being Philip Stone).

In 1995, a publication on the making of Blade Runner listed that Turkel has died. He hasn’t, he is still with us, and most recently appeared at an Occupy Seattle rally in 2011 to speak before the crowd.

Margaret Dumont

Born: October 20 1882
Died: March 6 1965


greatest supporting actors

Margaret Dumond played the straight woman to Groucho Marx’s slapstick in seven Marx Brothers films. Photo: Supplied

Most famous role:

If there was a supporting acting Hall of Fame, Margaret Dumont would be at the top of the list.

In seven Marx Brothers films she was the comic foil to Grouch Marx. Her roles were that of rich widows, often courted for her money. Consider her role as Mrs Rittenhouse, the party host in Animal Crackers, or the sanitarium patient Emily Upjohn in A Day At The Races.

Other film roles:

Most likely you wouldn’t remember her in any non-Marx Brothers films, but it is worth seeking out her final film role as Shirley MacLaine’s mother in What a Way to Go!, and as the lady of the house who owns a kleptomaniac bull terrier in High Flyers.


Upon accepting his Honorary Oscar in 1974, Groucho Marx wished that Margaret Dumont was still alive to witness the accolade. Just the mention of her name brought the Oscar crowd to applause.


James Tolkan

Born: June 20 1931


As well as the Back to the Future principal, James Tolkan also played a hard edged officer in Top Gun. Photo: Supplied

Most famous role:

It has to be the strict principal of Hill Valley High School in Back to the Future. He appeared as Gerald Strickland again in Back to the Future II (‘Slacker!’) , and in Back to the Future III played his character’s grandfather.

Other film roles:

You might remember him as the homophobic police lieutenant in Serpico, or as the District Attorney in Prince of the City.

Woody Allen cast him as ‘Napoleon’ in Love and Death, and in the 1980s he was the strict army officer in WarGames, the aircraft carrier officer in Top Gun who orders Maverick and Goose to attend the Fighter Weapon’s School, and he even pops up as the detective investigating the school fire in the pretty bad Masters of the Universe film from 1987.


Even at age 82, he is still recognised by the public and often is on the receiving end of people yelling out ‘Slacker!’ at him (his line from Back to the Future).

In Top Gun, he contributed the famous ‘Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash’, line to the script, after overhearing it in a discussion he had with a squadron leader during research for his role.

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