They make movies and television possible. And they always have.
In fact, the quickest way to separate major league movie devotees from minor leaguers is their devotion to the character actor's art -- the actors whose names are seldom, if ever, on marquees even if their faces are never out of your head.
There are only a handful of truly great character actors in contemporary movies. And no fewer than two of them are from Western New York -- Philip Seymour Hoffman, from Rochester, and William Sadler of Orchard Park, who opens on Broadway today playing Julius Caesar to Denzel Washington's Brutus in Shakespeare's drama, after weeks of some of the most well-attended previews in Manhattan.
Sadler can be almost dumbfoundingly brilliant in movies and television. It doesn't matter whether he plays a tiny cameo role as a monstrous degenerate in Bill Condon's "Kinsey" or a hilarious one many years before as the Grim Reaper in "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey," it is Sadler you're likely to remember as long as you remember the movie itself. His face and talent are now in permanent repertory in American movie and TV consciousness.
And not all that many decades ago, the 54-year-old Bill Sadler reports he was "playing the banjo and telling jokes" as, yes, a teen-aged "Banjo Bill Sadler" in the Orchard Park Grange Hall and even the Park Lane. Clearly a journey of a thousand miles.
"I grew up in Orchard Park," he said recently on the phone. "I went to Orchard Park Junior High. I was playing in rock and roll bands. And appearing as Banjo Bill. It dawned on other people I should be an actor before it dawned on me."
There was, for instance, an English teacher named Ann Larkin who convinced him to try out for the senior play, "Harvey."
"I had a wonderful time. She then suggested I audition for 'The Subject Was Roses,' which was being performed by the Amherst Players. It was being directed by a man named Bob Schulz. Bob Schulz cast me in this wonderful Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. It was the thing that launched Martin Sheen's career on Broadway. I was cast in the role of Timmy, the angry young son back from the Army. It opened my eyes to the world of acting. It was the real deal. I seemed to have a knack for it. I enjoyed it so much I got hooked."
Nor was it the end of Schulz's transforming influence on Sadler's life.
"He said, 'What are you planning to do with the rest of your life? Where are you going to school?' To avoid the draft I was going into industrial arts at Buff State -- not knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be a shop teacher. I was adrift I guess. I thought, 'Well maybe I'll sneak around to the drama department from industrial arts.' Bob Schulz said, 'You know what, let me make a phone call.' To the head of the drama department at Geneseo, he said 'I've got this kid, I'd like to bring him down.' He put me in a car and drove me down to Geneseo. I met the head of the drama department."
And that's how one Great American Character Actor was born.
A few other words from a conversation with Bill Sadler:
On others of his profession who aren't fond of the term "character actor."
"I'm not fond of the term either -- as opposed to, what, one who doesn't do characters? The way they use it in the business is that there are character actors and then there are leading men. I find that a misnomer, because some of the best actors create fabulous characters. Johnny Depp can be unrecognizable from one role to another. Or Dustin Hoffman. Or Robert De Niro. That's what actors do. You get under the skin and create somebody new. You create a full-blown character.
"It's a bit of a misnomer. It implies that people who are leading men don't create characters and that isn't true either. We all create characters. Some are closer to our own persona than others."
On the face that has given him his fortune (and launched him into countless villain roles). "I have a bony face. And it's getting craggier by the day. I have the bones I was given. It's like what I say about Cassius in 'Julius Caesar': 'He has a lean and hungry look.' He's a dangerous man. . . . There's no escaping the shape of your body, the shape of your head. I've been fortunate that they find my face interesting."
On the very few comic roles he has had since his hilarious turn as the grim reaper in "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey."
"I'm just not generally thought of as a comic actor. I would love to do more comedy. Unfortunately, in this business, you're either Jim Carrey or you're not. People like to put people into categories, to say, 'He does that really well.' So as soon as I'd played a couple of icy cold villains in 'Die Hard 2' and 'Hard to Kill,' big successful films, Hollywood went 'I know what he does. He plays that and he plays it really well.' That's where they feel comfortable using you.
"If you want to bust out of that, somebody has to take a chance and go against that type. You have to show them all over again that you can do something else -- that you can do musicals. Or sing and dance. Or be funny. That's how typecasting works. When they're spending a lot of money on this cast, they don't want to experiment. They want to hire you for what they know you can do. (It's like saying) 'you kicked ass as the villain, as the heavy; don't rock the boat.'
"I was glad that I got to do 'Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey' for that reason. It was fun that I finally did a movie where my young daughter (at the time) could see what Daddy does for a living. She was 3 or 4 by then.
"I love doing comedy. I started out as a stand-up comic. I get to do just a little bit of it as Caesar. He's not without a giggle here and there."
On his performance in the hugely unsettling degenerate role in Bill Condon's "Kinsey."
"You know I've sometimes turned down roles in films where I've thought: 'This is just too heinous. This person is so despicable I just don't want to be associated with that.' But I'm a great admirer of Bill Condon. There's a reason that character was there. It's a cameo with a point. As I read the film, that was the moment the world started to go dark for Kinsey. It was all 'this is OK,' 'that is OK,' and then he bumps into the character I play. And it's like: 'Oh. There IS a line. You can go too far.'
"It just seemed like an important project and a chance to work with some extraordinarily talented people.
"I don't know how (Condon) does this. You can ask any actor who's ever worked with him. I came away from my cameo, from my two days of working with him, thinking to myself, 'If there's an Academy Award performance in me, it will be at the hands of someone like Condon.' Not only does he get out of the way of the good stuff you bring to the role, he insists on it. You feel better and better and better about what you're doing as the day goes on until finally you've gone further than you've ever imagined. You've been more honest. You've done your best work. You've done remarkable work. I think he does that with all the actors. I think that's why every time he steps to the plate, people get nominated."
The roles he has turned down in his career.
"There was a film called 'Falling Down.' He (Michael Douglas) goes across town, he goes into an Army-Navy store, and he runs into this guy who's such a rabid anti-Semite -- so bigoted, so vicious. I don't know whether I turned the job down or I turned down the audition for the job. I just didn't want to do that one.
"And there was a head of the KKK in 'American History X.' I didn't want to do that one either. Who knows? These may have been mistakes."
On the actors he has worked with who've inspired him along the way.
"Denzel (Washington) is the one that comes to mind. I'm a huge admirer of his craft. I just find him a remarkable actor. He's courageous and honest. He fights for every moment. When he feels he's getting pushed into some place he doesn't feel rings true, he fights his way back. He's such a wonderful actor. It's been brilliant to work with him, to watch him.
"And Morgan Freeman (in 'The Shawshank Redemption') kind of inspired me. Morgan Freeman makes it all look so damn easy."
On living away from Hollywood in Millbrook.
"We lived in Los Angeles for about 15 years. And then five or six years ago came back to Poughkeepsie. We've had a farmhouse near Millbrook since the mid-'80s. We finally decided to get back there and live in it before we're too old to enjoy it.
"You do feel out of the loop. You're not going to be called in. There are a lot of television opportunities where they're probably not going to fly you in for an audition for this or a meeting for that. You do miss some of that. But the trade-off is I'm now playing Julius Caesar on Broadway. This is the most fun I've ever had in my career. We're kicking ass and taking names eight times a week. I don't know how much better than this it gets.
"This is only my second role on Broadway. My first was in 1985 when I was this crazy drill sergeant in 'Biloxi Blues.' That was pretty high visibility. But we didn't get crowds like this outside the theater back then. Denzel is drawing enormous crowds -- celebrities and all swirling around us, and all because of him."
On the personal sacrifices of being a working actor.
"You're away a lot. You miss birthdays and anniversaries. And elementary school plays -- things that I've had to miss because I was off being an actor, pursuing the things that I do."
Even so, Sadler's daughter, a 19-year-old student at Sarah Lawrence, isn't far, so far, from recapitulating her father's early life.
When he talks about her, it's with the same pride that his mother Jane talks about him.
"She's a budding singer/songwriter. She's played at the Bitter End. She's played at CBGB's now. She played downstairs at CBGB's, they loved her so much, they moved her upstairs. They said, 'You've got to play the big room.' They gave her 40 minutes to do her songs."
Her stage name is Sadler Colley Bakst (the last is his wife's last name).
"She's just extraordinary. She's found a thing that she's passionate about, and I couldn't be happier because she's awfully good at it."
That does have a familiar sound.