'Man Who Wasn't There' lawyer has ego second to none

OSCAR QUOTIENT

PROS: Riedenschneider has earned his place in the Coen brothers’ character catalog.

CONS: Plot twists bar Riedenschneider from having his day in court.

Tony Shalhoub, by his own admission, didn’t do any homework prior to shooting the Coen brothers’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”

No tedious afternoons in a sleepy law library; no quality time with the legal set, either. Yet, Shalhoub’s energetic portrayal of Freddy Riedenschneider, a slick and earnest 1940s small-town California lawyer, puts the former “Wings” star right in the middle of the supporting actor race.

“My role was a feast,” says Shalhoub, noting that the Coens are first on his call sheet should an Oscar nom come his way.

Shalhoub says Riedenschneider was a pure Coen invention. “The Coens gave me the script. The role was written for me.”

Shalhoub’s Riedenschneider, who never presents his case for Doris Crane (played by Frances McDormand) in front of judge or jury, is not culled from personal experience. The actor’s never had a professional interest in law, “but I’ve broken it,” he quips.

Riedenschneider’s got his own approach to law, too.

“Freddy’s too sophisticated to care whether or not Doris Crane is guilty,” says Shalhoub. “He just wants to win the case.”

The Coens’ lawyer won’t book a hotel room or order a meal without “poking around” to see if the joint checks out. Though Riedenschneider isn’t afraid of dirtying a hand or two to get the lowdown, he’s not comfortable with the post-World War II great unwashed.

“There an aspect to him that feels superior to small-town folk,” says Shalhoub.

Should the thesp win the Oscar, his career path, however, will be anything but uncertain.

“It’s a validation of some kind. I think any actor would be lying if they said it wasn’t something they’ve always dreamed of,” he admits.

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