Four companions on a TV road trip

Grunberg, McShane, Parker, Woodard always deliver compelling perfs

Shows come and go but when fall arrives, the working actor is back looking for the next big thing. Here are four thesps who we’ll always check out — no matter the project — because, like a great athlete, they’re not only terrific on their own but make everyone around them that much better.

Greg Grunberg

It’s fun to play a bad guy. But it’s really hard to play a good guy. So here’s to Greg Grunberg, the best good guy on TV. Grunberg is the consummate supporting nice guy, largely because of his roles in every J.J. Abrams series from “Felicity” to “Lost.” (He had a lead in Abrams’ ABC pilot “The Catch,” but the network passed.) Grunberg understands the balancing act of good support: put the script before your ego but don’t be boring. Grunberg gets in, gets out, makes the lines stick. He’s never boring.

Grunberg’s first supporting nice guy, Sean Blumberg on “Felicity,” was a sounding board for the leading man’s love troubles. But, in snatches of tertiary storylines, Sean evolved a life of his own as a quirky entrepreneur who married Felicity’s Goth-girl roommate, developed testicular cancer and underwent a belated bar mitzvah. On “Alias,” as Agent Eric Weiss, Grunberg again crafts a whole person out of limited air time. Weiss is sweet, courageous (how many bullets has he taken for Vaughn?) and funny. And didn’t you cheer when Weiss finally got a girlfriend? Grunberg’s tender portrayal of a regular guy in love with the sublimely hot Nadia was a highlight of “Alias” this past season.

Of course, supporting players are often disposable. As the pilot of the downed plane in “Lost,” an uncredited Grunberg met a haunting, grisly death at the hands (teeth?) of the show’s unseen scary jungle beast. Even as monster fodder, Grunberg is unforgettable.

Ian McShane

With theatrical staging and poetry that blends the sacred and profane, HBO’s “Deadwood” is the closest thing to Shakespeare American TV has ever produced. And in a gifted cast, no one seizes those antique turns of phrase and voluminous monologues with more authority than Ian McShane, who comes to Al Swearengen’s Gem Saloon by way of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and a 40-year career in stage, movies and TV.

McShane’s well-honed sense of stagecraft propels Swearengen’s filthy orations to ecstatic heights. But his verbosity is never hammy; a veteran player of rogues (the con man in the series “Lovejoy”) and villains (Judas in the miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth”), McShane knows that, on screen, less is more.

Swearengen often wordlessly compels fear, respect and sympathy, surveying his domain with deep-set eyes that are at once cold and mournful. Violent, shrewd, world-weary, with a fondness for “that fucking Oolong tea” sipped from a dainty cup and saucer, Swearengen is a multitudinous creation, endlessly fascinating. Watching him foment, fulminate and struggle with pain of body and soul whets your appetite for what McShane could do as King Lear or Richard III.

Mary-Louise Parker

With her luminous near-black eyes, Tony and Emmy winner Mary-Louise Parker is a singular presence.

She specializes in playing women who are underestimated at first glance, probably because of her delicate beauty and somewhat spacey drawl. On NBC’s “The West Wing,” Parker played the recurring role of Amy Gardner, a political consultant and feminist who was in a bumpy relationship with Josh Lyman. And Josh was so turned on by Amy’s laid-back wit and simmering sexiness that he kept letting down his guard and stepping on the hornet’s nest of strong emotions and political beliefs hidden beneath Amy’s deceptively placid surface.

As Harper Pitt, her Emmy-winning role in HBO’s “Angels in America,” Parker bared the soul of a woman who had grown accustomed to being ignored. No one who saw Parker transform Harper from lovable, maddening waif to self-sufficient pioneer is likely to forget it.

This fall, Parker returns to TV as the star of Showtime’s comedy series “Weeds,” playing a suburban single mother who sells marijuana to make ends meet. The built-in contradictions of the role are pure Parker.

Alfre Woodard

No list of great TV actors is complete without Alfre Woodard.

With 12 Emmy noms and four wins, Woodard is the Meryl Streep of TV, setting a standard for excellence and integrity that few can match. Woodard has radar for finding superb projects. She was front and center at the ensemble drama revolution of the 1980s, winning two of her Emmys for guest roles on “Hill Street Blues” (as the mother of a boy killed by police) and the pilot of “L.A. Law” (as a terminally ill woman who is raped). Woodard also had a recurring role on another seminal ensemble drama, “St. Elsewhere,” as the dedicated Dr. Roxanne Turner.

Woodard often plays characters to whom terrible things happen, but are too tenacious and dignified to be called victims — rather, she offers them up as complicated women facing difficult choices. Whether they are poor or well off, uneducated or brilliant, Woodard’s characters are lit from within by principle, even if that principle sometimes makes sense only to them, as in the celebrated 1997 HBO movie “Miss Evers’ Boys” (for which she won an Emmy).

After all that drama, Woodard finally gets the chance to be mischievous this fall when she joins the cast of “Desperate Housewives.” We’ve seen Alfre Woodard, thespian — bring on Alfre Woodard, diva.

(TV columnist Joyce Millman, a regular contributor to the Boston Phoenix, has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.)

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