James Rebhorn – who died Friday at the age of 65 – was the quintessential character actor, and as such a representative of a proud if sadly disappearing breed.
Rebhorn worked constantly, but seldom above the marquee. His death has already produced a number of “I loved him in…” comments, with almost no two of the films or TV shows cited being the same.
Personally, his most memorable role – or at least the one most emblematic of his screen persona – came in “Scent of a Woman,” where he played the stern headmaster opposite Al Pacino, Chris O’Donnell and a very young Philip Seymour Hoffman. Realizing that part was more than 20 years ago, it’s striking that Rebhorn didn’t really appear to age – one of those guys who seemed to be about 50 when he was 40, and stayed that way for the next couple of decades.
As for being a throwback, Rebhorn embodied a kind of actor who has suffered in recent years as studios rely on summer tentpoles or star-driven vehicles, at the expense of those in secondary roles. Character actors have seen less interesting work because of it, and also felt the pinch in terms of their salary quotes, with producers anteing up for the big names perceived to put butts in seats but holding the line on other performers.
A small number of actors, though, have compensated for this by moving between film and television, as Rebhorn regularly did (his Imdb.com posting lists more than 120 credits), most recently in a recurring role on Showtime’s “Homeland.” It was a rare opportunity to see him play a nice guy (he was Claire Danes’ father), when he often got cast in the part of heavy or corporate weasel.
Also, any appreciation of Rebhorn would be incomplete without a personal anecdote: In the late 1990s, I happened to be on a flight from New York to Los Angeles when Rebhorn sat down one seat up across the aisle. I instantly recognized him, and was fumbling for something to read when a woman paused and said, “Excuse me, sir?”
Naturally, I assumed she had identified him from one of his many roles and wanted to say hello, or perhaps even ask for an autograph. When I looked up, though, she was staring at me, and said earnestly, “Mr. Maltin?”
Given how seamlessly Rebhorn eased into an array of parts, he probably didn’t get noticed in public all that often (though hopefully, more often than I’m mistaken for Leonard Maltin). Still, at that moment I thought maybe I should lean over, tell him what I did and say how much I enjoyed his work. Instead, I thought it better to leave him alone.
In hindsight, I wish I’d said something.