James Rebhorn: Remembering the Quintessential Character Actor

James Rebhorn: Remembering the Quintessential Character

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.

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  1. I liked him as a actor. I recalled he was in a episode or two in the 1980’s Dallas series with Larry Hagman. When I looked up the bio on Rebhorn there is nothing mentioned about it. Can anyone tell me he was in this TV series?

  2. He’d have loved that. But your appreciation of his work would have been enough.

  3. Did James Rebhorn ever acted in the original Dallas TV show in the 1980’s?

  4. Paul Beck says:

    I worked with Jim in college productions and he was a stand up guy from day one. I had the privilege of working with many actors in off-B’way productions after college with some actors who later starred in roles that Jim worked with. Few came close to his integrity and work ethic. Favorite role for me was the car expert in My Cousin Vinny. Thank you Jim. It was a great ride.

  5. jfbarbato says:

    Reblogged this on joe__barbato and commented:
    It’s said to say but Rebhorn is the perfect example of the “that guy’s good in [choice of movie], what’s his name again?” The character actor fills a vital position in films: the niche character that fills out a movie and complements the fuller, more expansive leading roles. Frequently, a minor supporting role can have a major impact on the feel of the film, if played convincingly by a talented character actor. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, and Steve Buscemi have made careers out of playing eccentric or particular characters that strengthen a film. However, the James Rebhorn’s of the industry are the one’s that are dying out in place of special effects, box office driven extravaganzas. As long as character actors continue to be weaned out of films, the smaller star turns, like Hoffman in Boogie Nights, that make a movie great will eventually be reflected in the overall quality of the films themselves.

  6. Whitney says:

    I was on set with him for a TV pilot called The Ordained. I was also tempted to speak with him, decided to let him eat his lunch in peace! I, too, am sorry.

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