Being one of the top character actors of American film and television must be the ultimate double-edged career sword.
On the one hand, if you’re good — and the late Ed Lauter was one of American cinema’s great character actors — you work all the time. On the other hand, as Lauter told Shock Cinema magazine back in 2010, “Sometimes people don’t know my name. They’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah! There’s that guy! You were in … Jesus Christ … you were in … in …’ So, in a way it’s good — and in a way it’s bad.”
Lauter was not alone in his plight. He and his fellow character actors who consistently deliver the goods have been a mainstay of American cinema since the days of the Hollywood’s “stock players,” a moniker that devalues the work of great performers from Hattie McDaniel to Peter Lorre, from Sidney Greenstreet to William Frawley and hundreds of other greats.
While the work for top character players can be steady, there’s always the frustration of constantly looking for the opportunity to step up and get the role that enables you to show the world why you’re always working and what you have that makes directors and casting agents keep your name on speed dial.
Lauter, who passed away in 2013, had a 40-plus-year run that started with an episode of “Mannix” in 1971 and essentially wrapped with the triumph of securing a supporting role in the 2011 Oscar best picture winner “The Artist.” It was Lauter’s first time in an Oscar best picture winner.
Along the way he was memorable so many times in so many films that it’s virtually impossible to chronicle the roles he rocked without writing a book on the subject. But a quick romp through his credits illustrates the genius of Lauter’s work, characterized by a wide range of colors and tones from gritty to witty, menacing to manic. And then some.
Novelist-screenwriter Joseph Wambaugh was a witness to Lauter’s origins and according Wambaugh, Lauter’s trademark verisimilitude was in place even before his face lit up ’70s American films and TV shows.
While still a detective sergeant for the Los Angeles Police Dept., Wambaugh saw his first novel, “The New Centurions,” shooting in the Hollenbeck Division area of L.A back in 1971.
He recalls being introduced to Lauter by another seasoned police pro, his partner Richard Kalik, even though, Wambaugh recalls, “Everyone was starstruck by (the film’s star) George C. Scott, who was coming off his Oscar-winning role in ‘Patton.’ But Rich wanted me to meet Lauter, who he liked best in the whole movie company. I thought from the beginning that anyone could so impress a cynical police detective had to be a real person and he was.”
Wambaugh worked with Lauter again when the actor appeared in the Wambaugh-created Emmy-winning TV series “Police Story” only two years later, but Lauter had already established himself as, what Wambaugh calls, “Everyman,” noting, “Ed could play that just about better than anyone. The same thing could be said of Tom Hanks. When I see Ed in a role, I believe every damn thing he does. I never see an actor. I see the character he is portraying, whether that guy is lovable or terrifying or somewhere in between.”
That assessment was obviously widely known and shared inside the industry, and by the time Lauter had made his mark as Captain Knauer, a menacing prison guard in Robert Aldrich’s 1974 classic actioner, “The Longest Yard,” he had already racked up nearly a dozen feature film credits.
During that time, Jeff Bridges worked with Lauter in three gems of early ’70s American cinema: Lamont Johnson’s 1973 “Last American Hero,” “Lolly Madonna War” and “Bad Company,” as well as several other films over the years, including “Seabiscuit” and “King Kong.” Bridges’ memories of Lauter, whom he describes as “a brilliant actor,” are especially strong, because, he says, “Most often when making movies, you become a very tight family, then the movie ends and the family disperses. This was not the case with Ed and me. When we first met on ‘Bad Company’ in 1972, we became long-lasting friends, and had the joy sharing many lifetimes together. I say ‘lifetimes,’ because I often think of movies as little incarnations, and we shared many.”
Lauter was clearly more than just a terrific actor, and Bridges says, “Some of the characters we played were friends and some enemies” but even more than their on-screen work, he recalls a friend who “loved all aspects of showbiz and that joy was contagious when being around him.”
Since someone once described the three most important jobs of the director as “Casting, casting and casting,” it’s no surprise that Lauter is lauded by helmers.
His director on “Youngblood” and “Wagons East,” Peter Markle, not only describes Lauter as “one of those actors who could say everything with a look,” but he says he also understands why the legendary Alfred Hitchcock valued Lauter so much and had plans to work with him again after the Master of Suspense’s last film, “Family Plot.”
“Ed had a million stories,” recalls Markle. “One of my favorites was when he did ‘Family Plot.’ After a scene he asked Hitch what he thought. Hitch replied, ‘Too many dogs’ feet.’ Ed asked him what that meant. Hitch replied, ‘Too many pauses.’ Ed made the adjustment, of course.”
As for a favorite Lauter moment in a career filled with great portraits, Markle points to Lauter’s indelible study in malevolence mixed with humanity, Captain Knauer: “Most of us can remember the end of ‘The Longest Yard,’ when Eddie Albert hands Ed the rifle to shoot Burt Reynolds who is walking away from them across the field after the prison football game,” Markle says.
“Ed is a reluctant executioner and the smile, which shows relief as well as his contempt for the warden, plays with perfection across his extreme closeup as Burt picks up the game ball. It’s the coda for the entire film.”
It was also the announcement of a major actor who took that word “supporting” and blew it up bigger than any of the screens he famously filled.