On a whim this not so long ago I decided to watch the original Star Wars (I absolutely refuse to call it Episode IV: A New Hope), and realized how the film's often silly dialogue is saved by the talents of British actors like Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness. Just think about how hokey phrases like "The Force can have a strong influence on the weak minded" would sound without Guinness' masterful delivery. As Grand Moff Tarkin (what the hell is a Grand Moff, anyway?) Cushing's rolled "r"s and clipped diction manage to skirt the border with camp without quite crossing it. British actors who scored lead roles like Guinness, Laurence Olivier, Richard Harris, and Michael Caine are well known, but we should remember the lesser known thespians who in some ways are just as memorable. In that spirit, here are my top five favorite British character actors.
1. Donald Pleasance. Was there ever a creepier voice in the history of cinema than that of Donald Pleasance? Only Peter Lorre comes close. (Don't believe me? Listen to him in this scary British PSA.) Pleasance was in a bajillion movies, but I'll never forget him as the president in Escape From New York (in my opinion the best of all the post-apocalyptic films of the early 1980s.) Not only is he believable as the president, he is actually believable as the president spraying machine gun fire at the Duke of New York, not an easy thing to pull off. He was perhaps the only think about the Sgt. Pepper motion picture that did not completely suck. And oh yeah, he was the first actor to fully portray the ultimate Bond villain, Blofeld.
2. Rachel Roberts. Roberts appears in two of the greatest British realist films, one of my favorite genres. As I mentioned awhile back, Roberts' performance in This Sporting Life is one for the ages. Nobody has ever done a better job of portraying someone whose self-hatred destroys her ability to love. She does a great job in a less gut-wrenching role in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Her best performance, however, came in Picnic at Hanging Rock, where she managed to center one of the most mysterious films ever made as a bitter school headmistress.
3. Christopher Lee. Of all the great Brit character actors of the World War II generation, none has had as much recent fame as Christopher Lee. He managed to get sizable roles in the two biggest film trilogies of the last decade, the Star Wars prequels and The Lord of the Rings, as Count Dukoo and Sauruman, respectively. In the latter roles he wrings every inch of menace out of lines like "you have chosen the way of pain" (which pretty much sums up a decision to go to grad school.) As Dukoo he was one of the few things that made Attack of the Clones bearable. This prominent work has introduced him to generations wholly ignorant of his many classic roles in the old Hammer horror films, which alone get him on this list. His Dracula is a pitiless killing machine who would eat Edward for lunch and have Bella for dessert. I also highly enjoy his turn as the titular Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun, which he saves from utter crapitude.
4. Tom Wilkinson. After watching, of all things, Duplicity a few years ago I remembered just how great an actor Tom Wilkinson is. (I know of no other Brit so good at portraying Americans.) I first saw him as the uptight former supervisor in The Full Monty, where he managed to play a sympathetic ass, which is quite a tightrope act. His puffy, pompous interpretation of General Cornwallis is also the only redeemable thing about The Patriot.
5. Denis Lawson. Okay, so he may not be the most distinguished guy on this list, but Denis Lawson did indeed play Wedge Antilles in all of the original Star Wars flicks. Wedge was the only minor character to appear in all three films, so Lawson can definitely hold onto that. (I'm sure sci-fi convention appearances will pay for his retirement.) During my Charles Dickens craze in the late oughts I looked up the most recent British TV adaptation of Bleak House (my fave Dickens novel), and he absolutely nailed the part of John Jarndyce. How many other people can look natural both in an X-Wing cockpit and wearing a Victorian cravat?