Monday, November 11, 2013

Interview with the Authors of "Also Starring : Forty Biographical Essays on the Greatest Characters Actors"

Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled and Paula's Cinema Club have teamed up to once again bring us the annual What a Character! blogathon. With all the excitement generated over the celebration of these marvelous unsung talents we thought we would spotlight an excellent book on the subject : Also Starring: 40 Biographical Essays on the Greatest Characters of Hollywood's Golden Era. This is the definitive guide to character actors, featuring insightful peeks into the lives of forty of the greatest characters of the silver screen. Each actor is profiled in depth with illustrations and filmographies and are introduced with clever taglines, such as "Jolly Jowls" S.Z Sakall, "The Gentleman's Gentleman" Eric Blore, "Steam in her Kettle" Marjorie Main, and "The Eccentric Harridan" Elsa Lanchester. It's definitely a book the ultimate film fan would include in their movie library, covering the character actors we all love, from the famous to the obscure. The authors, Sara and Cynthia Brideson, graciously took the time to answer some of our questions about this book and character actors in general : 

This is the first book that you and your sister have collaborated on, could you tell us why you chose to spotlight Hollywood character actors?

Sara: I chose to write about character actors because I feel that they were often more talented than the leading actors. Sometimes the lead characters are not nearly as interesting as the side ones. For example, in You Can't Take it With You, Spring Byington, as the eccentric mother who writes nonsensical plays, was even more interesting than Jean Arthur, who played the main, more 'normal' character. Almost every classic movie has an example of this. I wanted our book to proved how interesting the supporting actors were even if their names are not well remembered. 

Cindy: I agree with everything Sara said, though I had an added impetus to write this book. As a child I was very interested in Glinda from The Wizard of Oz and it caused me to be near tears that no libraries had any substantial literature about Billie Burke, the actress who portrayed the good witch. Sara was really into Judy Garland, who has had much written about her. I wrote the book almost as if it were a gift to myself as a seven year old child; maybe there's some other oddball kid out there today who is as interested in learning abut Billie Burke or another character actors who will find joy in Sara's and my book. We certainly hope so. 

“Also Starring” features many rare and interesting trivia on the actors, was researching this information difficult?

Researching the information for the book was quite easy for some actors but incredibly difficult for others. Using Google news archives, we were able to find a lot about certain character actors, namely Eve Arden, Spring Byington, Agnes Moorehead, and Roland Young. We were very excited whenever we discovered that an actor had written an autobiography. We especially enjoyed S.Z. Sakall's memoir and Shelley Winters'. The actors who we could find virtually nothing about were Henry Travers and Virginia O'Brien. It took much digging to find enough to go on for an essay about them, but we managed to find some interviews and newspaper articles that illuminated their characters enough to give an idea of what they were like. We feel lucky to live in an age where newspaper archives are so accessible. It's certainly easier than poring over microfilm for hours!

You must have also unearthed a lot of great trivia and behind-the-scenes tidbits about these character actors, could you share one of your favorite anecdotes with us?

Billie Burke was an extreme animal lover, though sometimes her efforts to make animals feel comfortable did not end well. Once in the goldfish pond in her garden, she poured warm water into it to keep the fish warm. The next morning the fish had all died. Billie was understandably heartbroken. Elsa Lanchester was quite a bohemian in her youth. She actually posed nude for painters in London! It is rumored that Hattie McDaniel took marijuana. One of her co-stars claimed they smelt smoke coming from her car between breaks from filming. Claude Rains demanded he always be in the foreground of a scene when with Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, so no one would be able to see she was taller than he was. Eddie Rochester Anderson was not included in his longtime co-star, Jack Benny's, will. Most people thought this was terrible, but Eddie never said a word against Benny. 

Character actors are often overshadowed by the big name Hollywood actors, despite their wide and varied career and their acting abilities. While you were conducting your research, which actor’s career stood out to you as being the most impressive and which talent do you believe to be the most forgotten today?

All of the actors had impressive careers. Many of them began as leading actors on Broadway before they went to Hollywood, like Lewis Stone, Fay Bainter, and Billie Burke. However, we feel Agnes Moorehead had the most impressive career. she began at the New York Academy of Performing Arts, then went with Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre Group, and then became a huge success in radio, film, and TV. She mastered every medium. She also was nominated for more than one Oscar as well as Emmy awards. The most forgotten actors in our book are probably Virginia O'Brien and Jules Munshin. Both of them were specialty performers, but they were in some of the essential classic films, thus making it all the more vexing that they are forgotten. Jules Munshin is best known for his part as one of the three sailors in On the Town and Virginia O'Brien is best known for playing Judy Garland's friend in The Harvey Girls. We hope our book will make people want to discover the films of these forgotten actors. 

What distinguishes a character actor from a supporting player, such as Tony Randall or Gig Young?

A supporting player vs. a character actor has many different variations. We included both supporting players and character actors in our book. Supporting players, like Claude Rains, Shelley Winters, and Joan Blondell, are usually more well known and can even have a strong fan base. Their characters are usually "the third star" in the credits and they play a more integral part in the plot line. Character actors are often those actors who have 100 credits to their name but are still not well known. H.B. Warner, Eric Blore, and Beulah Bondi are among these. They make a huge impression on the audience, nevertheless. Character actors are usually more quirky than supporting players and their parts are much smaller. 

Like John Barrymore's agent told him in Dinner at Eight when convincing him to take a character part: "Audiences keep waiting for you to come back, and you never do!" That's how a character part is-- too short and it always leaves the audience wanting more. 

Many character actors found themselves typecast in certain roles, do you think they regretted this?

Some actors regretted being typecast while others did not mind at all. Hattie McDaniel, for example, did not mind playing a servant or a maid. Though many of her peers thought taking such roles was degrading she said: "I'd rather play a maid than be one." Agnes Moorehead often wished she could get more glamorous roles rather than ones in which she played women older and homelier than she really was. Billie Burke was regretful she did not get to tackle more dramatic roles, but in her autobiography she expressed that she did not wish to complain about her roles as "bird-witted women" because such parts kept a roof over her head. It was most difficult for actors who had started as leading men and women on Broadway to accept their typecast roles than it was for people who had started as character actors. For the most part,the actors accepted their typecast roles gracefully. 

Whom do you consider to be your favorite character actor?

Sara: My favorite character actor is probably Edward Everett Horton. He was always such a nervous wreck in his movies and made the most comical expressions. He really stole the show from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the films in which he co-starred with them. He was a really neat person off screen too, which is a bonus! My favorite character actress is Fay Bainter because she was so moving on scene but could take a comical turn a minute later. One of my best memories from junior high was having her nephew as my history teacher. He brought in the Oscar she won for Jezebel and let me hold it. It was heavier than it looks!

Cindy: Of course my favorite character actress is Billie Burke! She's so hilarious because half the time the ladies she portrays do not know they're being funny. Her most well-rounded performance is probably in Dinner at Eight; here, she has a chance to be both comedic and dramatic. For a character actor, I guess I'd have to say Ray Bolger. He was so much more than just the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. He saved many a film from being mediocre through his wit, hilarious, rubber-faced expressions, and mind boggling dancing skills ( I'm thinking specifically of a lackluster biopic on ballerina Marilynn Miller, 'Look For the Silver Lining.' ). I'd suggest watching him The Harvey Girls and Rosalie to see his best comedic skills.

Recently you completed a book about impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, could you tell us about this and some of your other upcoming projects.

Our next book is called "Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Flamboyant History of the Life, Loves, Work, and Legacy of Broadway's Greatest Producer, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr." We've been working on this book in one form or the other since we were eight years old. Because Ziegfeld was married to Billie Burke, we immediately became interested in his life. The film The Great Ziegfeld is a good introduction to Ziegfeld's larger than life productions, but it does not capture the real Ziegfeld who was decidedly more private and serious than William Powell's portrayal made him out to be. Powell basically plays Nick Charles playing Florenz Ziegfeld in the film! We are also working on a book about classic stars and authors and their cats. It's amazing how many felinephiles there were (Billie Burke and Joan Blondell included!) The Ziegfeld book is currently under consideration of the University of Kentucky Press. We're keeping our fingers crossed that it will be accepted!

Also Starring: 40 Biographical Essays on the Greatest Character Actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood  by Sara and Cynthia Brideson is available to purchase in paperback, Kindle and Nook editions at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and through the publisher, BearManor Media. 


  1. Sounds a must read and so appropriate during the Blogathon

  2. This book sounds fantastic! If there is some kind of free shipping sale, I hope to put my hands on it! Jules Munshin and Virginia O'Brien are great character actors of the 1940s, they must not be forgotten.