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Rob Edelman: J.K. Simmons

Several weeks ago, by chance, I was re-seeing CELEBRITY, the Woody Allen film that dates from 1998. CELEBRITY features a high-profile cast, including Kenneth Branagh (who does a spot-on imitation of Woody Allen playing a Woody Allen character) along with Charlize Theron, Judy Davis, Winona Ryder, Melanie Griffith, Joe Mantegna, Bebe Neuwirth, and a very young Leonardo DiCaprio. Plus, a host of pre-celebrity actors appear in small roles. This list begins with Jeffrey Wright, Debra Messing, Tony Sirico, Sam Rockwell, and Allison Janney.

One additional actor who is very much in the news these days also pops up onscreen. He is in one scene; his character is billed as “Souvenir Hawker”; and he is J.K. Simmons, the current Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee and frontrunner to take home the trophy for his stellar performance in WHIPLASH.

Simmons is no youngster. This past month, his celebrated his sixtieth birthday and, as listed on the Internet Movie Database, he has almost 150 credits dating from the 1980s. He has appeared in or been involved with feature films, short films, video games, TV series, and TV commercials.

In other words, J.K. Simmons is a working actor. Granted, he has specialized in characters who are authority figures and fathers. But many of them are nameless. They include “Assistant Coach,” “Federal Marshal,” “CIA Briefer,” and “CIA Superior.” Such is the plight of actors who are hired to briefly appear onscreen. Their character serves a purpose within the framework of the story, and then he or she disappears.

Simmons himself acknowledged the importance of effectively playing such characters by observing, “The best complement I ever got from the public or producers or directors is that I just totally blend in and become the character and they don’t notice me and that the play happens or the movie happens or the TV show happens.” Here is another choice J.K. Simmons quote, one which has nothing whatsoever to do with show business. “People evolve,” he once declared, “and it’s important to not stop evolving just because you’ve reached ‘adulthood’.”

For every movie star, for every Brad Pitt or Jennifer Aniston or George Clooney, there are hundreds-- no, thousands-- of anonymous working actors. Perhaps for a range of reasons they may prefer not to live in New York or Los Angeles. But they do, simply because they know that they must be available on short notice if they are called to audition for roles.

Most of these actors pretty much go unnoticed--- even if, like J.K. Simmons, they find regular employment in the tough business that is show business. But once in a while, such actors do win plum roles, headline-making roles. Such actors do rise above the crowd and earn standing ovations. For example, a year ago, June Squibb, an under-the-radar working actor, was a Best Supporting Actress nominee for NEBRASKA.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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