I didn’t expect to hear a great story about the Batman Begins premiere at the 4th Annual Carney Awards, which honor outstanding achievements in character acting, but host Patton Oswalt brought the house down with one particular anecdote on Sunday night.
Oswalt recalled the evening in 2005 when he attended the London premiere of Christopher Nolan‘s first Batmovie and was surrounded by thin, cut movie stars while he sat there hoarding food “like a troll who escaped from a storybook.” “Maybe I should start working out?” the comedian thought to himself. That’s when he locked eyes with Brian Dennehy, who was grabbing a handful of sliders from the buffet and allegedly said, “Character actors! Who gives a fuck if we’re fat?” Everyone in attendance at The Eli and Edythe Broad Stage got a good laugh out of that one, including M. Emmet Walsh, the legendary character actor who received the Chairman’s Lifetime Achievement honor from his Blade Runner co-star Harrison Ford.
Walsh was one of six honorees being inducted into the so-called Hall of Fame for character actors along with Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek), Joe Morton (Terminator 2: Judgment Day), Jessica Walter (Arrested Development), James Cromwell (Babe) and Joe Pantoliano (The Matrix), a.k.a. Joey Pants, who was unable to attend the spirited event and sent in a pre-recorded acceptance speech in his absence. You’ve seen all of these character actors dozens of times, but you may not necessarily know their names. And that is precisely the point of the Carney Awards, which are named after The Honeymooners star Art Carney — to shine a light on those often ignored by the Oscars and the Emmys, and honor career achievements instead of individual performances.
Following an opening musical performance by former Happy Days star Donny Most (who wasn’t the only one to get a laugh with a joke about re-runs), Oswalt delivered a self-deprecating monologue that started the night on a high note, with the King of Queens alum joking that he’s known as Charles Durning 2.0 in the industry. Oswalt also said he’s still renting because of his Magnolia co-star John C. Reilly. “I’d be driving a Tesla around Pacific Palisades if it wasn’t for that talented bastard!” He made a joke about The Rock always needing a sidekick, wondering if it hit too close to home for some in the crowd, and assuring his peers that he’s “gotten that text, too.” When the teleprompter instructed Oswalt to make a crack about Ed Sullivan, he scoffed, saying “how old do you think I am? Buy war bonds! I’m unhealthy, but I’m not old!” There were also plenty of jokes about the size of the TV audience watching live at home, since the event was airing opposite Game 5 of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers. “Thanks for watching us and not those pesky World Series. I know we’re really taking a bite out of those ratings tonight.” “So few people are watching tonight’s show that they’re thinking of naming it the Oscars,” joked Oswalt. And with that, it was time to pay tribute to the character actors “whose IMDb [resumes] are longer than CVS receipts.”
Greenwood was the first honoree, with fellow character actor Gregg Henry introducing the Star Trek captain as his “best friend.” He first saw Greenwood on an episode of St. Elsewhere and thought, ‘why wasn’t I up for that role?’ When the two eventually met, they bonded over blues legends like B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Greenwood is 62 years old and still in amazing shape, as evidence by his physique in last year’s Netflix gem Gerald’s Game. He recently joined the cast of another Mike Flanagan-directed Stephen King adaptation, Doctor Sleep, but even with all his success, he has still been mistaken for other actors, even going so far as to sign Dennis Quaid‘s autograph once. Greenwood insisted he came from humble beginnings, having been an extra in Sylvester Stallone‘s First Blood, and said he gained valuable insight watching his St. Elsewhere co-stars Ed Begley Jr., Ed Flanders and Denzel Washington. More recently, Greenwood co-starred alongside Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg‘s The Post. “I hadn’t worked with that many high-voltage stars before. To be on the call sheet with all those actors I respected and admired was both intimidating and exciting,” said Greenwood, who caught himself rambling midway through his speech before busting out his notes. He delivered one funny anecdote about playing Prince Charming in a milk commercial that saw him audition wearing tights and dance shoes, only to find a bunch of actors in leather jackets vying for the same part. Naturally, he still managed to book the gig. “I’ve gotta go now and work on a self tape,” joked Greenwood in concluding his remarks.
Next up was Debbie Allen, who introduced T2‘s Joe Morton as “the sexiest character actor I have ever known,” and praised his voice, which she said was rivaled only by Paul Robeson and James Earl Jones. “The roof buckled when you sang in Raisin, and that season of Scandal where you said ‘I’m your daddy’ to Olivia Pope… child, that was everything.”
Morton kept his acceptance speech short and sweet, saying he grew up admiring actors such as Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Harry Belafonte, Paul Mooney and Roscoe Lee Browne, all of whose shoulders he stands upon. Morton admitted his mother was initially worried about his foray into the performing arts, but when she was asked to sign autographs following one of his stage performances, she knew he’d be OK. Morton recalled literally bringing the house down while doing his very first play. The set collapsed, but ever the professional, the show still went on. Morton also revealed where the title for John Sayles‘ 1984 sci-fi comedy The Brother From Another Planet came from. He said he was approached by a fan who said ‘aren’t you that brother from Another World?’ Sayles overheard the exchange and changed the original title, which was The Brother Who Fell to Earth.
The Justice League actor went on to say he regrets that there were moments in his career when he didn’t speak up for himself. “Never be afraid to speak up for yourself,” he implored the audience. Morton also served up a juicy bit of trivia regarding his role in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in which he has an incredible death scene. Morton said he’d been in a car accident and one of his lungs collapsed, so he told T2 director James Cameron about it and said, ‘this guy’s just been shot in his chest, so maybe both lungs are down.’ Cameron liked his take on the severity of the situation, and that’s where Miles Dyson’s short gasps of breath came from.
Pantoliano was honored next, though he was unable to attend the show. Stephen Tobolowsky introduced Joey Pants as “the only actor in Hollywood who can talk smack to Robert De Niro and get away with it” in reference to their work together in Midnight Run. In fact, when Universal held a reading of as-yet-unmade Midnight Run 2 script, Tobolowsky said the casting director asked him to read Joey Pants’ part, because he couldn’t attend the reading. The actor has been diagnosed with clinical depression and he’s currently working on a non-profit charity to end stigma against mental illness called No Kidding? Me Too! In a pre-taped acceptance speech, Pantoliano addressed his fellow honorees, saying “I’ve lost jobs to every one of you… except Jessica Walter.” One job that Pantoliano refused to lose was one in a potential sequel to The Fugitive, in which his character his hit in the head with a steel beam. But it wasn’t always supposed to be that was. Tommy Lee Jones was originally going to get hit, but he refused, arguing that it didn’t make sense. Joey Pants ultimately volunteered to take the hit, but only if his character would be allowed survive. “If you get hit in the head with that, you should be dead,” said Jones. “Why don’t you want to die?” Using his Hollywood intuition, Pantoliano sensed they had a hit on their hands. “Because what if there’s a sequel?” It was a smart move on Joey Pants’ part, as he wound up returning for the 1998 sequel U.S. Marshals. He signed off with a unique promotional plug, saying “If you need a good-looking bald guy, I’m your guy!”
Following an impressive musical performance from Lily Meola, Art Carney’s son Brian Carney came out to explain the genesis of the show, and how having his father’s hat from The Honeymooners on stage behind him made him feel like his dad is there, in a sense. Art Carney always wanted to devote a show to the character actors ignored by the other shows, but he died in 2003, so he never got to see the organization hand its first Chairman’s Award to Clueless dad Dan Hedaya. Brian promised to ensure that his father’s criteria for excellence in character acting is followed going forward.
And then Harrison Ford, the sole A-lister in the building, took the stage with a twinkle in his eye to introduce his Blade Runner co-star M. Emmet Walsh, who he called “a national treasure. Get your old ass up here!” After bounding up the stage stairs, Walsh said he’s often stopped and asked if he’s an actor, but he’s grown tired of so-called ‘fan’ interactions. ‘I did this movie… no, I didn’t see that. I did that movie… no, I didn’t see that either. Well jeez, do you want to talk to somebody else?’ Nowadays, he just hands those who recognize him a printed list of his IMDb highlights, making it easier for everyone. It’s not just the public that can’t always place him, it’s the industry as well. Walsh recalled being forced to wait 90 minutes for an audition, and when he entered the room, the casting director had the gall to ask, ‘what have you done, Mr. Walsh?’ to which he cheekily replied, ‘what have you done, ma’am?’
Walsh said he grew up in a small town in Vermont and his father had trouble with alcohol. He took a risk by embarking on an acting career, but said he “didn’t want to be 40 years old and wondering if I could do this.” Then he relayed a rather bizarre story about picking up girls at a local rollerskating rink as a young man, but you had to be there for that one. It wasn’t all awkward anecdotes, however, as Walsh imparted some acting wisdom during his time on stage.
“Good acting is like a tennis match. You’re just batting the ball back and forth, harder and harder. It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing a garbage collector or a cop or the President of Princeton. But you can’t care, or they’ll see it on your face.” Walsh said he also believes that 70% of acting can be taught, and the other 30% is the gift. To Ford, Walsh‘s gift is “unremitting empathy.” Walsh said he had a great time shooting The Jerk under the direction of Carl Reiner, and then he talked about two guys from Texas who wanted him to wear a Panama suit and a hat in their low-budget indie movie. That film, of course, was Blood Simple, and those directors, of course, were the Coen brothers. Walsh returned to work for the Coens on Raising Arizona, though he said they didn’t necessarily care if he took the part — he just wanted it and enjoyed working with them. Later in the show, Walsh returned from the bathroom only to bark at the seat-filler in his front row chair. “Whoever’s in my seat, get out of it!” he shouted, prompting a few chuckles from the crowd.
Following Walsh’s acceptance speech, Most sang “One For My Baby” over an In Memoriam segment that featured R. Lee Ermey, Reg E. Cathey, Della Reese, Brent Briscoe, Bernie Casey, Margot Kidder, Harry Anderson, Verne Troyer, John Mahoney, Tab Hunter, Jerry Van Dyke, Robert Guillaume and Scott Wilson, among others. It was a sad, sobering reminder of all the great character actors we’ve lost over the past year.
Marilu Henner came up next, confessing to having had a girl crush on Jessica Walter ever since she saw the 1966 Sidney Lumet drama The Group because she found Walter “funny, sexy and fabulous.” Indeed, Walter was a beautiful young woman back then, with lead roles in Clint Eastwood‘s Play Misty For Me and John Frankenheimer‘s Grand Prix. Like her fellow honorees, Walter has had staying power, and these days, she is best known for playing Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development, who TV Guide named one of the 50 Greatest TV Characters of All Time. Walter revealed that she dyed her roots before meeting ‘the suits’ on Arrested Development. She didn’t realize she’d booked the role until they asked her to stay and rehearse, which only made her anxious, because she’d only brought enough medication to last her a couple of days. ‘I need my pills,’ so the production gave her $300 to buy drugs at a local pharmacy. “This girl is thrilled to be included with these guys.”
Finally, M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell introduced James Cromwell as “an actor, an activist and a major pain in the ass to those in power.” Indeed, Cromwell has been arrested a couple times in recent years due to his political activism. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Growing up, Cromwell said his father warned him not to become an actor, saying he was “too damn tall.” Cromwell said he owes his career to channeling Art Carney during his time on All in the Family. When he was eventually offered the lead in the movie Babe, he thought, ‘Do I really want to do a story about a talking pig?’ Ultimately, a friend convinced him to do the film because it meant a free trip to Australia, ‘and if the film fails, it’s not your fault, it’s the pig’s!’ It was that role in Babe that paved the way for his casting in L.A. Confidential, because he had just played this nice old man, and director Curtis Hanson thought the audience would be less likely to suspect him as the film’s ultimate villain. Cromwell also spoke about how moved he was to have worked with Michael Clarke Duncan on The Green Mile, admitting he wept during the filming of one particularly emotional scene. Cromwell became emotional again when he recalled filming the final line of Babe, revealing that when he looked into the camera lens, he didn’t see himself, he saw his father staring back at him, so the line he heard in his head was “that’ll do, Jamie” instead of the memorable “that’ll do, pig.”
Cromwell said “it’s strange getting an award not for something that you do, but something that you are, supposedly. I mean, we’re all actors playing characters, some just have more screen time.” Indeed, Cromwell confessed that “inside every character actor is a leading man dying to get out.” Salary may have something to do with that. Cromwell cited the 2000 Academy Awards show, where Michael Caine (The Cider House Rules) beat Tom Cruise (Magnolia) for Best Supporting Actor and supposedly said, “Tom, do you really want to be a character actor? Do you know how much we get paid?”
Ever the activist, Cromwell also used his opportunity at the mic to implore the audience to use their celebrity and make a difference — be someone who stands for something. “We’re living in very curious times and there’s something coming that is desperately important to this country, and to our planet. We are going to take back our democracy! I implore all of us, when you see a young person and they’re disinterested or cynical or apathetic and on their phone, reach out and inspire them to express themselves. It can be done. We made it through Nixon!” said Cromwell, who called for “either a non-violent revolution, or a violent one. This has got to end.”
“Save us, James Cromwell,” pleaded Oswalt, who led a group Q&A before the evening ended, though it was plagued by technical difficulties. “This is like working on an indie film. I love this!” The actor stalled the only way he knows how — by making jokes. “God I miss happy days. The show, and in life.” “This is like an Eric Rohmer film. Three movie nerds got that.” Then he did a fake commercial for the Sutton Place Hotel in Vancouver, where many actors stay while filming in Canada. “If you want to get drunk with Danny Glover on a Tuesday night in Canada, visit Sutton Place Hotel!” When the audio issues were finally solved, Patton turned to the honorees and said “My first question is — oops we’re out of time!”
Eventually, Oswalt closed the session by asking what gets the honorees out of bed each morning, and almost all of them said ‘the role,’ though Walters was quick to add that her collaborators, like Mitch Hurwitz, are also an important factor. Cromwell said he needs structure in his life, and it’s good to have a job that demands focus. He finds acting regimented, like being in the military. You don’t have to worry too much, just follow orders, that kind of thing. But as far as projects go, Cromwell is looking for scripts that aren’t just striving to entertain, but have something to say. He’s excited by the opportunity to change someone’s life and broaden the views of people whose views are too closed off and only see the world in black-and-white, in his words.
All in all, it was a fun evening that improved upon the last Carney Awards I attended in 2016, though I’ll be honest, I did miss the game show. If nothing else, I just hope the Carney Awards will inspire you to pay attention to character actors, who rarely get the recognition they deserve. Follow me on Twitter at @TheInSneider and let me know who you think should be honored next year.