January 27th, 2022


In Praise of Quirky Actors

Greg Crosby

By Greg Crosby

Published July 10, 2015

Black Mass, a movie based on the true story of mobster Whitey Bulger is set to be released this September starring Johnny Depp. I've never been a big fan of Johnny Depp, mostly I think because the pictures he chooses just don't interest me. Movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, Edward Scissorhands, and most of his others are too bizarre, too "out there" for my taste.

Depp is more than a good actor, he's quirky, and I like quirky. But for me, the fact that he acts in movies that are themselves quirky actually distracts from his uniqueness.

Depp's performances would be much more interesting if his pictures themselves were less manic, less spoofy. Black Mass might just prove to be one of Depp's more interesting portrayals.

Johnny Depp undoubtedly can be called the king of the quirky actors, the mantle of which was held previously by Jack Nicholson.

Early in his movie career Nicholson displayed that quirkiness of his, most notably in 1960 in Roger Corman's The Little Shop of Horrors, playing Arthur Denton, the guy who likes pain so much he begs a sadistic dentist to pull out his teeth ("No Novocain. It dulls the senses").

Nicholson's Jack Torrance in The Shinning ("Hereeee's Johnny!") indelibly etched his quirky movie persona into moviegoer's heads from then on.

Before Nicholson, Wallace Berry might be called the first quirky leading man. Later on came Jack Palance, Sterling Haden and Robert Ryan; quirky types all. Richard Widmark certainly qualified as quirky in his early years, but changed into a more traditional lead after he hit stardom. Johnny Depp is only the latest and most obvious in a long line of quirky leading men on screen.

But it's in the character actor category where the quirky types really shine. One step beyond usual character actor, the quirky character actor has the ability to make a mundane picture much more watchable and eminently more interesting. He can also steal the show from his fellow performers if he goes too far, and that's what separates the good quirky actor from just another quirky ham.

Who can forget Dwight Frye's madman, Renfield, in the 1931 master horror classic, Dracula or as Fritz, the sadistic hunchbacked lab assistant in Frankenstein? Frye would have preferred not to have been typecast as the bug-eyed nutjob he most often played in the movies, however, and was quoted as saying, "If G0D is good, I will be able to play comedy, in which I was featured on Broadway for eight seasons and in which no producer of motion pictures will give me a chance! And please G0D, may it be before I go screwy playing idiots, half-wits and lunatics on the talking screen!"

Peter Lorrie is another member in good standing of the quirky actor's club. Starting with the lead role as the psychopathic child killer in Fritz Lang's M, Lorrie had nowhere to go but quirky.

His large popped eyes; distinctive raspy high-pitched voice and exaggerated facial expressions kept him busy playing creepy eccentric characters in dozens of horror and mystery films.

Most will remember him from Casablanca, but my favorite Peter Lorrie picture, hands down (pardon the pun) is The Beast With Five Fingers.

Hank Worden is a name that will mean nothing to 99.9 % of my readers, but he was one of the quirkiest of character actors. Tall, thin, bald, and speaking in a monotone cadence, on screen he sometimes gave the appearance of being a bit pixilated or slow-witted.

In real life he was educated at Stanford and University of Nevada as an engineer. He was a favorite of John Wayne's, appearing in 17 pictures with him.

Howard Hawks and John Ford used him extensively. His biggest claim to fame may be his role as Mose Harper in Ford's The Searchers.

The1930's, 40's, and 50's were the classic period for quirky actors. Once you'd seen these guys you'd never forget them. Percy Helton is a perfect case in point. He had one of the most familiar faces and voices in movies of the 50's. Usually playing a creepy little hunchbacked man in dozens of movies and television shows, he worked all the time.

This guy creeps out most people.

If Percy Helton doesn't creep you out, then there's always Timothy Carey, who made his mark in films playing people who were killers, psychotic, or just plain insane. He was physically imposing; standing 6'4" with dark staring eyes and spoke out of clenched teeth.

Spooky doesn't begin to describe this guy.

Look up "quirky" in the dictionary and you might just find the photo of Elisa Cook, Jr. next to the definition. He first came to prominence in The Maltese Falcon and thereafter made appearances in all manner of film noir and mystery pictures for decades. Glenn Anders, Ted de Corsia, and Strother Martin are three more that rank high on the quirky scale.

Of course, in real life you wouldn't want to spend any time with these quirky weird people, but in the movies its great fun!

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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. He's also a Southern California-based freelance writer.