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A character actor or character actress is a supporting actor who plays unusual, interesting, or eccentric characters. The term, often contrasted with that of leading actor, is somewhat abstract and open to interpretation. In a literal sense, all actors can be considered character actors since they all play "characters", but in the usual sense it is an actor who plays a distinctive and important supporting role.
The term is sometimes used to describe an actor who plays characters who are very different from the actor's off-screen real-life personality, while in another sense it describes an actor who specializes in minor roles. In either case, character actor roles are more substantial than bit parts or non-speaking extras.
The term is used primarily to describe television and film actors, and is less used to describe theater actors. An early use of the term was in the 1883 edition of The Stage, which defined a character actor as "one who portrays individualities and eccentricities". Actors with a long career history of playing character roles may be difficult for audiences to recognize as being the same actor, if they play such roles convincingly and memorably.
Unlike leading actors, they are generally seen as less glamorous. While a leading actor often has physical beauty needed to play the love interest, a character actor may be short or tall, heavy or thin, balding, older, or simply unconventional-looking and distinctive in some physical way. For example, the face of Chicago character actor William Schutz was disfigured in a car accident when he was five years old, but his appearance despite reconstructive surgery helped him to be memorable and distinctive to theater audiences. Generally, the names of character actors are not featured prominently in movie and television advertising on the marquee, since a character actor's name is not expected to attract film audiences. The roles that character actors play in film or television are often identified by only one name, such as "Officer Fred", while roles of leading actors often have a full name, such as "Captain Jack Sparrow". Some character actors have distinctive voices or accents, or they develop memorable mannerisms. A character actor with a long career may not have a well-known name, yet may be instantly recognizable.
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