Actors are drivers of personality. Their charismatic energy is honed, recited, and performed for audiences to recapitulate into the culture. What was once make-believe is now a part of reality. The slice-of-life actors create a window into the lives of strangers. Actors humanize strangers, show how it is to walk a mile in their shoes. Viewers see themselves in the characters they play, continuing the act of empathy.
Hollywood and independent filmmakers have produced a slew of talent. Actors who were unknown surprised their cast and crew with hidden depths of emotion. The performers walked and talked like the roles they were given. They surpassed the expectations of the director and script. Actors this rare are a treat for the eyes, a song of validation, and a moment of contemplation. Actors of this caliber sometimes leave the world too soon.
Andy Kaufman was a comedic actor and a contrarian entertainer. His unpredictable brand of comedy went against the traditional setup and punchline. Kaufman used anti-humor, relying on irony to make the ordinary or obvious laughable. He rose to fame with his immigrant character, Latka Gravas, on the popular sitcom Taxi.
Another recurring character of his was Tony Clifton, a sharp-tongued lounge singer who some people believed was an actual person. The almost nonsensical logic and ego-driven morale behind his character work gave him the moniker of anti-comedian. Kaufman is remembered for his ability to skew reality and subvert expectations of what is and is not funny. Kaufman’s acts were so subversive, that when he died at 35 years old, people thought he faked his own death.
Anton Yelchin was a Russian-American actor, best known for his portrayal of the youthful lieutenant Pavel Chekov in the Star Trek reboot. He also played a young Kyle Reese in Terminator Salvation. Yelchin has mostly appeared in roles as a teenager dealing with growing pains and adolescent psychology.
His alien-human hybrid character, Jacob Clarke, in the science fiction miniseries Taken, is reserved but a powerful psychic and telepath when threatened. Yelchin unfortunately died young, at the age of 27, in a freak accident involving his faulty SUV. The actor was also born with cystic fibrosis, and a foundation was established in his name.
Bruce Lee, born Lee Jun-fan, was a Hong Kong-American martial artist and actor. He was exposed to street fighting in his teens, but went on to practice boxing, tai chi, and Wing Chun, which he learned from grandmaster Yip Man. The combination of these fighting styles helped Lee develop his own freestyle fighting philosophy, known as Jeet Kune Do, influencing mixed martial arts today. The Green Hornet action TV series introduced American audiences to Lee as the martial arts expert Kato.
His later films, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon, and Enter the Dragon, popularized the Hong Kong action cinema genre during the 1970s, bridging the gap between the East and the West. The intense discipline and fluidity of his self-defense techniques cast Asian stereotypes aside. Lee became a symbol of Chinese nationalism as well as a pop culture icon. At age 32, Lee died of cerebral edema after collapsing from a dubbing session for Enter the Dragon.
Chris Farley was a slapstick comedian and actor who performed improvisational comedy. He was a member of The Second City Theatre troupe in Chicago. After starring in revues, he joined the new cast of Saturday Night Live in 1990. There, he debuted one of his most popular and endearing characters, Matt Foley, a motivational speaker who lives in a van down by the river! Farley was a cast member on SNL for five seasons.
He began his film career with brief appearances in Wayne’s World and Coneheads, both inspired by SNL sketches. His first starring roles came with Tommy Boy and Black Sheep, in which Farley played hard-luck, lovable oafs with a boyish charm. The physical comic struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, entering rehabilitation repeatedly. Farley’s health declined, leading to an overdose at 33-years-old.
Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead)
Divine was the stage name and drag queen persona of actor Harris Glenn Milstead. As a character actor, Harris embraced the counterculture scene of the sixties. Divine caught the attention of independent filmmaker John Waters and joined his Dreamlanders acting troupe. Together, they made smutty, experimental films like Eat Your Makeup where Divine plays Jackie Kennedy, the widow of the assassinated U.S. President John F. Kennedy, and forces models to eat their own makeup.
The most infamous role for Divine was Babs Johnson in Pink Flamingos, who claims she is the filthiest person alive. Babs goes so far as proving her distinction by consuming fresh dog feces. The film earned a cult following from this scene alone. Divine performed in nightclubs and pursued a disco music career for a short time. After receiving acclaim for his work in Hairspray, the eclectic Harris, at 42 years old, died in his sleep due to heart failure.
Heath Ledger was an Australian actor who got into theatrics at the early age of 10. His first role was Peter Pan in a school production at Guildford Grammar School. He left school and pursued acting full time, taking parts in Australian TV shows, like the popular soap opera Home and Away. Ledger’s breakout role came in the American teenage romantic comedy, 10 Things I Hate About You. His leading and supporting roles in the early 2000s made him a notable talent.
Ledger has given memorable performances as the peasant esquire turned knight in A Knight’s Tale and the disillusioned shepherd Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain. Perhaps his most impressionable character was the Joker in The Dark Knight, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. His role as the Batman villain took a toll on his health. Ledger suffered from insomnia, which, compounded with prescription drugs, caused his death in 2008 at 28 years old.
James Dean grew up in a religious home in rural Indiana. The death of his mother and the financial strain on his father complicated his childhood. During his senior year of high school, he developed a mentorship with Methodist pastor Reverend James DeWeerd. The friendship influenced Dean’s athletic interests and drama studies. The latter was met with disagreement from his father, which led to an estrangement. Dean spent a semester at UCLA before dropping out to begin his acting career.
Dean began a successful run in a variety of television shows and theater performances. At the same time, he studied method acting at the Actors Studio in New York. He was cast in the adaptation of East of Eden with author John Steinbeck’s approval. Dean’s most recognized role came in Rebel Without a Cause, the story of Jim Stark, a disillusioned and misunderstood teen seeking direction from his father. His performance would be his last due to a fatal car accident one month before the release of the film. Dean was only five years into his career when he died at the age of 25.
John Cazale was a seasoned character actor. He rose to fame for his role as Fredo Corleone in The Godfather. His work led to his next picture, The Conversation, as well as him reprising his role in The Godfather Part II.
The wounded and prideful son of a mafia boss carried over into Dog Day Afternoon, in which Cazale plays a sullen bank robber who is in over his head. Cazale returned to the theatre late in his career until he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Despite his terminal illness, Cazale finished all his scenes for his final film, The Deer Hunter, before his death at age 42.
Marilyn Monroe is the personality of actress Norma Jeane Mortenson. She began her career as a pin-up model for the First Motion Picture Unit during World War II. Monroe was the dumb blonde and blonde bombshell stereotype in comedies like The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot. Her confident and playful sexuality made her a sex symbol.
Monroe went against typecast in her last film, The Misfits, starring as a divorcée in the Contemporary Western drama. The actress took ill and was pressured by movie studios and the tabloids before returning to photo shoots for a brief time. Monroe was 36 years old when she died in her Brentwood home in Los Angeles due to an overdose of barbiturates.
Romy Schneider was a German-French actress who began acting in historical dramas. She starred as Empress Elisabeth of Austria in the Austrian Sissi trilogy. After her title role in the French period drama Christine, Schneider moved to France, where she caught the attention of director Orson Welles.
She starred in his adaption of the Franz Kafka novel The Trial, playing a woman involved with a man convicted of an unknown crime. Schneider made French films for the remainder of her career, with the last being the French-West German drama, The Passerby. Schneider died of cardiac arrest at the age of 43 in her Paris apartment.
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