Who's That In the Background? A Closer Look At the Actors Who Are In Everything

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Vincent Schiavelli in Ghost

You know how when you learn a new word and suddenly start hearing that word everywhere? It’s as if everyone’s just been saying “sanctimonious” -- or whatever -- all the while, but you were only just now awakened to it. Well, I’m the same way with background characters. Once I notice the same quirky background character in two movies, I become fixated, chomping at the bit to discover more of his or her sideline roles. I suppose I take a lot of pride in my recognition skills ("wait a minute, that guy was in Can’t Hardly Wait and American Pie!”), but I also have a genuine interest in those who’ve made a career out of sticking to the sidelines. Sure, everyone loves a hero, and an interesting protagonist is what propels a story forward, but a well-positioned background character can add tremendous value to a narrative. Minor characters let us know what’s happening; whether or not we should be scared or start laughing, whether or not we should trust the protagonist, and, whether or not the story’s headed for a happy ending. In some cases, the minor characters steal the scene, but they’ll be lucky to even receive a credit for their work. It’s totally bogus! Hollywood may not fully appreciate the value of these minor character actors, but KQED Pop does! Besides, we all know a hero is nothing without a strong supporting cast. So here’s a closer look at some of those actors that you totally know from, like, everything.

Vincent Schiavelli

Vincent Schiavelli as Mr. Vargas in Fast Times at Ridgemont High image via Universal Pictures
Vincent Schiavelli as Mr. Vargas in Fast Times at Ridgemont High

At 6’6”, a lumbering Vincent Schiavelli is best known for his distinctive face and physical features. Nicknamed “the man with sad eyes,” Schiavelli was often cast in “bad guy” roles, usually a hit man, or a lame teacher, or someone else audiences wanted to dislike, but he couldn’t help but leave an impression. He owed his distinctive look to Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder affecting connective tissue. Despite his disease, Schiavelli appeared in over 120 on-screen roles and was named one of America’s best character actors by Vanity Fair in 1997. Though many remember him for his rendition of the “Organ Grinder” in Batman Returns, I’ll always remember him as the weird teacher in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, who made one hell of a Tales From The Crypt episode. He also published three cookbooks in his lifetime.


Sean Whalen

Sean Whalen in The People Under the Stairs image via Alive Films
Sean Whalen in The People Under the Stairs

With his ever so particular toothy grin and his general air of “geekiness,” Sean Whalen is one of those actors I always recognize. For me, he’s always first and foremost the heckling fan of the Wonders in That Thing You Do!, but his goofy grin has led him to numerous supporting roles. Though Whalen has enjoyed small roles on various television programs such as Lost and Wizards of Waverly Place and a breakout film role in The People Under The Stairs, audiences most likely remember him best from the classic Got Milk? campaign where he was unable to audibly choke out the words “Aaron Burr.” The way his eyes bugged out of his head in disbelief was just fantastic and Whalen strengthened his carefully crafted role as the down-on-his-luck dork. Whalen continues to work in television and film as both an actor and a writer.



Clint Howard 

Clint Howard as Eaglebauer in Rock n' Roll High School image via New World Pictures
Clint Howard as Eaglebauer in Rock 'n' Roll High School

It’s hard enough having an over-achieving older sibling in regular life, but when your big brother is Academy Award winning director/producer/actor Ron Howard, carving a career for yourself in Hollywood probably feels impossible. Good thing Ron’s little brother Clint had the good sense to hone his mastery of the background role. Clint Howard is one of those minor characters who makes every scene he’s a part of better. Though he’s appeared in some 17 films directed by his older brother, Clint’s uncanny ability to create a memorable character with just a few lines transcends his famous last name, though talent really does seem to run in the Howard family. In addition to his acting work, Clint formed the new wave band The Kempsters in 1981, performing with the group at Madame Wong’s West in Santa Monica until their demise in 1983. Clint continues to appear in numerous film and television roles. There’s just no stopping a Howard.

Chris Owen 

Chris Owen as The Shermanator in American Pie image via Universal Pictures
Chris Owen as The Shermanator in American Pie

Character actor Chris Owen has intrigued me since the mid-90s when I first noticed him in Angus. Suddenly, I was seeing that red-headed kid in everything. From quietly stealing everything in the background of Can’t Hardly Wait to being a creepy bully to Kieran Culkin in She’s All That, Chris Owen seemed to find his way into every important '90s teen movie. Still, by the time he landed his role as “The Shermantor” in American Pie, audiences still couldn’t recall his name. Even though he rode the minor notoriety of the American Pie franchise all the way down the drain of its straight to video spin-offs, Chris Owen hasn’t yet been able to shake “that red-head kid from everything” label. Chris has collaborated with his Angus co-star and friend, Charlie Talbert, on five films so far, and continues to appear in films.


So who is your favorite in the background?