When You’re NOT the Star

Supporting Players in Fiction

By Jeff Salter

Let me start with a few comments about “unsung” characters in movies and popular fiction… before I discuss a few of my own characters who fit that description.

As some of you (who’ve read my blogs here or my posts on Facebook) already know, I love movies from the 1930s and 1940s… especially comedies. In more examples than I could begin listing, most of those great “oldie” comedies got a significant amount of their humor NOT from the leading lady or leading man… but from one (or more) of the supporting players. It was often an uncle or an aunt, or a housekeeper or a butler, or maybe just a friend — but if you went through that movie and deleted those scenes, the story simply wouldn’t have any life whatsoever.

Lucille Ball played this role – the wise-cracking sidekick – in several films before she became a TV star and movie headliner. As merely one example, consider her role in 1945’s “Without Love” — where she was in a supporting role for the headliners, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Eve Arden played this type role so many times in different movies that I can’t even think of any specific titles, except 1937’s “Stage Door.”

One of my favorite male actors – always (that I can recall) in a supporting role and never the main star – who dished out innumerable witty observations and irreverent comments… was S. Z. Sakall. To capture the essence of the type role he played MANY times, look no further than 1945’s “Christmas in Connecticut” — which starred Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan. Sakall’s performance as Uncle Felix steals the show for me.

Remember the 1950s craze over Davy Crockett? Those Disney movies would have fallen quite flat if not for the wry involvement of Davy’s sidekick George Russel… ably played by Buddy Ebsen. [A hero usually appears a lot more courageous when paired with a mild-mannered (or even reluctant) partner.] And John Wayne – bless his heart – was NOT a terrific actor and couldn’t really carry a film… without his several character players. One face you’ll see over and over again in a movie with the Duke is Victor McLaglen.

My Own Characters

The Monday Fox kindly mentioned one of the major supporting players from my 2018 novel, “Double Down Trouble.” That man – whom I named Gregorio Rodriguez – goes by the nickname Viejo in the story. He’s a WW2 vet now in a wheelchair, in an assisted living home… now under attack. I loved being able to feature a member of the Greatest Generation, who’d been in the thick of the fighting during WW2 — in his case, in Italy, as I recall — and not only survived but prevailed. And I also found it gratifying that he doesn’t let his current circumstances (wheelchair) stop him from anything except stairs. Without Viejo’s material assistance and guidance, Julia Temple and Doc Holliday might not survive their afternoon.

Another of my favorite supporting players (from my own stories) is Eric Prima, who first appeared – in just two or three scenes (as I recall) – in “Rescued By That New Guy In Town.” He plays Kristen’s laid back, good-ole-boy brother — with gut wisdom far beyond his learnin’, as people used to say. I enjoyed writing Eric’s small (but significant) part so much that I brought him back for a more substantial role in my story, “One Simple Favor.” In that second appearance, the only character from the earlier novel is his girlfriend Velma — Eric now has third billing to the heroine (Tricia Pilgrim) and the mysterious hero (Michael).

As my last example of supporting players that I’ve really enjoyed creating, let me point to Margaret Stewart, who is the mother of the stubborn boyfriend in “Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold.” In that screwball comedy, I needed a wise (but witty) voice of reason to help nudge Jason into reality, to help Amanda Moore retain some of her sanity, and to assist both hero and heroine into realizing how much they truly did love each other.

Question:

Who’s your favorite “supporting” character? Do you consider her/him an “unsung hero”?

[JLS # 431]

About Jeff Salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Fourteen completed novels and four completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Cowboy Out of Time" -- Apr. 2019 /// "Double Down Trouble" -- June 2018 /// "Not Easy Being Android" -- Feb. 2018 /// "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 /// "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 /// "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015 /// "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015 /// "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015 /// "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 /// "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 /// "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014 /// "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014 /// "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013 /// "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013 /// "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 /// "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012 /// "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012 /// Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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18 Responses to When You’re NOT the Star

  1. I think it might be Samwise Gamgee. “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.” (J.R.R. Tolkien)

    Liked by 3 people

  2. jbrayweber says:

    Sidekicks are the best! They are the ones that often bring the levity to a storyline. It’s too early in the morning to think of some great secondary characters on TV and movies. Inigo Montoya of The Princess Bride. Scooby and Shaggy. Doc Holliday of Tombstone.

    In my own writing, I have a few secondary characters that I just adore. A fan favorite is, Henri—a very short, rum-loving, pipe-playing, Frenchman pirate who used to be a helmsman but has become a persnickety cook.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Jeff, you are absolutely right. I hadn’t thought about it before, but some of those supporting characters are priceless. I especially agree with your about S. Z. Sakall. He is so enjoyable. My favorite was his part in Casablanca. But watch your step when you start with The Duke. He has a special place in my heart. If I’m not mistaken, he insisted on some of his return supporting characters after becoming a star, and they were wonderful. Can’t remember their names now, but then I always have problems with names.

    My own favorite supporting character created for my books is in Paths of Righteousness. Actually, I have two favorites from that book. The first is Dr. Hartley, my female MC’s boss. The poor doctor can’t seem to get through a conversation without using a tired cliche, which cracks up everyone except his wife. The other supporting character I love is Beth, the female MC’s adopted sister, who antagonizes her at every turn with her teasing (all because she loves her ‘sis’, of course). I believe the story would have indeed lost a lot without these two to add the fun.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jeff Salter says:

      Absolutely, Sharon. The Duke — once he had the clout (and especially when he had his own production company) — kept an entire stable of supporting players around him. A sharp eye can probably count up to a dozen faces that you’ll see over and over.
      And that’s a good thing. While they were always supporting players, they often played very different roles.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Patricia Kiyono says:

    What the early movies lacked in special effects, they made up for in memorable characters. I’m not familiar with the sidekicks you mentioned, but I recognize some of those actors’ names, and it makes sense that some of the famous leading ladies got their starts as minor characters. I read all of your books that you cited, and there’s no shortage of memorable characters there!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jeff Salter says:

      I was just thinking that very thing — about special effects taking over the films of the past 30 years or so. My particular thought was how so many of the modern actors — if they’re going to play a historical character (say, Churchill, for example) will spend up to 6 hours before each filming day having their faces totally “re-done” to the point that they look more like Churchill than Churchill did.
      Not saying Spencer Tracy ever played Churchill — because I’m pretty certain he didn’t — but he played MANY famous historical figures … and the only makeup he wore was whatever worked with the studio lights to take the glare off his face. In other words, Tracy “sold” us on the portrayal with his acting and we didn’t fret that he didn’t resemble Jimmy Doolittle (as one example) whatsoever.
      And thanks for your kind comments about my supporting characters!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Never much cared for Spencer Tracy myself, but I know he was a good actor. And that brings to mind what we all should remember when we’re writing. Our characters must be believable, whether historical, romantic, or any other genre in between. We have to put ourselves into the ‘role’ of the character, and act out the part as if we were actors ourselves in order to bring a likable or contemptible image of the person we want in the story. That goes for MCs and supporting characters alike.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Jeff Salter says:

          about the writing part — absolutely correct.
          As far as Tracy… he could do comedy, drama, and even limited “action” roles. Very talented actor. An unfortunate personal life, however.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I wasn’t thinking ‘sidekick’ when I came up with the topic, Jeff, but many of yours certainly fit into my idea. The Eve Arden/ Lucille Ball characters were often the ones who recognized the best on the man that the ‘starlet’ was thinking the worst of,and ofter were the catalyst of their relationship. I am anxious to see your thoughts on at least the second of my choices tomorrow.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. S. Z. Sakall is one of my favorite actors. I adore him. He’s always so witty and truly makes all the pictures he is in enjoyable. I love him in Christmas in Connecticut and In the Good Old Summertime. Those two movies get watched at least once a year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      if someone were to edit out all of Sakall’s scenes in Christmas in Connecticut… and replace him with somebody else saying the same lines, I think it would fall flat. He was special.

      Like

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