Nine Character Actors Who Got One Hollywood Starring Vehicle

Rainn Wilson in The Rocker

When I was a child, I watched Captain Kangaroo. Naturally, the Captain and his best pal Mr. Green Jeans dominated the show. But there was also a supporting player named Dennis, played by Cosmo Allegretti. In one episode, Dennis got his own little number, set to Manfred Mann's "Ragamuffin Man". He danced so soulfully. It was touching, seeing this guy that nobody cared about, savoring his moment in the spotlight. I feel the same about these nine actors, all talented, but relegated to supporting roles for various reasons. Each got a shot to headline a Hollywood feature – one single shot.

  1. RAINN WILSON, The Rocker. Fox Atomic, a short-lived branch of 20th Century Fox, produced a handful of low-budget films between 2006 and 2009. The Rocker, a comedy starring Rainn Wilson from The Office, was one of their more ambitious efforts: it was released domestically on over 2,000 screens. But nobody wanted to see Dwight Schrute in a mullet, and The Rocker flopped. Wilson also starred in the independent Super, but that was his last leading role to date.
  2. THELMA RITTER, The Model and the Marriage Broker. Look up "character actress" in the dictionary and you will find a picture of Thelma Ritter (1902-1969). She chalked up an incredible six Oscar nominations, all for Best Supporting Actress, though she never won. You'll know her from Rear Window, All About Eve, Pickup on South Street, etc. I don't expect you to recognize, or ever see, 1951's The Model and the Marriage Broker, but although Jeanne Crain (who?) and Scott Brady (who?) received top billing, Ritter was the protagonist.
  3. MAE WHITMAN, The DUFF. The girl's just 27. The DUFF just came out this year. And it did quite well, considering its modest budget. But I sense that the Arrested Development actress will forever suffer from "Her?" syndrome: she's sure to keep working, but it isn't likely that she will get top billing in a Hollywood picture again, much as I'd like to see it happen.
  4. TOBY JONES, Infamous. Warner Independent Pictures was in a race with Sony Pictures Classics to see who could get their Truman Capote biopic out first. Sony won – and Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Oscar for his work in Capote. That left Infamous, and the diminutive Jones, who seemed born to play Capote, in the dust. But Jones is crying all the way to the bank: he's since popped up in the Hunger Games movies, the Captain America movies, and many others. (He also headlined a horror indie called Berberian Sound Studio.)
  5. SEAN ASTIN, Rudy. Playing Sam in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is nothing to sneeze at. That said, Sam ain't Frodo. You'd have to go back to the 1993 football movie Rudy to find Sean Astin, leading man. True, he got top billing in The Goonies and Toy Soldiers, but those were really ensemble pieces.
  6. JON HEDER, Mama's Boy. Heder became a household name after his indie comedy Napoleon Dynamite took off, and Hollywood soon came calling. Blades of Glory was easily Heder's biggest starrer, but he was still billed behind Will Ferrell. No, it was the obscure 2007 comedy Mama's Boy, which Warner Bros. barely released (it scraped up less than $700,000 in theaters), that was Heder's lone turn as a studio leading man.
  7. DAVID STRATHAIRN, Good Night, and Good Luck. Strathairn is that rare actor who convinces equally as a weaselly villain and as an earnest intellectual. He'd been working steadily for more than 25 years when George Clooney gave him the role of a lifetime, that of legendary '50s newsman Edward R. Murrow. Strathairn scored a Best Actor Oscar nomination, but quickly retreated to supporting roles.
  8. DeFOREST KELLEY, Fear in the Night. Once upon a time, Kelley's Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy was considered one third of Star Trek's holy trinity, along with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Alas, pop culture has slowly swept his character aside in favor of the Kirk/Spock dynamic. In any event, this 1947 Warner Bros. programmer was Kelley's feature film debut – and his only starring role.
  9. ILLEANA DOUGLAS, Grace of My Heart. This 1996 musical drama about a Carol King-like songwriter sounds like an indie, but it was bankrolled by Universal and Gramercy. Director Allison Anders was red hot at the time, and Douglas' star was rising after Cape Fear and To Die For. Unfortunately, Grace of My Heart died on the vine, Anders went back to indies (and, later, TV), and Douglas faded back into the ensemble.