Wednesday, February 8, 2012

In Character: William Fichtner

As far as character actors go, William Fichtner has it all: an odd, distinct voice, unique facial features, weird name, the ability to elevate whatever film he’s in, and so on. I’ve been a fan of Fichtner’s ever since Robert De Niro told him there was a dead man on the other end of this fuckin’ phone.  He’s played funny, whimpy, and baddie to pure perfection many times over, but, as you’ll see, it’s his rare, heartfelt performances that have stayed with me most.

Five Essential Roles
The Underneath (1995)
Tommy Dundee
For his debut performance, Fichtner plays the all-out villainous Tommy Dundee, a local thug who coerces his girlfriend’s old flame, Michael (Peter Gallagher) to boost the armored car Michael currently drives.

As the blonde, spiky-haired Tommy, Fichtner is by far the best part of Steven Soderbergh’s curiously overlooked film. He’s nuts, no question, but he keeps everything internal, talking in that slow, purposeful way that Fichtner has made famous. Although there isn’t a whole hell of a lot of substance to The Underneath, it’s no surprise that its best scenes all contain Fichtner.

Heat (1995)
Roger Van Zant
I’ve talked to people at great lengths concerning what, if any, purpose the Roger Van Zant subplot brings to Micahel Mann’s epic crime masterpiece. What I tell them is that, not only does stealing bearer bonds worth millions from Van Zant start the film’s plot, but the fact that De Niro’s Neil McCauley actually has the balls to try and sell the bonds back to Van Zant proves that McCauley is a guy whose only real virtue is money, which, as the film later proves, is really what the man is about.

It also doesn’t hurt that once threatened by McCauley, Van Sant hides in his office like a scared mouse – greasy and unshaven, pathetically waiting out what certainly will not be forgotten. I love Fichtner in this flick; he plays a pathetic worm so far out of his game to wondrous results.

Armageddon (1998)
Col. Willie Sharp
Just hear me out.

No one hates Michael Bay more than I do, and my distaste for his colossal headfuck of a disaster movie is perfect evidence of that. But, as always, I feel it is necessary to dish out credit where credit is due. And Willie Sharp asking Liv Tyler's character if he can  “shake the hand of the daughter of the bravest man I’ve ever met,” is a line delivery that I find oddly moving among an epically disastrous disaster film. It’s an unforced, tender moment in a movie filled with virtually none of them.

Go (1999)
Office Burke
Who doesn’t love Officer Burke? When we first meet him, Burke has made a deal with Adam and Scott (Scott Wolf and Jay Mohr), two soap opera stars that were busted for carrying a bit of weed. If Adam and Scott help Burke catch their dealer, they’ll get off clean.

During their early moments together, Fichtner plays Burke as the straight-level cop, trying to be hip and relate to the Hollywood crowd. But it’s after the deal falls through that Burke is given a glorious new dimension.

Before long, Adam and Scott are eating Christmas dinner with Burke and his wife at Burke’s home. What happens (in the bedroom, in the kitchen, at the kitchen table…) is so goddamn funny in its randomness, that it’d be a real shame to ruin it here. If you haven’t seen Go, then do yourself a favor. Fichtner’s deliver of the line, “So, would you say you’re open to trying new things?” has several meanings, the varying interpretations of which make it no less funny.

Crash (2005)
I’m kind of indifferent toward Paul Haggis’s Crash. Upon its release, I called it the best film of the year. Now, I doubt it’d be in my top 50 of 2005. But despite my day-to-day battle with the film itself, Fichtner’s one scene kills me everytime.

Mentioned several times before we actually see him, Flanagan, a Michael Clayton-esque “fixer” for the District Attorney, is brought in to smooth out a sticky situation with Graham Waters, an LAPD detective played by Don Cheadle. In the course of their brief scene, Flanagan manages to racially insult Waters at least three times, and blackmail him into doing something Waters finds morally wrong, all while pouring a large glass of water without looking.

He’s smooth, concise and vicious. “Fuckin’ black people, huh?” Such a perfect asshole.

The Best of the Best
Nine Lives (2005)
One thing that makes William Fichtner so effective is the way he uses his words. There’s the inflection of his voice, his penchant for playing scenes soft-spoken (or screaming his head off); his lines just always seem to… roll. Funny then that I consider his best performance to be one in which he doesn’t say a word.

In Rodrigo GarcĂ­a’s rather remarkable (and remarkably little-seen), Nine Lives, Fichtner plays Andrew, a deaf mute who, in the span of a few minutes, desperately tries to convince his ex wife, Lorna (Amy Brenneman, never better) to fall back in love with him. And did I mention that he does this at his current wife’s funeral?

Nine Lives is a series of loosely connected short films that each take place over nine minutes, and are all shot in one take. And while some segments are weaker than others, the best ones leave us wanting more in the best possible way.  In the case of Andrew and Lorna’s story, we’re presented with an actor who conveys such an immense amount of desperation in a very brief period of time, that we initially wish we could follow him, but we’re ultimately content leaving off where we do.

Other Notable Roles
In The Dark Knight
Contact (1997)
The Perfect Storm (2000)
Black Hawk Down (2001)
The Chumscrubber (2005)
The Longest Yard (2005)
Empire Falls (2005)
Prison Break (2006-2009)
The Dark Knight (2008)
Entourage (2009-2011)
Drive Angry (2011)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Guy Pearce
Shea Whigham
Viola Davis
Gary Oldman
David Morse
Michael Shannon
Emily Mortimer
John Hawkes
Jeffrey Wright
Elias Koteas
David Strathairn


  1. I am rolling down the post, thinking you forgot him in Prison Break. But you have it in there. He was a real bad ass in Prison Break. One notable thing about him: besides being a character actor, I remember him distinctly in all the roles I have seen him in. That is got to be a good thing - leaving your print on the role.

  2. @SDG Here's the thing about Prison Break: I was in love with the first season, and by the time the second season ended, I thought it was an embarrassment of a TV show. So basically, I tuned out and was unable to see him play his character to the end. I liked what I saw, but I liked the six roles I mentioned better.

    At any rate, a fantastic actor all around! Thanks for commenting!

  3. We are on the same page Here Alex. I never got to the third season myself, let alone fourth. But still, we are talking about him, not the show and I loved him in Prison Break. Great Actor all around. Yup.

  4. Definitely one of the best character actors working today. Loved that scene he had in The Dark Knight. As much as I loathed Armageddon, he was the only bright spot in that film.

  5. @SDG Nice man, I may consider going back and watching his work in it.

  6. Catch him in this for a fun surprise.

  7. @thevoid99 Whew, I'm glad I'm not being ripped to shreds for mentioning a Michael Bay movie in a (somewhat) positive light. Glad you dig Fichtner, he's the man!

  8. @tjsveen Dude this looks awesome. Did you see it when you were there?

  9. great post, but i don't know about you, he's always looked like an elongated version of kevin bacon to me

  10. I first saw him in Prisonbreak (one of my favourite shows of all time). This guy was so good in this. Big fan!

  11. @Anonymous Ha that's a funny comparison, but I think acting wise, he puts the ole Bacon to shame.

  12. @Alex Thomas Okay so as a fan of Prison Break, did you see the show through til the end? Because I thought it got AWFUL toward the end of season two, but I was always curious to know what happened.

  13. William Fichtner is great, but I do think he is typecasted most of the times, also for the same role. I also agree that Prison Break was amazing in the first season, but sizzled out by the end of the second one- still, it is a great show!
    p.s I don't know if it might fit to your series, but I was just thinking that Stanley Tucci is a great character actor and people don't give him the credit he deserves. Maybe you can consider him, too!

  14. @Aziza I think every character actor, unfortunately, is at risk for being type cast, including Fichtner, but I think he stands out in the roles I mentioned.

    Tucci is a GREAT suggestion. I try to do not as well know actors for a few weeks, then a major one like Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce. So maybe Tucci will be up soon!

  15. Ah, good, I was hoping you'd have Go here and you did. He's also a shitload of fun in Drive Angry and The Big Bang, the craziest film of 2011.

  16. @colin Yeah he made Drive Angry moderately bearable. Man, I haven't even heard of The Big Bang but I just looked it up and it looks NUTS.

  17. Alex, I'm a big fan of William Fichtner and agree with the others that highlighted his great work in Prison Break. Even when that show started going downhill, his performance was always believable. He also did strong performances in Go and Heat, so it's cool that you spotlighted those films. He even gets a short but memorable moment in the Dark Knight. He's underrated and deserves more great roles. Nice post.

  18. @Dan Thanks Dan! I love his brief, snarky role in The Dark Knight as well. He's an actor that always does so much with the little time he's given.

  19. He was the best part of Drive Angry 3D hands down. However, if I have to pick only one to be the best I would go with Go. I love how smoothly he goes from menacing cop, to possibly being gay, to trying to sell Amway like products. Fichtner just does not get the respect he deserves. He is such an undervalued actor.

    1. "It's Confederated Products. Different company, different quality of product." Someone had to say it. Fichtner is 20 kinds of awesome in everything he does. I'm so hoping "Wrong" gets a distribution deal because from the clips, Master Chang looks like a classic performance. "Drive Angry" did not fare well at the box office but it looks as if Fichtner's turn did not go unnoticed as he's picked up some big roles since then with "Phanton", "Elysium" and now "The Lone Ranger."

  20. @CS Completely agree. I love him in Go. Bloody hysterical.

  21. @Anonymous Yeah I agree with the Drive Angry stuff - pretty standard action fluff, but he was brilliant in it. I've always thought he amps up a film just be simply being in it. Glad to hear you dig him!

  22. There is one thing. I hate Michael Bay to the bone. Easy the worst director ever, but I kind of like Armageddon. It is a piece of shit, but it was fun. The editing give my headache, the dialog is cheesy, but some of the acting is between decent and good. (Liv Tyler is pretty bad.) I own the Dvd but if I'm lucky I'll never watch again. I had fun with it.
    What do you think about Armageddon? (and a grade for it)

    1. Well, first off, I agree with everything you said about the movie. But, first and foremost, it is fun. I have the DVD as well. I think I'd go with a solid C+.

      B- if I'm being kind.

  23. Oh nice, thanks so much for the recommendation. I'll have to check this out. Love a good Fichtner performance.

  24. I hope you were able to watch the single season of Invasion. The leads were so-so, but William Fichtner and Kari Matchett were amazing in their supporting roles. Invasion and Pushing Daisies are still the two early series cancellations I’m maddest about.

  25. I never did! I actually forgot all about it but maybe I'll track it down now.