Wednesday, September 19, 2012

In Character: Christopher McDonald

If I ever felt the need to draft a list of, say, my 20 favorite living actors, there’s no question Christopher McDonald would be among them. I love everything about this guy. He’s hilarious, heartfelt, and equipped with a unique command of his craft, to a degree that everything he does, no matter how crazy, is done with conviction. Sure, he’s been in some dogshit films, but on that note, let me tell you a little story.

For whatever reason, I once decided to see the movie Awake in the theater. It was a horrible movie about a rich guy who is awake during his surgery, and thereby learns that his fiancé is attempting to have him killed on the operating table. Now, I knew this movie was going to be bad going in, but I went anyway. Midway through, who pops up but Christopher McDonald, pricelessly playing a surgeon’s assistant with a really bad drinking problem. Whenever McDonald was on screen, the movie was as alive as its title suggests. The man can make a movie worth it.

Five Essential Roles
Quiz Show (1994)
Jack Barry
Christopher McDonald is no stranger to playing TV personalities. Throughout his sorted career, he’s portrayed numerous hosts, sports casters – you name it. One of my favorites has got to be his Jack Barry from Robert Redford’s Quiz Show. McDonald’s Barry is an effortless incarnation of a ‘50s television host: congenial, exuberant, flamboyant – it’s absolutely faultless.

Behind the scenes, Barry is a stuffy, mildly egocentric diva (he has a great moment of distaste with a production assistant right before going on air), but once those cameras roll, it’s impossible not to notice the character actor who has made a career out of playing classic goons, such as…

Happy Gilmore (1996)
Shooter McGavin
Christ, where to begin here. How can you not love to hate Shooter McGavin? The douchebag golf pro, who makes it his mission in life to not just win the Tour Championship, but to embarrass Adam Sandler as much as possible in the process. From his first moment on screen (“All of you… are my friends,”) to his final chase out of frame, McDonald gives McGavin the perfect amount of arrogance.

There’s just so much gold here, to highlight one scene in particular would risk diminishing the rest of the performance, but I want to make mention of one scene in particular that rarely gets discussed. When Shooter is putting in one scene, someone throws a large beach ball onto the green. He screams, punctures the ball with his club, then makes the putt. Directly after making the put, he yells out “YEAH!!” then throws his hand in the air while making some sort of farting noise. What the hell is that? I have no idea, but I laugh my ass of the every time.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Tappy Tibbons
“Be. Exctied. Be be excited.”

“We gotta winner. I said we gotta winner!”

“Juice by Tappy! Juice by Tappy! Juice by Tappy! Oooohhhh.”

I don’t want to sound repetitive here, but when you consider Requiem for a Dream, how can anyone other than Christopher McDonald play infomercial peddler Tappy Tibbons? It’s as if the role was written specifically for him. The trashy man-on-the-street interviews, the hammed-up stage chats, the God-awful wardrobe – it’s all just… right.

And really, who better for Sara Goldfarb to obsess over than Christopher McDonald? Even when he literally comes off the screen, it’s impossible not to be taken with his sleaze.

Broken Flowers (2005)
Going through McDonald’s body of work, I was stunned to find that he had a brief role in Jim Jarmusch’s thoughtful indie drama, Broken Flowers. At first, I took my forgetfulness as a slight, as in, maybe McDonald wasn’t worth remembering. Wrong. As Frances Conroy’s pleasant husband, McDonald is doing something he rarely does: playing a normal guy. His performance is never boring or stilted, but rather, full of restrained depth that speaks volumes for everyone in the scene.

Although his oeuvre is filled with dynamic, hyperbolic characters, McDonald can play an everyman to a T.

Boardwalk Empire (2010-present)
Harry Daugherty
McDonald does this a lot: he pops up with no warning, and completely steals the show from whomever else is on camera. His work in Awake is a crude example, but take his one scene from one episode of The Sopranos. Sitting with Michael Imperioli in a diner, discussing their addiction recovery. He comes in, does a bit, and leaves. And I, for one, sit mesmerized. 

That’s precisely how I felt when he walked onto Boardwalk Empire as Warren Harding’s campaign manager; quietly working the room, shaking the right hands and making the right deals. I’ve been a fan of Boardwalk Empire from the onset. McDonald’s minor reoccurring role in it only adds to my elation.

The Best of the Best
Thelma & Louise (1991)
Ridley Scott didn’t know what to do with Darryl. According to Scott’s director’s commentary, he knew he wanted Thelma’s husband to be a difficult alpha male, but not to a specific degree. And once McDonald filmed his first scene, Scott knew exactly who he wanted Darryl to be. In other words, Christopher McDonald’s role as Darryl is the perfect example of an actor saying Fuck It and going all in. You have such a set idea of who your character is, that by the time “action” is called, you go for it without looking back.

I just rewatched Thelma & Louise last week, and I say this with virtually no exaggeration: every single thing that comes out of Darryl’s mouth in this movie is hilarious. And utterly pathetic in that hopeless white trash way. The way he talks on the phone, or wears his atrocious robe when speaking to police officers – the list is endless. There is simply no end to the amusement Darryl feeds the already near-perfect material.

Before I rewatched Thelma & Louise, Shooter McGavin occupied this top spot. But in the middle of Scott’s film, choosing Darryl as McDonald’s best performance seemed like a no brainer. If you haven’t seen the film, do check it out. He’ll have you rolling.

Other Notable Roles
In Terminal Velocity
Grease 2 (1982)
Grumpy Old Man (1993)
Terminal Velocity (1994)
The Faculty (1998)
Family Law (1999-2002)
The Iron Giant (1999)
SLC Punk! (1999)
The Perfect Storm (2000)
61* (2001)
Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (2002)
Awake (2007)
The Sopranos (2007)
Harry’s Law (2011-2012)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Steve Buscemi
John Cazale
Patricia Clarkson
Cliff Curtis
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
Michael Clarke Duncan
Chiwetel Ejiofor
William Fichtner
Brendan Gleeson
Bruce Greenwood
Philip Baker Hall
John Hawkes
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
William H. Macy
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Joe Pantoliano
John C. Reilly
Sam Rockwell
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Danny Trejo
Shea Whigham
Ray Winstone
Jeffrey Wright

Listen to my podcast on Christopher McDonald:


  1. I love Christopher McDonald. He always bring something fun to his performances. Even if it's him playing someone normal.

    Shooter McGavin is my favorite performance of his. The moment he appears in Happy's happy place and ruins everything to the line "I eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast". That character is definitely one of the great antagonists in comedy.

    1. Ha, Shooter is the man! Really glad you dig McDonald. I love this guy.

  2. He's such a bastard in Thelma and Louise, but definitely hilarious too.
    I didn't know that he was in Iron Giant. I love that movie.

    1. I know right?! I fuckin' LOVE Darryl.

      I forgot he was in The Iron Giant as well, but sho'nuff.

  3. I always see him but don't know his name. Oh man he's such a jerk in Thelma & Louise and of course Happy Gilmore! I love your In Character series, Alex, I'm curious to see what you'll have for the Small Roles Big Performances blogathon ;)

    1. Thanks Ruth! I'm really excited to take part in your blogathon. I think I know exactly what angle I want to take with it. Post will be to you soon!

  4. Great choice! Like Ruth, I never knew his name. Shooter McGavin would probably be my first choice, but Tappy Tibbons and Jack Barry are very close behind.

    1. Thanks man! Can't go wrong with Shooter. Dude plays a perfect douchebag.

  5. As previous guys who commented - I saw him in many movies and never knew his name either! This is one of the things I love about your series - it actually teaches us something new :) Boardwalk Empire is so amazing, I keep watching and it's always fun to see all those familiar faces showing up.

    1. Thanks Sati! I love bringing a name to the face. McDonald is the man in Boardwalk. He just has this effortless command that makes everything he's in better.

  6. You know those actors who appear in countless movies, of whom you know of, I mean, you recognize the face, but know nothing else about? that's Christopher McDonald for me- he usually had a supporting role, and somehow it was almost always very creepy...well, I found it to be that, maybe it's just because of his appearance. Anyway, great post, it shed some light in some of things I was curious about.

    1. Thanks! I love that this column can put a name to the faces many of us know all too well. I LOVE Chris Mc. He plays such a good creep, doesn't he?

  7. I'm not in the same camp of boundless love for this guy. Sure, he's solid enough, but I feel like he's pigeonholed as this creepy dude who cannot be trusted. I'm never really blown away by him. But I am impressed with his filmography. He has had a long, varied career as a working actor, and I admire that.

    1. I agree that the majority of his roles are creepy douchebags, but he really does have some great stuff outside of that unfortunate type cast.

      But still, few play a creepy douchebag better than him, ya dig?

    2. Yeah, I suppose, dude. I dig.

  8. you eat pieces of shit for breakfast?

    1. And you can count, on me, waiting for you, in the parking lot.

  9. I don't know if there is a better guy to play an asshole. Shooter McGavin is just unforgettable.

  10. Love this guy.
    "I didn't sell out. I bought in."