Thursday, December 19, 2013

In Character: John C. McGinley

You can’t not love John C. McGinley. As one of the most consistently hilarious characters actors in the business, there is no role that McGinley can’t bring to life with his unique humor. But McGinley’s craft certainly extends beyond chuckles. There’s a particular depth that McGinley frequently brings to his characters that I find captivating. Occasionally, you don’t know whether to laugh at the guy, or feel sorry for him. I’ll never tire of exploring the many facets of McGinley’s work.

Five Essential Roles
Point Break (1991)
Ben Harp
Want to know how to entertainingly crank out a shit load of script exposition? Do it all in one tracking shot, never let your camera stop moving, and hire John C. McGinley to deliver all the dialogue. This early scene in Point Break may not seem like much of an achievement to some viewers, but the technical proficiency in which it was pulled off is quite impressive. But don’t take my word for it, McGinley himself has said that when he shot this scene, it was the hardest thing he had done up to that point. 

Still not sold? Okay, well, any actor who can amaze with lines like: “You’re a real blue flame special, aren’t cha son? Young, dumb, and full of come,” and “Why don't you astonish me, shitface?” always deserves specific praise.

Surviving the Game (1994)
John Griffin
Surviving the Game is one of my favorite trashy action flicks. A handful of wealthy good old boys invite a homeless man (Ice-T) to join them at a cabin for the weekend. They arrive, enjoy a pleasant (if not slightly ominous) dinner, and go to bed. The next morning, the men inform Ice-T that they are going to hunt him to the death. They give him a brief head start, and we’re off and running.

The highlight of the film is that dinner scene the night before the big hunt. As a first time viewer, we’re not entirely sure why the mood is so eerie. But I just love McGinley in this scene, studying Ice-T with a sort of erotic homicidal desperation. I’m not sure if he wants to eat him, hunt him, or fuck him. Who knew McGinley could play such an entitled psychopath so well?

Office Space (1999)
Bob Slydell
“Michael… Bolton. Are ya any relation to the pop singer? Because I’ll be honest with ya: I love his music! I do. I’m a Michael. Bolton. Fan.”

How can you not love those two Bobs? What makes me appreciate McGinley’s work in Office Space is the fact that his character didn’t exist when filming began. McGinley and scene partner Paul Willson improvised all of their dialogue. They just sat in that crappy little office for three days and hashed it all out. How can you not love that?

Scrubs (2001-2010)
Dr. Perry Cox
I’m an intermittent viewer of Scrubs at best. The show’s distinct farcical tone isn’t for me, but I will admit that it is nothing short of delightful to watch McGinley seriously ham it up as Dr. Perry Cox. The ceaseless sarcasm, the rapid wit, and vast arrogance – it can be difficult for a noted character actor to excel so quickly in a sitcom (the writing is usually to blame for this), but McGinley truly made Cox his own. Beyond Cox’s dark humor, I always enjoyed his more heartfelt moments of reflection. It was rare for Cox to let his guard down, but when he did, I always felt that Scrubs couldn’t be better.

Identity (2003)
George York
Every character on this list is known for his humor. Whether dark, morbid or nonsensical, John C. McGinley plays funny often, and he plays it damn well. Which is why his quiet and WASPy George York is such a refreshing change of pace. George is the kind of guy who prefers to stand in the back of the room with his head down, casually observing. Even when his poor wife is moments away from dying in a shitty motel room, George never lets anger get the better of him. He sits, he thinks, he prays – he’s an emotionally tortured but undeniably kind everyman that I am utterly drawn to.

The Best of the Best
Platoon (1986)
Sgt. O’Neill
Sgt. O’Neill is one hell of a persistent ass kisser. The way he constantly tries to please Tom Berenger’s Sgt. Barnes – lighting his cigarettes, laughing at his jokes, agreeing with everything he says – it’s all so desperate and pathetic. The fact that we’re constantly laughing at him matters little; what’s important is that McGinley managed to convincingly sneak a little levity into such a serious film.

Now, everyone knows what an ass kisser is up to. They play the Yes Man, hoping in return to be given favors. When O’Neill finally does ask Barnes for a favor, it makes for one of Platoon’s most heartbreaking scenes. Directly before a major battle begins, O’Neill pulls Barnes aside and asks if he can cash in on his leave. He’s due for some R&R, and there’s no time like the present. Barnes brushes him off and begins to walk away. O’Neill stops him. “I got a bad feeling about this one,” O’Neill pleads, barely fighting off tears. “A bad feeling.” And in an instant, the wiseass, pathetic, ass-kissing douchebag turns into a scared shitless soldier trying to save his own life.

In the Making Of documentary on the DVD, McGinley remembers that Oliver Stone directed him to play the scene straight. But McGinley couldn’t stop himself from crying. Take after take, his voice kept cracking. I’m so glad Stone didn’t push McGinley to “get it right.” Because damn if it isn’t right as is.

Other Notable Roles
With Jim Brown in Any Given Sunday
Wall Street (1987)
Talk Radio (1988)
Car 4, What Are You? (1994)
On Deadly Ground (1994)
Se7en (1995)
The Rock (1996)
Mother (1996)
Set It Off (1996)
Nothing to Lose (1997)
Any Given Sunday (1999)
Get Carter (2000)
Justice League (2001-2006)
Burn Notice (2012)
42 (2013)


  1. I love that guy. He's essentially one of those character actors I enjoy watching. I love the fact that he's willing to play the asshole who gets his commupance later on like in Point Break.

    Surviving the Game is very underrated. A cool-ass film because of Ice-T.

    1. Yes! This comment rocks. Not only are you a McGinley fan, but you dig Surviving the Game as well. I love that fuckin' flick.

  2. I'll be honest. I'm one that doesn't like John C. McGinley. Lots of times I don't even like him. However, this post reminds me how many good movies he's been in and how long he's been around. Great job! I'd honestly forgotten about his character in a number of these, especially Point Break which it has been way too long since I've watched. All that said, I do love him in Office Space. He and the entire movie is just brilliant.

    1. I'm glad to hear you enjoy him in some films. He's so damn funny in Office Space. I mean, who HASN'T worked with a guy like that?

  3. I'm glad that you mentioned Surviving the Game, which has a ridiculous cast of character actors with McGinley, Busey, Abraham, Dutton, and Hauer. It's trashy like you mention but also fun. I really liked the first few seasons of Scrubs, but it became a parody of itself by the end. Still, McGinley owns that part and makes it more than one-note.

    1. That's part of what makes Surviving the Game so good: they filled it with such impressive actors. I love that. I fell out of Scrubs around season 3 for the exact reason you mentioned. I'm stunned it lasted as long as it did. But still, McGinley rocked his role.

  4. I didn't know that scene in Office Space was improvised and that fact makes me love it even more. To me, it's the quintessential McGinley role.

    1. Isn't that crazy impressive? They just made those Bobs up on camera. Remarkable. I love him in that movie.

  5. I love when this guy pops up in films. He has a ton of charisma. I always think of him yelling "we've got a box!" in Se7en.

    1. "Call the bomb squad, call the bomb squad, we gotta box!"

      That's such an unflashy role, and I love it. I mean, I didn't even know that was him until years after seeing the film.

  6. Great spotlight on a fantastic supporting actor, Alex. McGinley never disappoints and I couldn't agree more on his role in Platoon. He's absolutely hilarious in that (in a tragic way)

    1. Thanks Mark! He is tragically hilarious in Platoon, isn't he?

  7. Scrubs is my favorite television show of all time and I started watching it the 4th episode all the way to the end, even through the 9th season and he was brilliant every single time he stepped on screen, being able to move between every conceivable emotion and perhaps he even invented his own. What's more fascinating is the commentaries, his character very much seemed to mimic the man. On commentaries with Bill Lawrence there would be fake arguments that were clearly his strange way of showing admiration and other actors would speak of how they feared him as an actor, not because he was a bad guy but because of how seriously he took it. My favorite was a season 8 commentary where two of the fairly actors to the show and Bill Lawrence talked about how he would call for retakes of scenes, because he wasn't satisfied with his own performance. I think what made Scrubs such a fun show to watch was that the actors had a lot of freedom to improv in their own bits to scenes to make it flow better and would often just say or do whatever they felt was best or would bring large parts of their own personal traits into real life such as when John C. McGinley would frequently touch his nose, which he apparently does as a tribute to The Sting. He also performed perfectly in the difficult position of playing the character who was dating the character played by the show runner's wife.

    1. Wow, I had no idea you loved the show that much. That's awesome man. Your enthusiasm for it really shines through; I love hearing ]why people are passionate about certainly films or shows. So glad to hear you're a McGinley fan. He was an essential asset to that show.

  8. Yet another actor whose work I'm way behind on. He killed it in Platoon, though. I always think of that DVD interview when I watch that scene now. Just brilliant.

    1. Yeah same here. That was a great little tidbit to learn. Makes me appreciate his performance so much more.

  9. It's funny, when I first saw this pic I thought you were doing a post about Bruce Campbell. But as for McGinley himself I love him in Office Space and Platoon. The scenes you mentioned in particular are great and I wish he had more opportunity to stretch himself in recent roles but it's always great seeing him on screen!

    1. Campbell could be a cool one to cover. Don't think I've seen tons of his stuff though. Hmmm.

      I too wish McGinley had more opportunities to show is range, because we all know it's there.