Friday, December 13, 2013

In Character: Neal McDonough

I watched an interview with Neal McDonough recently in which he said he almost quit acting. After moving from Boston to L.A. several years ago, he failed to find his footing. Sure, he landed small gigs in some worthy films, but he wasn’t making a living at it. So he decided to quit. A few days later, he booked Band of Brothers, and his life was forever altered. I share this anecdote because it’s so frightening to think how easily I could have never admired the work of one of my favorite actors. 

I’ll see anything Neal McDonough is in. A prime time soap opera, a cookie-cutter action flick – doesn’t matter. If his name is on the call, I’m there. He has such a quietly commanding presence, I find it impossible not to seek him out.

Five Essential Roles
Band of Brothers (2001)
First Lt. Lynn “Buck” Compton
McDonough’s patient, sturdy, confident incarnation of Buck Compton is justly the role that made him a household name. Band of Brothers was such a success thanks much in part to the extraordinary cast Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Co. assembled for it. But something always stood out about Buck. His affability, his charm, his everyman charisma – it all made for a beautifully humanistic character. Who can forget the mortified expression on McDonough’s face as he stood over the remains of two of his closest friends? No words can say what McDonough’s face says in that moment. 

Walking Tall (2004)
Jay Hamilton
Neal McDonough is a very, very good actor. One that, it must be said, has a tendency to appear in very, very mediocre films. But I don’t hold that against him. Why? Because no matter the material, McDonough remains solid throughout. My favorite example of this is his sleazy Jay Hamilton in Walking Tall. After The Rock returns home from the war, he finds that his quaint little milling town has changed for the worse. The mill has long since closed at the behest of Jay Hamilton, who chose to open a dodgy casino as a front for his drug operation.

From the moment we meet Jay, we know that this guy is bad news. But we only know that because that’s what genre films like Walking Tall dictate. Truth is, McDonough plays Jay with the same level of charm he plays most all of his characters with. You never know which way a McDonough character is going to go. That’s what makes him so goddamn compelling.

Medical Investigation (2004-2005)
Dr. Stephen Connor
Medical Investigation was a network medical drama among many of its kind. The gimmick of Medical Investigation was that it dealt specifically with rare, outbreak-ready diseases. Other than that, there honestly wasn’t much to set the show apart. That is, of course, save its star, Neal McDonough, who not only made the audience appreciate the medical vernacular he was always spitting, but he made us care as well. Which was a difficult task, given that Dr. Stephen Connor was such a career-driven prick. But those are the roles McDonough always plays so well: highly motivated men who rarely stop to filter themselves. 

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Captain Severance

Although McDonough’s turn in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers is a brief one, he is chiefly responsible for my favorite moment of the movie. Actually, it’s two moments. The first is when Captain Severance is ordered to replace the flag waving high on Iwo Jima, with a new, identical American flag. McDonough’s subtle look of disappointment and disgust is so exacting. The second moment is the final scene of the film, when Severance watches his men gleefully swim in the ocean. This is their reward for raising a flag and, incidentally, raising America’s spirits. A quick swim in the Pacific, as a Captain observes with a fitting look of melancholy. 

Justified (2012)
Robert Quarles
Robert Quarles is easily the sickest son of a bitch Neal McDonough has ever played. A mob heavy from Detroit, Quarles is shipped off to Kentucky by his bosses for bad behavior, but he sees his exile as more of an opportunity than a curse. Shortly into his time in Kentucky, Quarles sets in motion a plan to turn the town’s many criminals against one another, while organizing his own drug ring. With his immaculate three-piece suits, insane charm, and Taxi Driver-inspired forearm pistol, Quarles slowly comes to own the town, making for the finest villain arc Justified has ever had.

It’s the unpredictability of Robert Quarles that McDonough captured so well. You never knew if you were going to find him stoned on Vicodin, bound naked in a crappy trailer, or torturing an innocent boy in his bedroom (or, maybe all three at once). A raging madman who always kept his psychosis in check… until he no longer could.

The Best of the Best
Boomtown (2002)
David McNorris
David McNorris is one of my favorite television characters of all time. A wise ass, philandering, hyper intelligent assistant district attorney of Los Angeles, there were no morals too loose for McNorris, and no justice too swift. It was the kind of scenery chewing role that the proper character actor could devour. And holy hell, did McDonough ever.

McNorris was such a complicated man: hazed by alcohol, extramarital affairs, a rough upbringing – the kind of guy the audience loved to despise, but one we secretly rooted for. To pick a highlight moment from McDonough’s work is near impossible. In one episode, McNorris, fogged by a debilitating hangover, tries to retrace his steps to determine if he committed a lethal hit and run the night before. The scene in which he intimidates a local goon by demonstrating the way McNorris’ own father used to beat him. Or perhaps it was in the show’s very first episode, in which McNorris humiliates a homicidal rich teenager in front of his parents so exquisitely.

Boomtown was inventive, entertaining, and critically revered. But, for whatever reason, NBC decided to cancel the show after airing just one season. Remains of filmed episodes from Season 2 can be found floating online, but they don’t feel complete. It’s such a damn shame that the network didn’t keep Boomtown afloat. They buried one of the best, most iconic characters I’ve ever known.

Other Notable Roles
In Minority Report
Angels in the Outfield (1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Diagnosis: Murder (1998)
Ravenous (1999)
Minority Report (2002)
The Guardian (2006)
The Hitcher (2007)
Traveler (2007)
Tin Man (2007)
Traitor (2008)
88 Minutes (2008)
Forever Strong (2008)
Desperate Housewives (2008-2009)
Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
RED 2 (2013)
Mob City (2013)


  1. I haven't seen a lot of stuff that Neal McDonough is in but from what I've seen, he's always pretty good except for that Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li as M. Bison. Then again, that whole film was a piece of shit and even someone like McDonough couldn't do enough to help that shit script and work with actors who were pretty much beneath him in terms of talent.

    1. Yeah, like I said, there's no denying that the man has been in some bad films. Thankfully, I've kept Street Fighter out of sight, our of mind. But still, the fact that he's even in it intrigues me.

  2. I've got to admit: I've only ever really thought of McDonough as a character actor. To me he's one of those guys that shows up in a whole bunch of movies and is recognizable by face, but not immediately by name. And yes, he seems to play an inordinate number of bad guys. I think it's the eyes.

    1. Oh same here. He's a character actor's character actor. Those eyes are just killer.

  3. Great post! I think he also has a no love scene policy too, which has influenced him to drop from several movies as well. I always think he plays a villain for some reason (?). He is superbly an underrated actor with a unique presence.

    1. Thanks! Yep, he is a devout Catholic who won't partake in any sex scenes, which is very interesting. He was butt naked in Justified, but no lovey dovey scenes.

  4. I was stunned to watch Neil McDonough on Justified, where he dominated the season and every scene where he appeared. He was a force of nature, and it's the performance of his career for me. I haven't seen Boomtown, so I can't compare it, though. I've always thought of him as a solid guy who played behind the heavyweights on big films, but he really shined on Justified. It's great to see him in such a prominent role.

    1. He's so good in Justified, isn't he? Really glad to hear you're a fan of his work in that. If you can find the first season of Boomtown, I highly recommend it. Great, great show.

    2. Quarles was the sickest main character on a TV series that I can remember. McDonough was excellent.

  5. I agree that McDonough is one of the most under-rated character actors working today. If not for Margo Martindale's Mags, he'd hold the title of best villain in Justified. It's unfortunate so many of his film projects are crap (The Hitcher remake, 88 Mins., Red 2... I can't go on) and his TV shows are canceled prematurely.

    1. Oh god, I loved Martindale on that show. She was such a force. Really, both actors completely owned the chief villain role in their respective seasons.

  6. Most of these I haven't seen, but I dig the Walking Tall and Flags of Our Fathers mentions. I need to watch more of his work.

    1. He has so much fun with Walking Tall. It's kind of a blast to watch.