Thursday, February 19, 2015

In Character: David Paymer

David Paymer is one of film’s most recognizable character actors. And while few may know him by name, Paymer has consistently delivered stellar performances for more than two decades. He’s played dumb and down, smooth and hip, wise and eccentric, always to excellent results. All told, he’s one of my favorite actors in the business. A guy who makes everything he’s in that much better.

Five Essential Roles
Mr. Saturday Night (1992)
Stan Young
Paymer earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance as Billy Crystal’s older, wiser, and habitually undervalued brother in Mr. Saturday Night. Mr. Saturday Night is a very good film about life of a comedian named Buddy Young Jr. (Crystal), and his journey through wild success and crushing defeat. His brother/manager, Stan, routinely tries to keep Buddy grounded, but Buddy’s ego is too large to accept modesty. As advertised, Mr. Saturday Night is Billy Crystal’s show. He wrote, directed, produced and starred in the film, and his achievement in each of those areas is impressive. But the real showstopper is David Paymer, who plays Stan as a compassionate and earnest guy trying to show his brother the benefits of humility.

Quiz Show (1994)
Dan Enright
As instructed by network higher-ups and corporate sponsors, NBC studio executive, Dan Enright, was one of the masterminds behind the infamous rigging of the popular game show, Twenty One. In Robert Redford’s superb Quiz Show, Paymer plays Enright as a corporate snake. Enright, along with his partner in crime, Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria), are so good at convincing people to cheat, that you actually grow to appreciate the skill of their verbal deception. Dan Enright is David Paymer at his confident, rapid-fire best. A fantastic supporting turn in a film full of them.

Get Shorty (1995)
Leo Devoe
Leo Devoe is the type of character we hear much about before really meeting him. We hear that after somehow managing to fake his own death, skirt a mob debt, and collect $300,000, Leo has been partying in Vegas instead of hiding out. He’s living it up and bragging about it, much to the chagrin of the people he owes. Basically, Leo Devoe is a moron, and it takes a pretty skilled actor to live up to our expectations of such an intentionally silly character. So when we finally do meet Leo, it’s such a joy to see David Paymer shuffling into his fancy hotel room, completely unaware that John Travolta’s Chili Palmer is sitting directly behind him.

“Leo, sit down. I don’t know how you got this far, you’re so fucking dumb. But you’re through now, and let me explain why.” Yes, please, do.

The Hurricane (1999)
Myron Bedlock
One of the most gripping moments of Newman Jewison’s masterful film, The Hurricane, is a scene where Rubin Hurricane Carter’s longtime lawyer, Myron Bedlock, urges Carter to not advance his appeal case. Carter has been in prison for 30 years for murders he never committed, and he knows that in order to finally get a fair case, he has to take his appeal out of New Jersey and try at the federal level. Bedlock’s argument is that, if they skip the state level and show new evidence in a federal court first, then the judge will likely throw it out. Case closed.

Playing against Denzel Washington at the top of his game ain’t easy. And Washington is on fire in this scene. Pleading for Bedlock to hear him, to fight for him. It’s such sad and commanding work. But damn if Paymer isn’t right there with him, pound for pound. Listen to Paymer’s voice crack all throughout the scene – he loves his client and wants nothing more than to see him free, but this is simply too great a risk. Washington and Paymer’s exchange in this moment never fails to shake me.

Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)
The V.U.P.
If there’s one persona David Paymer owns, it is that of the Poor Bastard. The best example of this is Paymer’s hilarious performance in Ocean’s Thirteen, in which he plays a Five Diamond hotel reviewer subjected to all sorts of nastiness. Spoiled food, disgusting smells, bed bugs – this Very Unimportant Person has to go through hell, just so he’ll give Al Pacino’s latest hotel a crappy review. Poor bastard. But hey, all’s well that ends well, right?

The Best of the Best
State and Main (2000)
Marty Rossen
Marty Rossen is not only a character David Mamet was born to write, but once you’ve seen Mamet’s State and Main, you realize Marty Rossen is also a role David Paymer was born to play. Rossen is a fast talkin’, dirty dealin’, hot shit movie producer whose new big budget flick, The Old Mill, invades a quiet Vermont town. After problems start to plague the production, Marty is sent to the town to smooth them over.

Full disclosure: when I first drafted this post, I instinctually called Mr. Saturday Night Paymer’s best role. But while rewatching State and Main, I found myself, once again, unable to get through most of Paymer’s lines without laughing. The man is a riot in this film. Marty is hyper articulate and intimidatingly intelligent – the kind of guy who has an excuse for anything and an answer for everything.

“You forgot your case.”
“That’s not my case. That’s your case.”

You tell ‘em.

Other Notable Roles
City Slickers (1991)
The Commish (1991-1992)
The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998)
Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
Get Shorty (1995)
The American President (1995)
Nixon (1995)
City Hall (1996)
Crime of the Century (1996)
The Sixth Man (1997)
Amistad (1997)
Payback (1999)
Mumford (1999)
Focus (2001)
RFK (2002)
In Good Company (2004)
Resurrecting the Champ (2007)
Redbelt (2008)
Drag Me to Hell (2009)
The Good Wife (2009-2015)
Bad Teacher (2011)
Twixt (2011)


  1. David Paymer. That guy is awesome. Especially as the VUP.... I kinda felt sorry for the guy but I was happy for him in the end. He earned it. I remember Paymer in a film I'm sure you might've heard of as he has a memorable role as one of the goons for Kurt Fuller's villainous role in No Holds Barred. Awful film but so entertaining for how bad it is.

    1. Oh shit man, I love your description of No Holds Barred. I haven't seen it, but I'm all over it now. Gotta love Paymer. Dude rocks.

    2. Well, it's a pretty silly movie. It's about Hulk Hogan rejecting some TV mogul's contract as the mogul hires a man named Zeus to kill Hulk Hogan's character for a wrestling match. It's pretty fucking stupid but funny.... I'll show u a clip:

    3. Ho. Ly. Shit. That is epic. "Doooookieeeee."

  2. Love State and Main! I've watched it a bunch of times, yet I forgot that Paymer was in it until I read this post. He's very good at playing that type of guy, and Quiz Show is another great example. Paymer is one of those guys who can bring so much to even a small role. His presence is always welcome!

    1. Love that you're a fan of Paymer! State and Main is one of my favorites. I love all of Mamet's films, but that thing has so much comedic bite. It's great.

  3. Paymer is one of those great actors who is often taken for granted because he so good in so much and yet is never in that prominent role that grabs our attention. He's that background character actor who is always reliable but too often forgotten. So glad to see you highlight him here.

    1. Yep, you're so right. Like many of the all-time great character actors, Paymer's never really "broken through" to mainstream, but the guy is always so good. Really glad you appreciate his work.

  4. How sad is it that I've been seeing Paymer pop up for years in lots of things, yet I've never known his name. That face, though? Instantly recognizable. Dude is awesome. Glad to see him get some love, here.

    1. So happy I could help put a name to the face! Love this guy, so cool that you're a fan.

  5. You're right, he is one of those guys i never remember the name of, but always enjoy seeing whenever he pops up on screen. He definitely deserved the "In Character" treatment. And now i will probably remember his name as well. I probably remember him best from Get Shorty because i absolutely love that movie. But now i really want to check out Mr. Saturday Night (I had no idea he was an Oscar nominated actor) and State and Main.

    1. Mr. Saturday Night is a really good movie. Arguably Billy Crystal's finest hour. And Paymer is exceptional in it. State and Main is just a blast. Viciously funny and so damn smart. Hope you're able to see them soon! Thanks for the comment!

  6. Great picks man. I really need to see State and Main and Mr. Saturday Night, but I dig the other performances you mentioned.

    1. State and Main is priceless. Such lacerating humor. I really think you'd like it.

  7. I will show this to my dad, I am sure he will appreciate this so much!!!!

    1. Wow, this comment just made my week! First off, thank you SO MUCH for reading the piece and commenting. And that is so nice of you to pass this along to your dad. I'm a great admirer of his work, always have been. Just watched the episode he directed of The Unit - easily one of my favorite episodes of the series. Thanks again!

  8. He is so underrated. Thanks for this page, I loved reading every bit of it :)

    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting! I hadn't look over this post in years, but I agree that Paymer remains so underrated.