Actors That Defied Typecasting

There’s a thread dealing with actors so strongly identified with their hit roles that it’s difficult to see them as anything else. This is the flipside of that thread: identify actors who were well-known in particular roles and then went on to create very different characters successfully.

I’ll start off with two:

Morgan Freeman seems to have been able to undertake almost any role and pull it off successfully, from a prisoner in “The AShawshank Redemption” to the President in “Deep Impact.” In fact, when he wants you to notice he’s a black man, that becomes evident, but when he’s playing a “colorblind” role, you simply gloss over the fact that the character happens to be black. I consider him one of the most versatile active actors in consequence of this.

Harry Morgan is another excellent actor. He tended to play “straight man” roles in sitcoms, but to pull them off extremely well. Starting as the neighbor Pete Porter on “December Bride,” he and Cara Williams had the moderately successful spinoff “Pete and Gladyts.” He then portrayed Officer Bill Gannon as Jack Webb’s foil on “Dragnet”, and then Col. Sherman Potter on “M.A.S.H.” And I was intrigued to notice the number of major movies he had ‘significant’ roles in.

Other people that portrayed more than one memorable character?

Gary Oldman

Johnny Depp was a pretty boy lightweight on the Fox series 21 Jump Street who I am sure no one ever would have thought would become one of the most respected and serious actors of our generation.

Patrick Stewart can become Jean Luc Picard, Charles Xavier, or anybody from a Shakespeare play.

Meryl Streep has an incredible range. People joke about her accents, but she is just great at using them to create a full-blooded character. Her Sister Aloysius in Doubt showed all sorts of depth, from idealism, to a nasty vendetta, and finally to anguish. And it’s completely different from her playing Julia Child and someone with abounding joy in life in Julie and Julia.

I’d say Spencer Tracy in, well, just about anything. He could play heroes, villains, and everything in between.

Laurence Olivier played plenty of suave heroes, but then pulled off dastardly Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and the even scummier Nazi dentist in Marathon Man.

Myrna Loy played everything from evil, exotic vamps to glamorous sophisticate such as Nora Charles in The Thin Man films, and then to earth mother / down-to-earth goddesses in Cheaper by the Dozen and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

And Gene Hackman’s another great example, I think, in roles as varied as Popeye Doyle and Lex Luthor and the likeable/flawed sheriff of Mississippi Burning, and about a billion other roles.

Of actors working today, none is as much a chameleon over such a range of roles as Oldman.

That said, a few others who have impressed me with the diversity of their work would include:

Billy Bob Thornton
James Gandolfini (in spite of the Tony Soprano thing)
Walter Matthau (RIP)
Jack Lemmon (ditto)
Don Cheadle
Joe Mantegna
Philip Seymour Hoffman
John C. Reilly
Steve Buscemi

I agree. Look at the range of roles he’s played (Ed Wood, George Jung, Donnie Brasco), and when you watch those movies you never associate one with the other. You don’t watch, say, “Public Enemies” and think, “huh, that’s Jack Sparrow.” He does a better job of disappearing into a role than pretty much any other Hollywood star.

I would add Ed Harris to this list.

Sean Penn. He can play anything.

Jon Voight has defied typecasting. He’s played everything from super-evil bad guys to extremely sympathetic good guys. He’s actually a really underrated actor, in my opinion. You can take any three of his movies - let’s say, Deliverance, Heat, and U-Turn - and see three utterly different characters. He’s good at changing his appearance too. He sometimes even uses makeup and facial prosthetics to change it. He’s played Howard Cosell, Franklin Roosevelt, Pope John Paul II, and an evil Nazi general. He has great range and never got typecast.

Bryan Cranston (malcolm in the middle father) goofball and very animated becomes Walter White dark drama acting.

Jane Kazmarek (malcolm in the middle mother) high strung crazy mom becomes a judge in Raising the Bar.

How about Neil Patrick Harris? While he wasn’t exactly doing nothing between “Doogie Howser, M.D.” and “How I Met Your Mother,” it’s those two roles (and the “Harold and Kumar” cameos) for which he’s best known - and they couldn’t be much more contrasting.

James Cromwell - everything from Evil Badguy to Pig Loving Farmer to Warp-Drive Inventor. And he has a unique look and is very tall, so it seems like he would get locked into a type, but instead is all over the map…

Hmm - how is this different from being a “character actor”?

Dustin Hoffman. From The Graduate through All the President’s Men, Tootsie, Rain Man, Outbreak, Meet the Fockers, and Last Chance Harvey; with all their different character requirements, Hoffman always turns in a good performance.

From the OP:

A lot of these suggestions don’t fit. Not that Gary Oldman or Gene Hackman defy typecasting - it’s that they really don’t get typecast. I don’t think anyone identifies them as well-known in one or two particular roles, but rather as a body of varied work.

Johnny Depp (pretty boy), Sean Penn (stoner), and others I think have defied typecasting. Depp especially has worked hard not to be cast as the heart throb.

I could be reading the OP wrong (not like its the first time that will have happened), but I think to defy typecasting, people need to see the actor as one particular type of role and the actor has avoided being constrained by that role.

My interpretation was for an example of an actor/actress who WAS typecast, but then defied this in another role.

For example, Ed O’Neill will always be Al Bundy. But, what if in a new film Ed O’Neill played a new character that left you thinking, Al who?

Personally, this would be more interesting to me than seeing Gary Oldman and Johnny Depp listed another fifty times.

So we’re on the same wavelength, bucketybuck, though I think Depp was typecast in 21 Jump Street and has defied it since.

But Oldman, Hackman, Freeman, Hoffman - I don’t think they’ve ever been typecast, so there is nothing to defy.

I caught the last few seconds of an episode of I Spy and was wondering if Bill Cosby might be the only person to star in a comedy, drama, and variety show on TV.

Robert Duvall – he’s been in almost 80 movies since 1970, and has created some iconic characters in some of them. I can never say, though, when I see him in Lonesome Dove, for example, “There’s Tom Hagen” or “There’s Bill Kilgore.” Duvall, I think, does a wonderful job of disappearing into his roles – there are many similarities between *Lonesome Dove’s *Gus McCrae and Boss Spearman (from Open Range), but Duvall makes them completely different characters.