Entertainment - Television
By: - at July 11, 2013

10 Actors Who Prove Smart People Make the Best Dumb Characters

Girl laughing at tv showAlmost every TV series or movie will feature at least one funny character and in most cases that character is funny because they’re, well, kind of dumb. This is because more often than not a film or television series simply needs a dumb or dopey character for comic relief to engage and entertain the audience and/or diffuse tension or drama. Most times, such a character is simply a stock character – that is, a one-dimensional stereotype that looks, acts and says predictable things. Every so often, though, a different kind of dumb character will come along. One that is an actual character – that could very well be someone that people might encounter in their day-to-day life. Basically, someone that is as unique and intricate as a real person.

Such a role requires a real performance, for which the producers will need a real actor – and a smart one at that. In fact, the dumber the character, the smarter the actor playing them needs to be, because they need to be smart enough to understand how unintelligent the character is. In order to play an unintelligent character, you need someone who is the polar opposite, as they need to have an objective view of the character that makes up who they are and explains why and how they do things in each and every aspect of their lives. This is why smart actors play the best dumb characters.

10)  Nolan Gould, Luke Dunphy (‘Modern Family’)

Luke Dunphy Modern Family
By Josh Hallett, via Wikimedia Commons

If ever one needed proof that a smart person is needed to play a dumb character, they need look no further than Nolan Gould from the television series, ‘Modern Family’ (2009 – present). He portrays Luke, the youngest child of the Dunphy family, and the dumbest character on the show. The character is noted for saying some not so intelligent things, putting himself in potentially harmful situations and delivering some of the series’ best one-liners.

Gould is far from the character that he depicts in the series. In reality, Gould is smart – both a smart actor and also just smart in general. A member of Mensa, he had already graduated high school at the age of 13.

Working in the film and television requires a level of maturity and self-awareness the likes of which few other industries demand, given the physical and emotional toll such an intense and random industry takes. Child actors are especially vulnerable to both the direct and inadvertent pressures that entail working in the industry – an industry that isn’t known for empathy.

It appears Gould’s academic intelligence is matched by his emotional intelligence, as he sees the role of Luke for what it is. He has stated that he has no illusions about the industry and his future in it. While he’s on top now, he knows that it could all end at any moment – much like many child actor’s careers have.

Rather than take the role, the industry or even himself too serious, Gould simply sees the role as a bit of fun that he just happens to get paid for. He has said that away from the camera he is often expected to act a certain way – maturely – because of his above average intelligence, so his role on the show allows him to essentially enjoy his childhood and just be a kid – and do, say and make all the dumb mistakes kids make.

Sam Rockwell Galaxy Quest
By gdcgraphics, via Wikimedia Commons

9)  Sam Rockwell, Guy Fleegman (‘Galaxy Quest’)
Starring opposite A-listers Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman, Sam Rockwell almost stole the attention from the bigger stars of the movie, ‘Galaxy Quest’ (1999). The film details the misadventures of the over-the-hill stars of a cheesy science fiction television series from the 1960s.

In a relatively minor role for the film, Rockwell illustrated why he is one of the most underrated actors of his generation, playing Guy Fleegman. With a knack for finding the dopey lovability of almost every character he has ever played, Rockwell brought the same amount of charisma to a character that wasn’t really supposed to be a character at all, but rather just provide a bit of comedic relief, with the odd one-liner here and there.

However, Rockwell managed to find humanity and likability in a character that could very well have been really annoying were it not for the depth and heart that Rockwell managed to bring to the role.

8)  Matt LeBlanc, Matt LeBlanc (‘Episodes’)

Matt LeBlanc
By Richard Goldschmidt, via Wikimedia Commons

Typically, with the success of the television series ‘Friends’ (1994 – 2004) each member of the show was flooded with offers for various movie roles. Given that this was an era when television was still seen as being second best to film in terms of both an artistic and critical sense – that is, movie stars were A-Grade celebrities, while TV stars were B-Grade – each member of the cast pursued their cinematic opportunities – each with varying degrees of success.

Matthew Perry starred in ‘The Whole Nine Yards’ (2000) and its sequel ‘The Whole Ten Yards’ (2004). Courtney Cox did the ‘Scream’ movies – ‘Scream’ (1996), ‘Scream 2’ (1997) and ‘Scream 3’ (2000). Lisa Kudrow had success with ‘Romy and Michele's High School Reunion’ (1997), ‘The Opposite of Sex’ (1998) and David Schwimmer perhaps would have had success if he hadn’t turned down the starring role that ultimately went to Will Smith in ‘Men in Black’ (1997) – yes, really, Schwimmer turned down the role!

Then there was Matt LeBlanc. His first significant foray into film was the modernized adaptation of ‘Lost in Space’ (1998), a remake of the TV series of the same name from the 1960s. It was a commercial and critical failure. It seemed that LeBlanc should have perhaps just stuck to television.

Then the medium of television changed with the sudden critical and commercial success of television productions such as ‘The Sopranos’ (1999 – 2007), ‘Oz’ (1997 – 2003) and ‘Six Feet Under’ (2001 – 2005). Suddenly, directors, writers and actors, who had just years earlier scoffed at the notion of working on television, were now rushing to work in the reinvented medium.

Television is now seen as the more significant medium, between it and film, which suddenly changed LeBlanc’s career path.

While LeBlanc was not strong enough to carry a TV series on his own – a fact that became abundantly clear with the ‘Friends’ spin-off, ‘Joey’ (2004 – 2006), both a commercial and critical flop – he was certainly a strong supporting character, which seemed all he would ever be.

Then along came the television series ‘Episodes’ (2011 – present). The series tells the story of an English couple working in the television industry, who move to America to make an American adaptation of their successful TV series. The show parodies anything and everything relating to the production process of a television series – specifically, how the American television industry often (usually inevitably) ruins adaptations of international (usually English) television series.

LeBlanc plays hyper-real version of himself and he’s much less likable than Joey from ‘Friends’. While the character is dumb or at least dopey, it’s a different kind of dumb – in fact, it’s a smart kind of dumb. The character isn’t like his previous character Joey, who would often say and/or do something stupid – often in a slapstick fashion. Rather, it’s a massive departure from the role that made him famous, but it’s arguably his best performance.

Much in the vein of Larry David’s depiction of himself in ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ (2000 – present), LeBlanc’s performance is satirical and oftentimes quite dark, as he embodies some of the worst elements of the film and television industry. LeBlanc illustrates this through the deeply questionable character of his tongue-in-cheek depiction of himself, which plays on and emphasizes the asinine media depiction and public perception of celebrities.

7)  Rachael McAdams, Regina George (‘Mean Girls’)
Regina George Rachel McAdams Mean GirlsFrom the very start of the casting process for the film ‘Mean Girls’ (2004) the film makers knew that the casting for Regina George, the “Queen Bee” would be crucial. They knew that they needed an actress that was both smart and, in reality, the polar opposite of the character that she would portray. They found what they were looking for in Rachael McAdams.

Interestingly, Amanda Seyfried – who would later establish herself as solid actress in her own right, with roles in ‘Mamma Mia’ (2008), ‘Dear John’ (2010) and ‘Les Misérables’ – originally auditioned for the role, but she didn’t quite fit. However, she was later cast as one of George’s minions – the especially dumb one, Karen Smith – again illustrating why you need smart actors to play dumb characters.

Arguably the most intricate character in the film, McAdams excelled at playing a character that was both mean-spirited and not so bright but also someone who, despite their mean-spirited personality, becomes at least somewhat likable in the end.

It was a role that was a big ask that could easily have become a caricature rather than a legitimate character. She could have been immensely unlikable to the point of drawing nothing but apathy from the audience. Rather, McAdams succeeded to humanize the character enough that the audience wants to see something bad happen to her – just not too bad.

6)  Jason Alexander, George Costanza (‘Seinfeld’)

Jason Alexander George Costanza Seinfeld
By flipchip, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s weird. It’s kind of both an insult and also a huge compliment to Jason Alexander’s talents that of all the supporting characters on the television series ‘Seinfeld’ (1989 – 1998) that got most of the attention from fans and critics alike, it was Michael Richards for his depiction of the iconic character Cosmo Kramer. While Richards is deserving of his praise, Alexander is certain entitled to praise for his performance, as George Costanza.

It’s a testament to Alexander’s performance on the series that many people honestly believed that he was simply playing himself when, in fact, that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

In truth Alexander is a highly trained, multi-talented performer – a veteran of the stage, Alexander possesses many unexpected talents, such as the ability to sing and dance. Furthermore, he’s also an accomplished voice-actor, appearing in numerous animated productions. One of his most impressive but largely overlooked roles, which he played concurrently with the run of ‘Seinfeld’ was as the voice of the titular character of the animated series ‘Duckman’ (1994 – 1997), which was a critical success, though unfortunately not commercial one.

The fact that Alexander will be remembered for playing a character who was pretty much always the butt of each and every joke throughout the series of ‘Seinfeld’ it’s unfortunate but sadly kind of fitting – as the symbolism echoes Alexander’s own largely unappreciated accomplishments.

5)  J.K. Simmons, Mac MacGuff (‘Juno’)

JK Simmons Mac McGruff JunoJ.K. Simmons is one of those actors that anyone who has ever so much as glanced at a television set has almost certainly seen on some television show or movie, but whose name they are completely unfamiliar with. Show people a picture of the Simmons and, while people might struggle to place just where they’ve seen him exactly, the answer is simple – in pretty much everything.

Perhaps people have seen him in ‘Law and Order’ (1990 – 2010), first as a criminal then later as a psychologist. Maybe it was ‘Oz’ as a Neo Nazi. Then again, it could have been the ‘Spiderman’ trilogy – ‘Spider-Man’ (2002), ‘Spider-Man 2’ (2004), Spider-Man 2 (2007) – or perhaps – and most likely – people are familiar with him as, Mac MacGuff, the titular character’s father in the film ‘Juno’ (2007).

The unusual and remarkable thing about Simmons’ career is that he is essentially a character actor, who is brought in to play a generally one-dimensional character. Here’s the thing, though. A character actor tends to only play a specific type of character – that is, sleazy businessman, corrupt politicians etc. Basically, just stereotypes, as many actors can generally only play one type of character. Simmons thrives playing a variety of characters, particularly comedic roles.

One such great comedic performance of Simmons’ was in the Coen Brother’s film, ‘The Ladykillers’ (2004). It was unfortunate that the film was maligned by critics, due to the fact that, although the film was still good, it was a Coen Brothers film and not so great when compared to their other films.

It’s perhaps fitting, however, that Simmons would gain much of his recognition in the public’s eyes for his performance in ‘Juno.’  Even when playing a smart character, Simmons brings to the character a lovable dopiness that speaks to the heart of the character and the intelligence, intricacy and depth of Simmons himself.

4)  Donald Glover, Troy Barnes (‘Community’)
Donald Glover Troy Barnes CommunityAn accomplished stand-up comedian, writer, actor and singer, the depth and versatility of Donald Glover’s talents is freaky. He gained attention in the public eye for his depiction as Troy Barnes, the emotionally immature but hilarious and lovable jock, in ‘Community’ (2009 – present), though his career in the entertainment industry had much deeper roots.

Glover is not only a smart actor but a multi-talented artist with a successful music career, under the name Childish Gambino, where he applies his musical ability to numerous genres of the medium.

Though he is yet to do anything that truly stretches his range as an actor, he certainly understands the art of comedy – on numerous levels. His first endeavors into comedy took the form of stand-up and internet videos, which ultimately earned him a spot on the writing staff of the critically and commercially successful television series ‘30 Rock’ (2006 – 2013).

His stand-up comedy itself is a mix of slapstick, awkward humor and social commentary, echoing the intelligence and brilliance of one of the smartest, funniest, multi-talented performers in each and every field of entertainment he’s involved in.

3)  Betty White, Rose Nylund (‘The Golden Girls’)

Betty White Rose Nylund Golden Girls
By Alan Light, via Wikimedia Commons

A testament to Betty White’s talents as an entertainer, her remarkable career spans over 70 years. She initially made a name for herself in ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ (1970 – 1977) as Sue Ann Nivens, the scornful, man-eater.  However, it would be her later role in ‘The Golden Girls’ (1985 – 1992) as Rose Nylund, the dim-witted but loveable country girl at heart, for which she would be best remembered.

She was originally intended to play the character of Blanch, a man-eater, which was similar to her role on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show.’  However, reluctant to be typecast and eager to display her acting range, she instead pursued the role of Nylund and quickly earned a place as a fan favorite and even iconic status.

Ironically, given that she took the role of Rose to avoid typecasting, White is often best remembered for her role as Rose and little else form her earlier years. Nevertheless, White has often used people’s misconception about her and her acting ability to catch people off-guard and have some fun at their expense. Though she looks and often acts like a sweet little old lady, she loves to counter that image with actions and comments that counter the public’s image.

Even now in her 90s, White still loves to shock, amuse and entertain her audiences – an audience that is multi-generational, given her vast appeal, to the young and old alike, due largely to the multi-talented actress’ sharp wit, mischievousness and sometimes even dark or blue sense of humor that belies her humble exterior.

2)  Bryan Cranston, Hal (‘Malcolm in the Middle’)

Bryan Cranston Hal Malcom in the Middle
By Thomas Attila Lewis, via Wikimedia Commons

Most people, when they think of the comedic ability of Bryan Cranston, will remember his role in ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ (2000 – 2006), in which he played the patriarch of the comically dysfunctional family.

But he, in fact, first illustrated his comedic talents on the television series ‘Seinfeld’ (1989 – 1998) as Tim Whatley, a dentist who converted to Judaism just so he could make Jew jokes without repercussion.

It’s hard to say which character best illustrates the depth of Cranston’s comedic and overall acting ability. While Hal from ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ was a brilliant throwback to classic slapstick comedy, Whatley was a much more subtle and satirical depiction of the absurdity, pretentiousness and hackney elements of society.

While it’s debatable which character is better, there’s no doubt of Cranston’s phenomenal acting ability, especially when one contrasts the performances with Cranston’s current character, Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who turns to drug manufacturing to provide for his family, when he is diagnosed with cancer, in the series, ‘Breaking Bad’ (2008 – present).

Understandably, it’s a massive departure. One that many other actors would struggle to pull off, given how easy (and often inevitable) it is for actors to be typecast, especially when one considers his past iconic comedic roles. Rather, the role illustrates that Cranston is one of the greatest, smartest and most intricate actors, not just currently working in the industry but, arguably, of all time.

1)  Don Knotts, Barney Fife (‘The Andy Griffith Show’)

Don Knotts Barney Fife Andy Griffith ShowGiven his brilliant and uncanny knack for slapstick humor and perfect comedic timing, it’s remarkable that Don Knotts began his foray into entertainment as the straight man in a comedic duo. His initial attempt involved a ventriloquism act, in which Knotts was the straight man to a wise-cracking dummy.

Furthermore, the character that Knotts would become best known for, Barney Fife, was originally intended to be the straight man to the farcical comedy of his co-star, Andy Griffith. While the combination had initially worked in the film, ‘No Time for Sergeants’ (1958), in which Knotts played the straight man to Griffith’s comedian, when it came to the production of the television sitcom, ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ (1960 – 1968), in which the two would again appear as a comedic duo, Knotts thought it would work best if Griffith was the straight man.

Knott’s character was self-aggrandizing, oddly romantic and despite his claims otherwise, always wrong. Knott’s played the pathetic and comical sides of the character with genuine heart, endearing him to audiences and critics alike, earning him three Emmy Awards for his depiction.

Knott’s would leave the series and pursue a film career. Years later, he would return to television in ‘Three’s Company’ (1977 – 1984) as Ralph Furley, an ostentatious, nerdy and somewhat sleazy though still lovable landlord, which he would make into yet another iconic television character.

The character was initially intended to be just a minor role, though Knott’s performance quickly had the writers writing him as many extra lines as they could. A contract dispute between Knott’s co-star, Suzanne Somers and the studio, led to her leaving the show, which resulted in Knott’s character essentially taking over the leading role on the show. Thus, introducing him to a younger generation and yet again ingraining his unique comedic style and talent in television history.





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