One of the toughest tasks in acting is creating a unique and memorable character that becomes completely synonymous with the actor. One of the toughest tasks in TV acting is to do it twice. Cinema and theatre actors are asked to do this every time they appear, unless reprising a role in which case they won’t play the part more than a few times. But due to the lengthy and ongoing nature of most TV fiction, small screen actors tend to play one part continuously over a number of years, embedding themselves in the public’s consciousness as a single character. Many TV actors struggle to transcend these defining roles, either failing to convince when playing conflicting parts or returning to screens as thinly disguised versions of their most remembered character.
Alan Alda will always be Hawkeye Pierce-the Korean War medic he played during the 11 years MASH was on the air-and much more so than Donald Sutherland who originated the character. While Sutherland would continue to add iconic screen characters to his name (John Klute, Fellini’s Casanova, The Man on the Bench in JFK), Alda would stay a hawk in eagle’s clothing. This is partly the problem of Alda being cast in roles which functioned as tributes to his MASH character, like his stint as Dr. Gabriel Lawrence in ER. But the shadow cast by MASH was too enduring for him to escape even when subsequent performances were superior, such as his turn as presidential candidate Arnold Vinick in The West Wing featuring a semi-improvised debate filmed under live conditions.
Dennis Franz is quintessentially Andy Sipowicz to most TV viewers after 12 years playing the character throughout the entire run of NYPD Blue but could also conceivably be remembered as Norman Buntz for his 4 years in the role in Hill Street Blues and eponymous spin-off Beverly Hills Buntz. It would seem Franz achieved the impossible and created two wholly separate characters that he is instantly identifiable with if it weren’t for the fact that Sipowicz and Buntz were 2 sides of the same maverick antihero cop coin. Actor Daniel Benzali was first introduced in a major role to TV viewers in NYPD Blue as mob lawyer James Sinclair and then a year later played criminal defence attorney Teddy Hoffman in Murder One, the same character but with different moralities.
I’m put in mind of these peculiarities of TV acting because I’m currently watching FX’s modern-day western detective series Justified which features not one but two performances where the actors have bucked this trend and created new characters distinct from those they were previously renowned for. It’s now impossible to think of these two actors without having both of their characters in mind and yet they never become confused. This feat is even more remarkable as said actors have achieved recognition as a second character while playing roles which on paper look identical to the ones they previously inhabited and in like shows. It’s a rare ability that’s enough to put an actor in a television elite but almost unheard of from two different actors in the same TV programme.
The actors in question are Timothy Olyphant, who previously portrayed the reluctant sheriff Seth Bullock in Deadwood and currently plays anachronistic U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in Justified, and Walton Goggins, formerly shit-kicking scumbag corrupt cop Shane Vendrell in The Shield and now Justified’s resident anti-villain Boyd Crowder. Olyphant plays Bullock and Givens as self-styled western lawmen poseurs (helped considerably by his gunslinger profile and Eastwood-like gait) but the former is humourless and ascetic whereas the latter is all about freewheeling comedy and casual vices. Both are altruists fighting hedonistic urges but while Raylan seeks justification or soft substitutes for his pleasures of the flesh (whether manoeuvring felons into quick draws or indulging an ice cream fetish), Seth punishes himself for all transgressions to the point where he is psychotically repressed.
It would have been tremendously easy for Goggins to play Crowder as a twin of Vendrell, the amoral and emotionally child-like southern states cop-turned-criminal. Both men are at root ugly, bigoted criminals who are nonetheless veneered with Dixie charm and flirt with respectable social institutions, be it the law or the church. There are shades of Shane in the race terrorist Boyd we first encounter in the Justified pilot but he soon emerges as a man locked in a paralysing performance of deadpan ambivalence and courtesy reconciling his inner contradictions of benign religious servitude and venal gangsterism. If the job of acting is to transform oneself repeatedly then TV could be seen as a hindrance to the profession. On the other hand, we become attached to one character they create far more than in any other medium. Two of American TV’s finest actors are demonstrating that we can have both.