Somebody like Robert Duvall just disappears into his characters.
Every time I see him in a movie, I still have to ask myself, “Who is that actor?”
I simply do not recognize him. He never looks like Robert Duvall; he always looks like the character he is creating. And he always creates a unique character for each role.
Somebody like Tom Cruise is always Tom Cruise. The audience always talks about Tom Cruise the actor, not the character he is currently portraying. He is only himself. He may have charisma, sex appeal, star power, a work ethic, but he doesn’t have the real honesty that actors seek in their craft.
As we endlessly discuss who is good versus who is great in the current crop of movie stars, what is honest acting versus what is showmanship, what is craft versus what is fakery, what is art or what is simple sex appeal, we often forget to mention one classic and enduring example of an honest actor.
This great actor appeared on TV, no less — never even on the big screen. Though he is now retired and most likely dead (I never saw an obituary), I cite him as an example of all to which we aspire as artists. His honesty and sincerity in creating characters must be studied by all young actors. You all MUST remember the great television actor of a bygone era: Mr. Ed.
Some so-called critics claim Mr. Ed was a bit of an indicator. This is the term we actors use when we paste on a fake facial expression instead of allowing our true emotions to subtly expose themselves on our face. These detractors say they saw trickery in Ed’s sneer when he moved his upper lip. Others (myself included) disagree and say he was truly emoting, honest to the core.
Take, for example, his morning greetings to Wilbur (when Wilbur was carrying the feed bag). How much more depth of feeling could you ask from an actor? Those neighs in response to food were so true to character and so heartfelt.
Some who’ve made only a halfhearted attempt to examine his oeuvre have speculated that Ed had several stock expressions to which he’d retreat when he couldn’t summon up any true emotion. This reminds me of Kerry Washington in the current TV hit “Scandal.”
A cursory study of Ed’s work does show, yes, many scenes in which he gazes off to the distance. Is this a trick of the trade which he pulls out of his tired old sack of tricks? I think not. I strongly dispute this. Mr. Ed was a Horse Buddhist. His religion allowed him to reflect on life’s ironies, and I think that is what he’s doing when he stared off beyond the set.
Ed was experiencing a true contemplation of life’s mysteries, but NOT as Ed the actor: he was doing it as Ed the character. He liked to look in the distance and let his mind drift on the meaning of mortality and the meaningless of broadcast fame.
What a professional was Ed. Here’s a clip where he shares screen time with Clint Eastwood on a party line…