Classically Trained Extra
Guess which one of these actors played Hamlet
four times on Broadway.
The Classically Trained Extra is an actor, often on a Show Within a Show
, who feels they're stuck in a lowbrow role that's somehow "below" them, agonizes over their talent being wasted, and aspires for greater things. Whether they're a has-been or an overly ambitious newcomer to acting, they tend to come off as an uptight blowhard, especially if they boast that they're a "classically-trained Shakespearean actor".
Particularly reviled roles seem to be a character on a science fiction program, the straight man on a Sitcom
, or the host of a broadcast TV kids' show. Bonus points for the last one, or any role where the Classically Trained Extra's personality (they're usually Comically Serious
) is cast against type. If they have sufficient contempt for the role, they might Hate The Job Love The Limelight
. If they express that contempt to the kids who love their character, it's Nice Character, Mean Actor
Note, while the title is made to amplify the meaning of this trope, it happens whenever someone appears in a role that is really far, far
below their ability and range. It may be a very important secondary role, but it is usually a pop culture type of production.
This trope is often Truth in Television
, as even great actors can't always be picky about roles
, as a side effect of skill not very often translating into popularity.
Compare What The Hell, Casting Agency?
, All-Star Cast
. For actual
classically trained actors, see Shakespearian Actors
open/close all folders
Live Action TV
- A Frasier episode revolved around Frasier discovering his favorite Shakespearean actor as a boy was now playing Tobor the android in Space Patrol. It transpires he was actually a really bad Shakespearean actor, but Frasier was too young to know. Sir Derek Jacobi, who played the part, really is a classically trained actor and former RSC member. Jacobi won an acting Emmy Award for that role.
- Beakman's World: Originally Lester, the guy in the rat-suit, was simply a trained actor with a bad agent, though this got played down for his more disgusting qualities later on.
- The sitcom Cybill (1990s) was about a actress, Cybill Sheridan (played by Cybill Shepherd) who, not young any longer, only got minor roles (including voicing a singing toilet for an ad, and that was probably not her worst). She remembered her "golden age" as a scream queen, but grew to dislike the quality of her own horror movies, having done it only to pay the bills.
- In Slings and Arrows, Ellen is a veteran Shakespearean actress who sells out by taking a lead role on a ridiculous sci-fi show.
- Invoked in the "Gallimaufrey" episode of QI. Phill Jupitus mimics the "kind of out of work actor they would have on Call My Bluff'' when defining the word "grog blossom".
- Parodied in The Young Ones where a postman who appears for a couple of minutes to deliver a parcel in one episode is apparently played by one of these; he roars his two-or-so lines with the same passion and intensity he would presumably give if he was playing the Dane. Even when he's gone, he can still be heard loudly delivering luvvie-style theatrical anecdotes backstage and generally annoying everyone present.
- The "Weird Al" Yankovic song "Skipper Dan" is about a former up-and-coming, critically acclaimed Broadway actor... who is stuck giving shows on the "Jungle Cruise" at Disneyland.
- In the Cabin Pressure episode "Cremona", Hester Macauley is understandably bitter over the fact that her stage work and more serious film roles are overshadowed by her role as the Lady of the Lake in Quest For Camelot.
I'm your biggest fan! Hester:
Oh really? Enjoy my Clytemnestra
, did you? My career-defining Clytemnestra at Stratford? Or perhaps you preferred my Olivier Award-winning performance in A Dolls House
? No? Maybe you're more of a film buff. Arthur:
I really loved— Hester:
No, don't tell me, I'm keen to guess. A Light Shines Darkly
? Tails You Lose
? Fardle's Bear
? Because I hope you were't about to suggest that you're my "biggest fan" based on two miserable weeks I spent up to my bosom in pondweed filming some ridiculous fantasy dreck I only agreed to because my little cat needed a dialysis machine
- In the musical adaptation of Struwwelpeter (or Shockheaded Peter), the "host" of the show gets increasingly frustrated as his acting talents are wasted on campy introductions of (gleefully grisly) children's songs. He actually tells the audience he's a classically trained actor and limps out as Richard III for a while before giving up in utter exasperation.
- In the musical of ''Drood, in the show within a show, Bazzard laments his inability to get a larger part (including having an entire song about it). He is even a suspect in the murder, with his motive being wanting to increase his part.
- Sam And Max: Situation — Comedy features Philo Pennyworth, the stuck-up actor who plays the neurotic landlord, Mr. Featherly, on Midtown Cowboys. Also, he's a talking chicken. Interestingly, though, Philo is actually an aversion of the trope — he is indeed classically trained, but far from thinking that his role in a critically-panned sitcom is beneath him, he believes true professionalism lies in taking any role you're given and playing it to the best of your ability.
- Of course, the professionalism flies out the window once the show becomes a massive hit in Germany and he starts making some serious bank.
- Used with a series of increasingly unfortunate twists in the first Ace Attorney game with Jack Hammer, an actor on the children's sentai show Steel Samurai. He was blackmailed out of a successful star career and into playing bad parts for very little pay, after accidentally killing a costar.
- Claude Maginot in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is a classically-trained actor who is incredibly peeved about how he is best known as the star of the sitcom Just the Five of Us, which he calls "commercial dross." In an interview on K-Chat, he tries to steer the subject toward his interpretive dance show, In the Future, There Will be Robots, and breaks down into a rant when Amy keeps trying to push the subject toward his show.
- In The Movies, the radio announcer for early part of the game (1920-1950) is William MacDuff, a snooty, Ambiguously Gay stage-actor-turned-newsreader who insists that moving pictures are just a passing phase.
- On South Park, Phillip of Terrance and Phillip was like this in the episode "Terrance and Phillip: Behind the Blow".
- In a real life example, Jerry Seinfeld expressed interest in doing a voice for the show and was offered the role of "Turkey #4" in their Thanksgiving special. Seinfeld's agent didn't quite understand the joke and turned it down.
- This is actually pretty common on South Park. Henry Winkler performed the growlings of a monster; Jay Leno voiced the meows of Cartman's cat, and George Clooney said "bark bark" as Stan's gay dog.
- While not trained as an actor, Sideshow Bob of The Simpsons fits the trope perfectly, with his high culture elitism and past as a clown on Krusty's show. His replacement, Sideshow Mel, is even more over the top with his dramatic behavior, but seems satisfied with his current role. Also, Bumblebee Man is actually an intelligent and dignified actor who approaches his absurd slapstick antics with professional gravitas, and moans about his situation to his wife.
- Sideshow Mel was later upgraded to a full blown Classically Trained Extra when he revealed to Lisa that he won the Entertainer of the Year award for playing "serious" roles, such as Biff from 'Death of a Salesman'. Mel also makes it perfectly clear that he is in fact not satisfied with his current role.
- In the episode "I Love Lisa," Lisa's Large Ham thespian classmate Rex is outraged when the part of George Washington, in the school Presidents' Day pageant, goes to Ralph Wiggum instead of him. He ends up playing a bit part, with visible resentment, as Washington's verbally-abused servant.
- In the Looney Tunes short "A Ham in a Role", a canine actor quits Warner Brothers to study William Shakespeare.
- In the short-lived Greg the Bunny, Warren the Ape was a Classically Trained Extra. To a lesser extent, Junction Jack is as well.
- On the episode of The Ren & Stimpy Show where Stimpy goes on strike, one of the replacements Ren auditions was a Shakespearean actor who "played Stimpy for the Queen."
- A recurring character in the British animated sketch show Monkey Dust is a man who can only speak in a calm, clear voice, and so mostly does voiceovers despite being a classically trained actor.
- Mr. Pricklepants in Toy Story 3 takes his "role" as a toy incredibly seriously, even though it involves nothing more than not moving when humans are around, something every other toy can do with ease.
- The ogre in the bloopers of Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus.
- Maurice Evans, pictured above went on a slow descent from Broadway Shakespeare to Batman and Bewitched...
- Robert Reed, who really was a serious actor and had done Shakespeare in the past, reportedly hated playing Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch because he felt the role was "beneath" him. This resulted in numerous disputes with producers over the course of the series, even to the point where Reed's character was written out of the series finale.
- Sir Alec Guinness seems to have felt this way about playing Obi-Wan in Star Wars; a letter to a friend at the time of filming describes the film as "fairy-tale rubbish", the dialogue worse, and his character unclear. He predicted that it would be successful (cannily negotiating a share of the profits), and considered it a well-made film, but he stipulated he wouldn't do any promotion of it and claims to have been in favour of the Obi-Wan Moment at least partially out of a desire not to return for a sequel.
- Another Star Wars example is Ian McDiarmid, who played Palpatine. He's a successful theatre actor, and won a Tony Award. He actually enjoyed the role, though, and came back on board for the prequels.
- Far more disgruntled was Temuera Morrison, who seldom misses an opportunity to explain how beneath him it was to play Jango Fett.
- Real world inversion: Patrick Stewart was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company before he went on to play Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He reportedly considered it good practice.
- While with the RSC he reportedly advised Lalla Ward not to take the role of Romana in Doctor Who as doing sci-fi would damage her career, although to be fair at that time the Sci-Fi Ghetto was still very much in effect and series like Star Trek: The Next Generation had yet to be made, or to earn any critical acclaim.
- Stewart has noted on at least one occasion that he's glad he took the role because it drew more people in to see his performances on stage and helped teach people about Shakespeare.
- The Star Trek series have managed to get some surprisingly talented actors over the years. Avery Brooks, aka Cpt. Sisko, has played in Othello and King Lear, and is an extremely talented stage actor as well as a tenured drama professor.
- William Shatner was trained as a classical Shakespearean actor, played several Shakespearean roles at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, and debuted on Broadway in Tamburlaine the Great.
- Dame Judi Dench is a similar case; she has said that she wants to continue playing M until she dies, just because the movies are so much fun to make. This was not to be, however.
- Similarly to Stewart, Vincent Price had a lot of Shakespearean villain in the Large Ham characters he tended to play. In fact, in one film, Theatre of Blood, his character actually is a hammish Shakespearean actor who murders the critics who panned him.
- Supposedly, Price took that role precisely because he wanted to show everybody he could do Shakespeare. Every time he'd tried previously, he ended up being rejected because of his Type Casting as a Mad Scientist or Evil Sorcerer.
- Before he became known for horror roles, Price played a swashbuckler matinee idol in His Kind of Woman, a humor-tinged action movie. He gets a rush from a taste of real-life danger and leaps into the fray, belting out Shakespeare in wonderful Large Ham mode.
- Werner Klemperer. Concert pianist. Broadway actor. Best known for playing the hapless and monocled crowning example of a Wacky Nazi. He genuinely enjoyed the part after initial misgivings over the premise, and even kept the monocle for years after the show ended.
- Betcha didn't know Jim Varney, who played Ernest P. Worrell, was a respected stage actor.
- Frank Kelly, who played Father Jack Hackett in Father Ted, was a trained stage actor, whose lines were limited to saying 'Feck' and 'Girls' whereas the two leads were stand-up comedians. Frank Kelly would often mutter "feckin' amateurs" during takes.
- One trailer purported to show the cast rehearsing their catchphrases, while Dermot Morgan addressed the viewers. At the end, Frank Kelly interrupted him in a plummy "classically-trained actor" voice.
- Jim Norton, who played Bishop Brennan, is also an acclaimed stage actor who has won multiple awards, including a Tony. In an unusual twist, people in the United States are more likely to know him for his extensive Broadway work while people in his native Ireland would know him only as Bishop Brennan.
- There were two of these in Are You Being Served?. Arthur Brough, who played Mr Grainger in the first five seasons, was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the founder of multiple repertory companies. John Inman was both a stage actor and a renowned pantomime performer.
- Once, while hosting Saturday Night Live, Sir Ian McKellen gave an opening about how (now Dame) Maggie Smith had once gotten Laurence Olivier to see a performance of theirs when they were in a minor stage group together, which ended up with both of them being drafted into his Shakespearean troupe, where they met "a talented young actor by the name of Anthony Hopkins." He then went on to talk about the irony that, after playing the classics, Hopkins was now famous for "eating people's faces off", Smith was now "that Harry Potter lady", and "they've made me into an action figure twice!"
- Sir Anthony Hopkins is an interesting case, and possibly an inversion of this trope; once touted as the Next Big Shakespearean Actor, he deliberately chose to come to Hollywood to make loud, stupid movies because that's what he likes to do. In his own words, "I have no interest in Shakespeare and all that British nonsense... I just wanted to get famous and all the rest is hogwash".
- Same for Sir Ben Kingsley. One of the most respected actors around, he says he enjoys tackling non-serious movies and big Hollywood blockbusters, comparing them to a big Roman performance spectacle. He even signed onto BloodRayne simply because he always wanted to play a vampire and wear fangs on camera.
- Even Olivier is no stranger to this trope as he spent much of his last few decades appearing in fare so he could have money to leave to his family (famously becoming the Trope Namer for Money, Dear Boy in the process). He seemed to be okay with that or at least didn't make any apologies for making his family a priority above his career.
- Dan Lauria, famous as the father on The Wonder Years, is a Shakespearean actor who was initially hesitant to audition for the show, or any television show for that matter. He even went as far as to correct one of the writers at his audition, when they commented on what a great role it would be.
- Although it's possible that that's why they chose him for the role: a father whose glory days are over, who is now stuck at a dead-end job where his talents go to waste.
- The above mentioned Abe Vigoda (famed for his portrayal in The Godfather) and his role in Good Burger.
- Abe Vigoda was even in North, where he was sent away on an ice floe due to his age.
- Garret Morris, of SNL and The Jamie Foxx Show, is a Julliard-trained singer. He sang a few times on the former, but felt he was being typecast.
- When Walter Matthau hosted, he was aware of Morris's talent, and insisted he get a spot singing an opera aria perfectly straight.
- Jason Narvy, best known for playing Skull on Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, is a Shakespearean trained actor with multiple degrees, including PhD in Theater Studies and now works as a college professor. However he gained all this after leaving the show but this makes his role as the dim-witted Skull funny in retrospect.
- The Adam West Batman series received quite a few famous actors in roles as one-time villains. A famous example is Neil Hamilton as Commissioner Gordon, who was a contemporary and even a sort of mentor to Humphrey Bogart.
- The Mad Magazine parody of the show has a throwaway line where Batman says "I thought this week's guest villain was Laurence Olivier!"
- Adam West himself qualifies, he was initially seen as "too serious" of an actor for the role until someone saw a ridiculously silly commercial for Nestle Quik he did.
- Samuel L. Jackson is a classically trained Thespian who is best known for being a Jedi Master who has had it with motherfucking snakes. However, he doesn't regret any of his roles and has said that he acts for the pleasure he gets from acting, regardless of whether or not he thinks the movie will be good.
- To be fair, anyone who has seen Pulp Fiction knows just how good he is.
- Timothy Dalton was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and had done considerably more stage acting than film acting when he was cast as James Bond.
- Orson Welles spent plenty of time directing, starring in, and sometimes rewriting classical plays with the Mercury Theatre and throughout his career... and concluded his career by playing Unicron in Transformers: The Movie.
- Robert Englund is a graduate of the Academy of Dramatic Art, has done a hell of a lot of stage acting and was given a ten-minute standing ovation after a screening of Il Ritorno di Cagliostro at the Venice Film Festival. Freddy Krueger can act you under the table.
- Tony award winner Ron Leibman is more well-known nowadays as Rachel's grouchy father in Friends.
- Shizuma Hodoshima. Japanese Shakespearian stage actor. If you've ever heard of him, it's because he is also the voice actor for Final Fantasy IV's Cecil in remakes and Dissidia: Final Fantasy.
- Similar to the above Shizuma Hodoshima example, Satoshi Hashimoto is a somewhat prolific actor in most fields of entertainment, ranging from stage plays (The Engineer in Miss Saigon, Jean Valjean in Les Misérables) to live-action movies to TV dramas. However the role that is most synonymous with this name is none other than Terry Bogard, the face of SNK and probably the most memetastic character in all of fighting game history. Up until The King of Fighters XII, he also voiced fellow Fatal Fury alum Kim Kaphwan. Also, did you know that he led the Autobots on one occasion?
- While not being a Shakespearian actress per se, Junko Takeuchi (of Naruto's fame) is also a classical trained stage actress and former ballerina. according in a recent interview. And yes, just like everyone else (both in and out-universe) she also agrees that Naruto is an annoying brat at first.
- While not classically trained, Graham Chapman was a very intelligent (he was a fully-qualified MD) and talented actor whose straight laced persona was used to hilarious effect for Straight Man roles. The other Pythons considered him the best and chose him for the lead roles in Holy Grail and Life of Brian.
- An Aversion. Jim Broadbent, a well respected Oscar winning actor, not only thoroughly enjoyed his role in Hot Fuzz, but had actually asked Edgar Wright for a part in his next film after meeting him. Timothy Dalton also appeared and gleefully made a ham of himself, and Cate Blanchett had an uncredited cameo as Nicholas' ex-girlfriend in one scene, where the entirety of her body and face was obscured aside from her eyes.
- Averted with Alan Rickman who, while a very acclaimed stage actor who has turned down film roles to focus on theater, gets equal praise for film roles and thoroughly enjoys being able to play characters like Snape and Hans Gruber. He liked Chasing Amy so much that he sought out a role in Kevin Smith's next film, Dogma.
- In Homicide: Life on the Street, Andre Braugher, Reed Diamond and Yaphet Kotto were all professional actors, with Braugher and Diamond both having attended Julliard. Subverted in that they were not only massively acclaimed, but Homicide is cited as one of the best acted shows on television.
- Alec Baldwin, who once wrote a 65 page thesis on method acting, was in the nineties considered one of the best dramatic actors around, mainly due to roles in Malice and - most famously - Glengarry Glen Ross. He is best known now for playing Jack on the sitcom 30 Rock. Subverted in that he is not only enormously acclaimed for it, but has spoken positively about it on numerous occasions.
- John Laurie, best known for playing The Eeyore Private Frazer on Dad's Army and rather bitter about the fact as his theatrical work was much less well known.
- The Observer, or "that creepy bald guy who shows up in the background of every episode" on Fringe, is played by Michael Cerveris, a Tony-winning Broadway leading man who has played John Wilkes Booth and Sweeney Todd. And he doesn't even sing in the Musical Episode!
- Believe it or not, Phil Mitchell is a RADA graduate.
- Top British stage actor Sir Antony Sher, in a rare movie role, plays Hitler in the comedy flop Churchill: The Hollywood Years.
- He was also virtually an extra in an episode of One Foot in the Grave (he plays a man in a waiting room and doesn't speak a single line)
- Rupert Everett played hammy baddies in the dumb kiddie comedies Inspector Gadget and Dunston Checks In.
- Playwright and stage veteran Steven Berkoff played 2-dimensional baddies in Octopussy, Beverly Hills Cop, Rambo II and recently The Tourist.
- Charles Dance slums it as the dastardly Deputy Prime Minister in Ali G Indahouse where, at the end of the film, he has get into tight, skimpy womens clothes. And once before he sacrificed his dignity to play a cyborg space pirate with a chainsaw-like motorised penis (complete with rip cord) in Space Truckers.
- This can even happen in Shakespeare productions. After all, someone has to play the guards, handmaidens, and servants from the stage directions.
- This is becoming much more common in American TV. More and more American movies and shows are being produced in other countries, often for budget reasons (Canada and New Zealand being the most common.) They will usually hire local actors for various parts, and you can end up with some very high-profile Canadian, Aussie and Kiwi actors playing relatively small parts that local audiences might see as way below their caliber (although, more often than not, the actors themselves love it. Since the American production teams don't have any perceptions of their acting ability, the actors have a greater chance to spread their wings and play against type.)
- Gemma Arterton feels this for Clash of the Titans. She refused to sign on to the sequel, and her character, Io, got killed off. However, she rather enjoyed making Quantum of Solace and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
- Canadian actor John Vernon was a RADA graduate who once played Malvolio at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. He's best known in the United States for playing the hardass Dean Wormer in Animal House.
- Peter Lorre was seen as a coming actor on the Berlin stages, particularly working with Bert Brecht, but went into movies, where he often played small supporting or villainous parts after appearing in M. Which he might not have done had Brecht's "A Man's a Man" been more of a success in theatre.
- Speaking of M, Theo Lingen, who appears there as the pickpocket and has a similar role Fritz Lang's next film, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse was a prominent member of Brecht's troupe (he also married Brecht's first wife, Marianne Zoff) but got sidetracked into playing servants and the like in countless movies.
- William Atherton is a veteran stage actor who has starred on Broadway, worked with Arthur Miller and won numerous awards for his performances. He's best known to the public for playing Walter Peck in Ghostbusters and Richard Thornburg in Die Hard.
- Jeffrey Jones, a graduate of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic art and trained Shakespearian actor, once lamented that he was far more likely to be remembered for playing Principal Rooney in Ferris Bullers Day Off than for playing the emperor of Austria in Amadeus. Of course given later controversy and scandals, Mr Jones should probably consider himself lucky if that's what he's remembered for.
- Tom Bosley, whose formidable stage career (including a Tony award for the musical Fiorello!) has been overshadowed by playing Howard Cunningham on Happy Days. Somewhat averted though, as Bosley enjoyed working on the show.
- Richard Boone, who's best-remembered for Westerns like Have Gun — Will Travel and Hombre, trained at the Actor's Studio and acted in Shakespeare and Euripides plays onstage before moving into film and television work. He even taught acting at university level later in life.