Very few character actors can conjure up feelings of nostalgia
like Vincent Schiavelli. While many of
you will look at his name in confusion, I guarantee that you’ve seen him
before. And I’m sure his brief screen time
on numerous films has left an impact on you, much like it has me.
Schiavelli was, without a doubt, one of the most peculiar
looking men I’ve ever seen, which explains why he was one of the greatest
character actors in the history of film and television. While his looks (a resultant effect of Marfan’s
Syndrome) got him a slew of offbeat and quirky roles, his undeniable charisma,
theatrically booming, yet sometimes soothing, voice and talent demanded our
Remember that creepy Organ Grinder in Batman Returns? How about the insane Subway Ghost in Ghost
or Mr. Vargas (who was never meant to have decaf) in Fast Times at Ridgemont
High? All Schiavelli and all
memorable. He was a staple in almost
every Milos Foreman film; from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Amadeus
to The People vs. Larry Flint to Man on the Moon. His appearances in films were usually brief,
but memorable. And while his characters
were usually one-note on paper, he made them something more through the use of
his natural gifts as an actor.
When I was a kid, I saw an episode of Tales from the Crypt
entitled Mournin’ Mess with Steven Weber starring as a journalist investigating
a series of gruesome murders involving the homeless. And one of the homeless victims was played by
Vincent Schiavelli. Something about his
performance in that episode struck a chord deep within me. It was a mixture of fear, distress, anger and
insanity that combined to make something my young mind at the time couldn’t
comprehend. But above all, it was his
face; the type of face that’s seen the world, the good things and the bad; a
face that was sick with what it’s seen.
Character actors are unfairly referred to as performers who
can’t hold a film on their shoulders.
While that may be true for a number of them, Schiavelli was never part
of that group. In many cases, he would
often times steal the spotlight from the marquee name; take, for example, his
scenes with Patrick Swayze in Ghost.
Ask anyone if they remember the Subway Ghost and I guarantee you that a
look of recognition will cross their face.
He takes what are usually regarded as thankless roles and easy paychecks
and turns them into haunting portraits of the forgotten and somewhat absurd.
In addition to his film roles, Schiavelli was in many cases
a television veteran, having made appearances in such shows as Taxi, Eerie,
Indiana, The X Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. According to the IMDb, Schiavelli had 152
credits to his name, almost every single one of them secondary or background characters.
When I think of the eclectic characters Schiavelli has
portrayed, I think back to a time in my life when character actors were
memorable and were able to display more than one type of emotion. Vincent Schiavelli was an artist, the kind
that would’ve been successful even in the silent era. His face was incredibly expressive, one that
could haunt you to the core or make you laugh until tears started to stream
down your face. While Hollywood lost one
of its brightest underrated artists in 2005, Schiavelli’s memorable array of
characters will forever live on in the films that he graced.