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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Why James Rebhorn may have been one of our greatest actors

Having just read of James Rebhorn’s untimely death, I decided to go ahead and post this piece, which I actually wrote four years ago.  He was an actor I greatly admired and whose career might seem unremarkable to others, but to me actually epitomizes what it means to truly be able to call yourself an “actor”. 

When I was a teenager, I watched a soap opera called The Guiding Light.  This program was on for over 50 years, but became a casualty of what I’ll call media super-saturation…that is, too damned much to watch.  Anyhow, one particular storyline that scarred me was that of a teenage girl whose well-meaning but naive mother married a man that she somehow failed to recognize was a misogynistic pedophiliac tyrant.  This modern horror was played by an actor named James Rebhorn.  His character, Bradley Raines, was eventually exposed for the monster he was and sat trial for the rape of his teen-age step daughter, Beth.  I know you have subsequently seen this and other similar scenarios play out on the various formats of “Law and Order”, etc. but this storyline predated the Dick Wolf franchise and was the sort of controversial, hot button topic that actually used to exist before reality TV desensitized our ability to be shocked by anything.

When Bradley took the stand and broke down about abuses he himself had suffered and his remorse over his own behavior, I was amazed to discover I felt sorry for him.  This gargoyle, the villain that we had spent countless episodes despising and praying for his demise was suddenly…a human being.  Someone who needed help and, if not forgiveness, at least understanding.  Even as a kid I was able to recognize that this was not great writing; it was great acting.  Since then I have seen James Rebhorn in dozens and dozens of other movies, television shows, etc., and although he doesn’t usually get as juicy a role as that one, he is always a reliable presence, an actor you can count on to do good work.  Even though you probably have no idea who he is, I guarantee you have seen him in dozens of things too.  Ever see Independence Day?  He was in that.  How about Meet the Parents?  He was in that too.  He’s also been on Seinfeld, Law and Order, The Practice, 30 Rock and Homeland.  It would take 2 pages to list his credits, but you still probably don’t have the faintest idea who I am talking about.  In fact, if I had his picture printed right here, he might not even look familiar to you!

So how in the world does this qualify him as one of our greatest actors?  The very fact of his consistent working status hand-in-hand with his virtual anonymity.  We all love the big celebrities of the day and many of them are actually good actors.  But the reality is, real acting is about disappearing into a role and if I am as aware of you and your personality as I am of say, Jack Nicholson, then maybe I am missing something about your character that I might notice more if he were played by James Rebhorn.  The cult of celebrity has stolen a little something from us when it comes to real performance.  Celebrities attract us for many reasons having nothing to do with talent; charisma, looks, mystery or familiarity, train-wreck appeal and sometimes a combination of any of these.  They attract our attention and our money too.  The studios are so understandably concerned about making money that they are inserting celebrity in places where James Rebhorn might have better served. 

 Let’s face it, Oprah Winfrey is a good actress, but we are ALWAYS aware we are watching Oprah Winfrey.  I’m picking on Oprah because she is a tough cookie and can take it, but this is true of so many, many, many of our big name actors that it would take me as long to list them as it would to list James Rebhorn’s credits.  James Rebhorn was an ACTOR.  A professional.  A man with a craft and a work ethic and an ability to become the person he was portraying, body and soul.  So next time you read about an interesting movie but decide not to go because George Clooney isn’t in it, think again.  You sadly will no longer have the pleasure of seeing James Rebhorn work, but you might be missing a really great performance by someone else you don’t know.

PS George Clooney can totally take it too.  Not as sure about Jack Nicholson.


1 comment:

  1. I did not know he had died until reading this. I watched that same "Guiding Light" storyline, and he was terrifying in the part. I actually met him a few times in the early 1990s, and found him to be a very sweet man. And, as you rightfully argue, a really talented and versatile actor.