Over the last two years, I’ve had the honor to work on various projects with a veteran character actor, Basil Hoffman, who has appeared in just about everything — Seinfeld, Milagro Beanfield, West Wing, Square Pegs… you name it. He’s one of those people you
see on the street and think “where have I seen that guy before?”
Well, when I started writing this episode of Courage, New Hampshire — The Travail of Sarah Pine, I needed a Tory Lawyer, someone willing to do the crown’s bidding in a difficult situation, and I kept thinking of Basil. Even before I showed him the part, I showed the script to mutual friends and everyone of them said — “Basil’s playing that, right?”Basil, the actor, plays everything from a hardened CEO (LA Law) to a nervous toupée salesmen (Seinfeld). He’s played a cranky bureaucrat for me and a timid farmer, upset about his wife’s dreams, and a lefty reporter and now a crown shark. I’d be hard pressed to say exactly what his type is, except that a kind of hawk-like strength peaks through each time.
That’s the scoop on good actors. They can play lots of different parts, but as to the fictional characters themselves, It’s an odd thing, but I don’t think writers actually invent character. They may riff on traits; they may invent dialogue, but in a very real way, no combination of adjectives actually make the man. You can say he’s “centered, focused, shrewd, cunning.” You can say this character is “charming in an oily sort of way,” or “obsequious with stormy bolts of bitter honesty,” or “loyal, with suffocating intensity” but, really, God is the great sculptor of personality and in a very real sense no one writes a character that God hasn’t written first. When people ask me how to invent character, I tell them not to. I tell them to write about someone they know and then change the name. If they’re good at it, that’s what they’re going to do anyway.
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