The last time I saw Brian on screen was in “The Kitchen,” an uneven urban crime drama set in Hell’s Kitchen — where, coincidentally, we first met. I don’t recall the specific circumstances, but it was probably at the Film Center Cafe, where writers, actors, musicians and other ne’er-do-wells would gather till the wee hours — at which point we would often decamp for more unruly revelry at Rudy’s Bar & Grill, next door.
I was a fan of Brian’s before I met him, having seen him on Broadway in 1985 in a play titled “The Boys of Winter,” in which he played a U.S. Marine in Vietnam. (Frank Rich decimated the production in the New York Times, but singled out Brian and co-ensemble players D.W. Moffet and Ving Rhames for showing “the most dignity under duress.”) Like Rich, I was astonished by Brian’s performance, and I was genuinely star-struck when I started bumping into him, harboring a not-so-secret crush that he humored with grace, calling me “Annie” with an affectionate wink as he slung an arm around my shoulder to tell one more New York yarn in the raspy patois of his early heroes, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. He caught and held me when I collapsed in tears at the wake of a mutual friend who died of AIDS in the early 1990s. He was, to put it simply, an all-time great hang.
Brian lived the life of a typical actor on the rise during those years, onstage and in movies and television — I remember running lines with him when he scored a small part in the John Candy comedy “Uncle Buck,” and he had a running gig on the soap opera “One Life to Live.” After I left New York, I would always brighten when I saw him show up in various movies — there he was in “Donnie Brasco”! “Summer of Sam”! “Ghost Town”! If I saw him in a film I was reviewing, I would always try to name-check Brian, not only because he added an indelible comic touch to whatever role he was playing, however brief, but as a sort of smoke signal across the years, to let him know that Annie was still his biggest fan (even if I didn’t always love the movies he was in).
As gratifying as it was to see him still working, I never thought Brian got the screen time an actor of his gifts and natural charisma deserved. Since seeing him onstage in 1985, I always thought he had the makings of a Bogart-esque leading man: rough-edged, unconventionally handsome, innately funny, a little bit dangerous. I was thrilled when he showed up as Bootsy the newsstand owner on “Gilmore Girls,” and then on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” — both shows created by Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, who finally seemed to see Brian the same way I did. “He came in with that voice and that timing, and he made every scene better. And weirder,” Daniel Palladino said in a statement issued after Brian’s untimely death, recalling their early work together. “Every moment was completely unique. You can’t describe a guy like Brian, you just had to be there.”
One way to describe a guy like Brian is that he was a character actor — once a staple of classic cinema, now somewhat endangered. In film’s Golden Age, supporting players and frequent Oscar nominees such as Walter Brennan, Peter Lorre, Akim Tamiroff, Agnes Moorehead and Thelma Ritter epitomized the distinctive artistry of character actors, who, with their unusual looks, exquisite judgment and fine calibration, weren’t just the glue in the movies they were in but added crucial energy and visual interest. Decades later, J.T. Walsh, Jack Warden, Dianne Wiest and Linda Hunt would personify that ineffable combination of eccentricity and versatility that allows a great character actor to simultaneously stand out and disappear into a seamless whole.
Is there such a thing as a character actor anymore? Over the decades, casting decisions in Hollywood have come to hinge far more on preexisting fame than on raw talent or idiosyncratic x-factors; to get a movie financed, especially overseas, producers need stars, not just in leading roles but in supporting ones as well. And character actors are becoming stars in their own right. Thanks to the gritty aesthetic of the 1970s, would-be character actors such as Al Pacino and Gene Hackman became marquee names. And the independent films of the ’80s and ’90s helped nudge audience tastes enough that actors who might have once been limited to character roles became stars in their own right, from Willem Dafoe and Tilda Swinton to LaKeith Stanfield and Benicio Del Toro.
Today, gifted character actors are just as likely to swing between leading and supporting roles. And as Hollywood becomes more inclusive in its storytelling, performers who once might have been marginalized as “ethnic” bit players are able to come into their own as the leads they deserve to be. Proliferating platforms and peak TV have proved to be a boon: Thanks to the obsessive culture of binge-watching and the amplifier of social media, actors who might once have been forgotten, if they had been noted at all, are inspiring their own fan bases.
Hit shows such as “Game of Thrones” and “The Night Of” are providing sensational showcases for people such as Peter Dinklage, Gwendoline Christie and Bill Camp. Brian was one of countless character actors for whom “The Sopranos” was a godsend. And “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” has made his fellow character actor Alex Borstein a breakout star, just as “Girls” helped catapult the career of Adam Driver.
Of course, Driver is now a leading man, competing for an acting Oscar with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Joaquin Phoenix and Antonio Banderas, while bona fide movie star Brad Pitt is competing in the supporting category alongside Tom Hanks and Pacino, with nary a Peter Lorre or Akim Tamiroff among them. Appropriately enough, Pitt is the front-runner in that race for portraying a stuntman in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s ode to those legions of unsung not-quite-stars who know precisely what it takes to hold a movie together and make it better. And weirder.
I’d like to think Brian would approve. But I’d like even more to have seen him in the movie.