One of my favorite underrated actors is the great David Strathairn. The 53-year-old San Francisco native has more than 100 acting credits and continues to surprise. He's currently starring in the TV series Alphas on the SyFy network and brings a lot to a possibly conventional role. Strathairn has appeared in a good number of indie films and works frequently with John Sayles. He's also given memorable supporting performances in mainstream films like Sneakers, The River Wild, and A League of Their Own. He did excellent work in an interesting role on The Sopranos as Robert Wegler, a possible love interest for Carmela. While the writers gave that guy an unfair send-off, he made a distinct impression. I've been admiring Strathairn's work for a long time, so it was refreshing to see him get an Oscar nomination for his lead role in Good Night, and Good Luck. He'll appear next as Secretary of State William Seward in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, and that part should bring even more interest on this veteran actor. My choices below offer a good starting point for exploring Strathairn's work, and these just represent a small portion of his excellent career.
Honorable Mention: Noah Vosen in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
Straitharn's supporting role in the third Jason Bourne film is a perfect example of the type of mainstream role where he excels. He brings weight to the stock character of the government bureaucrat who will do anything to protect his interests. Vosen has no problem giving orders to kill anyone who poses a threat. The reason he's such an effective character is because Straitharn underplays his villainous intentions. It's clear that he's hiding something, but he doesn't immediately scream "bad guy" like Brian Cox or Chris Cooper. I'd love to see him to mix in more roles of this type with lead parts in indie films once Alphas is inevitably cancelled.
5. Rennie in Passion Fish (1992)
One of John Sayles' forgotten films is the wonderful little drama Passion Fish, which chronicles the return of a soap opera actress to her hometown in Louisiana after a crippling car accident. Strathairn plays a smaller role as Rennie, a local who starts a relationship with Mary McDonnell's lead character May-Alice. He's completely believable as a small-town guy who represents her earlier life. McDonnell and Strathairn have excellent chemistry and are an interesting couple. The acting is excellent across the board, particularly from Alfre Woodard as a nurse dealing with May-Alice's demanding personality.
4. Pierce Morehouse Patchett in L.A. Confidential (1997)
When I think of the right actor to play a slimy pornographer, the first name that crosses my mind is not David Strathairn. That makes his success in this role even more remarkable. Sporting a thin mustache and dapper clothes, Patchett isn't the typical heavy that might see in a crime film. He's involved in nefarious activities like prostitution, but he isn't the man pulling the strings behind the scenes. Instead, he's a clever guy who's working solely for his own ends. In just a few scenes, Strathairn conveys that approach with style and makes Patchett a memorable character in a movie filled with them.
3. Eddie Cicotte in Eight Men Out (1988)
John Sayles' adaptation of Eliot Asinof's book about the Black Sox scandal includes a strong cast of young talents early in their careers. John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, D.B. Sweeney, Michael Rooker, and others play the Chicago White Sox players banned after the 1919 World Series. Strathairn plays Eddie Cicotte, a starting pitcher who throws several games after being stiffed by the cheap owners. He's just part of the ensemble cast but stands out as one of the most interesting characters. Although his behavior in not giving his best is sad, we understand the conditions that push him to compromise his integrity.
2. Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
This performance could easily be my top pick and is Strathairn's most recognizable performance. The George Clooney film is an actors' movie and takes a subdued approach to the conflict between Murrow and Joseph McCarthy. Its stunning black-and-white cinematography provides just the right tone for the period. Strathairn does a great job as the lead and shows the difficulties faced by the famous journalist when he battled the nasty senator. It's a remarkable movie that remains underrated despite the six Oscar nominations.
1. Joe Gastineau in Limbo (1999)
I'm a huge John Sayles fan, so it says a lot when I proclaim Limbo as my favorite of his films. It portrays a believable Alaskan community that's struggling to stay afloat, then morphs into a personal tale of survival. Strathairn is brilliant as Joe Gastineau, a worn-down handyman who's still dealing with tragic events that happened a long time ago. He starts a relationship with Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a single mom who sings at a local bar. She's struggling to raise her teenage daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez) and keep her career afloat. Along with Joe, they form an interesting trio who bond while trying to stay alive. The slow-moving story works because the actors create engaging individuals. Strathairn sells the reluctant side of Joe that's only grown during the recent years. He needs Donna as much as she needs him, and this bond only grows when they're facing dire consequences.