10 Great Multi-Character Movie Performances

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In Cloud Atlas, the ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell’s sprawling novel by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer (out tomorrow), six interlocking but initially unrelated stories are told, decades or even centuries apart, and to further the film’s everything-is-connected theme, the filmmakers had most of their cast take roles — large and small — in each of the stories. Some do it more successfully than others (Hugo Weaving is as versatile as ever, but Tom Hanks’ Cockney gangster is, erm, a bit of a stretch), but it’s an endurance test that actors love to take, the kind of challenge that makes a thesp’s mouth water. Cloud Atlas marks one of the few occasions that multi-role performances (and by that we mean more than two) have been taken on in service of a serious film, however; it’s usually, but not always, a gimmick for character-based comedians. At any rate, we’ve assembled a few of our very favorite performances by actors who decided to flex their chameleon muscles; check them out after the jump.

ACTOR: Alec Guinness FILM: Kind Hearts and Coronets ROLES: The Duke / The Banker / The Parson / The General / The Admiral / Young Ascoyne / Young Henry / Lady Agatha

For most under-40s, Guiness will now and forever be Obi-Wan Kenobi (though he dismissed Star Wars as “fairy tale rubbish” and was notoriously hostile towards fans of the series). But his primary previous claim to fame was as the go-to leading man for the Ealing Studios, where he starred in five of their classic comedies. His most impressive work for them is found in Kind Hearts, in which he plays eight members of one family, men and women, young and old. He pulls it off, as Roger Ebert notes, “by doing relatively subtle things with makeup, posture, and behavior. Because he was nobody he could be anybody, and here he creates characters who are pompous, silly, inconsequential, or even actually nice.” Guinness is not only astonishingly versatile — he’s also funny, and sometimes warm, and always brilliant.

ACTOR: Peter Sellers FILM: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb ROLES: Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake / President Merkin Muffley /Dr. Strangelove

The promise of a multi-character Sellers performance was a big part of Columbia Pictures’ decision to bankroll Stanley Kubrick’s pitch-black comedy; the actor had previously done three roles in the 1959 comedy The Mouse that Roared, and their previous collaboration, Lolita, included a long scene where Sellers’ Clare Quilty impersonates a school psychologist. That character, the German-accented Dr. Zempf, was a clear prototype for the title character in Strangelove — one of Sellers’ three iconic comic creations for the film. (Trivia: he was originally to have played a fourth role, Major T. J. Kong, but an ankle injury and the actor’s hesitancy about the Texas accent caused him to bow out after shooting began, with Slim Pickens memorably taking over.)

ACTOR: Tony Randall FILM: 7 Faces of Dr. Lao ROLES: Dr. Lao / The Abominable Snowman / Merlin the Magician / Apollonius of Tyana / Pan / The Giant Serpent / Medusa / Audience Member

“Versatility” is not exactly a quality that springs to mind when thinking of Tony Randall — we tend to connect him to the kind of high-strung fussbudgets he played on TV’s The Odd Couple and Love, Sydney, which then became his default persona on game shows and in his many, many Letterman appearances. But he was an undeniably skilled and, yes, multi-faceted performer, as evidenced by this 1964 cult classic from director and special-effects pioneer George Pal, in which Randall plays what amounts to the title role — the ringleader of a magic circus, and the “seven faces” he takes on.

ACTOR: Jerry Lewis FILM: The Family Jewels ROLES: Willard Woodward / James Peyton / Everett Peyton / Julius Peyton / Captain Eddie Peyton / Skylock Peyton / ‘Bugs’ Peyton

Lewis had taken on two major roles — and a smaller third one — in The Nutty Professor, his biggest solo hit to date, so he decided to go big for his 1967 comedy The Family Jewels, playing seven characters in the picture (which he also directed). Taking a page from Guinness, Lewis played several members of the same family: the six uncles of little Donna Peyton, heir to a $30 million fortune, who must choose which of them to live with (and share her fortune). Lewis also played Willard Woodward, the family chauffeur who shuttles Donna from one uncle — and one comic vignette — to the next.

ACTOR: Terry Jones FILM: Monty Python and the Holy Grail ROLES: Dennis’ Mother / Sir Bedevere / Left Head / Prince Herbert / Cartoon Scribe (voice)

All six members of Monty Python took on multiple characters in their blackout-sketch send-up of Camelot, and all did so gamely. But we’ve always been partial to Terry Jones’ work in the film, and not just because he’s such a keen multi-tasker (he co-directed the film, with Terry Gilliam). He takes on a comparatively light work load, playing five roles (to, say, Idle’s seven or Palin’s nine), but two of them are among the funniest in the film: “Dennis’ Mother” in Arthur’s uproarious encounter with a peasant revolutionary (“I didn’t know we had a king — I thought we were an autonomous collective!”), and “Prince Herbert,” the sexually ambiguous, musical-loving twit that shows up halfway through.

ACTOR: Richard Pryor FILM: Which Way Is Up? ROLES: Leroy / Rufus / Rev. Thomas

In his stand-up act, Richard Pryor displayed a dazzling gift from bringing distinctive characters to vivid life: fire-and-brimstone preachers, out-of-control drunks, a summiting wino and junkie, and the immortal “Mudbone.” Unfortunately, only one film — aside from his indispensible concert movies — managed to capture that skill on celluloid: Michael Schultz’s 1977 comedy Which Way Is Up?, a remake (amusingly enough) of Lina Wertmuller’s 1972 film The Seduction of Mimi. His three roles were all familiar; Leroy was his regular screen persona, while Rufus and Reverand Thomas were riffs on the Mudbone and preacher characters from his stand-up act. But the uproarious and surprisingly ambitious picture plays beautifully, one of unfortunately few films to fully grasp Pryor’s seemingly limitless skill as a performer.

ACTOR: Lily Tomlin FILM: The Incredible Shrinking Woman ROLES: Pat Kramer / Judith Beasley / Ernestine

Lily Tomlin’s first cinematic collaboration with her frequent writer (and off-screen partner) Jane Wagner resulted in the drab, misbegotten romantic drama Moment by Moment ; that film’s massive failure, and her subsequent success in 9 to 5, meant that her next starring vehicle was going to be a comedy. Tomlin and Wagner weren’t hedging any bets: Shrinking Woman featured Tomlin not only in the starring role of housewife Pat Kramer, but playing the character of busybody Judith Beasley from her stage act and Ernestine from Laugh-In. (Another Laugh-In character, little Edith Ann, also showed up in a scene deleted from the theatrical release but occasionally included in television viewings.) The gambit paid off: Shrinking Woman is not only a terrific Tomlin comedy, but a compellingly prescient satire of marketing saturation and corporate culture.

ACTOR: Meg Ryan FILM: Joe Versus the Volcano ROLES: DeDe / Angelica / Patricia

Like Randall, Ryan’s not exactly an actor whom we automatically associate with chameleon-like immersion into her roles; most of the films she’s done are variations on the fairly standard Meg Ryan Type. But she does some interesting things with her three roles in Joe Versus the Volcano, the first (and least insufferable) of her three collaborations with Tom Hanks. She plays Joe’s mousy co-worker, the quite opposite character of a rich socialite, and said socialite’s rebellious half-sister — and plays all three with charm, wit, and a keen sense of both their similarities and divergences.

ACTOR: Michael J. Fox FILM: Back to the Future Part II ROLES: Marty McFly / Marty McFly Jr. / Marlene McFly

This one’s a bit of a lark — Fox is primarily seen as protagonist Marty in the first sequel to the time-travel classic Back to the Future, traveling both to the grim future he’s inadvertently spoiled, and back to the past of the first film to set it right (and if you want to get technical, you could probably say he’s portraying four characters in the film, since he’s playing two separate 1955 Martys). But in the future, we must see his family, and here, in true Guinness/Lewis style, Fox comes to play: he not only portrays his son, but his daughter Marlene. And while Fox is a good-looking fellow, we must note that he does not make a pretty lady.

ACTOR: Eddie Murphy FILM: The Nutty Professor ROLES: Prof. Sherman Klump / Buddy Love / Lance Perkins / Papa Klump / Mama Klump / Grandma Klump / Ernie Klump

Murphy’s multi-character schtick became a key component of his precipitous fall from brilliant comic genius to paycheck-collecting hack, but it must be said: part of the reason he did it so often was because, initially, he did it so well. His breakout success on Saturday Night Live gave him plenty of opportunities to try out character comedy and impersonation; he first took a crack at it on film in 1988, when (with a big assist from director John Landis’ Oscar-winning make-up ace Rick Baker) he and Arsenio Hall both took on multiple roles in the still uproarious Coming to America. But Murphy’s finest multi-character work came in his 1996 remake of The Nutty Professor, which merged the story of Jerry Lewis’ original with the ambition of his Family Jewels; Murphy played not only the titular professor and his alter ego, but a Richard Simmons-inspired exercise guru and four members of Klump’s family. The Klump family scenes traffic in cheap (mostly scatological) laughs, sure, but they’re also funny, and Murphy’s distinctive characterizations are remarkable. The real value of Nutty at the time of its release was in the contrast of Buddy Love — who Murphy seemed to devise as something of an apology for the subpar vehicles he’d been fronting over the past couple of years, turning his go-to fast-talking slickster into an obnoxious, hateful bastard. It was a remarkable piece of self-awareness from the actor, and reason enough to still value The Nutty Professor — even if it led to the likes of Nutty Professor II: The Klumps and Norbit.

Those are some of our favorite multi-character turns — what are yours? Let us know in the comments!