The great Alec Baldwin turns 55 years old today, and in attempting to cook up a proper tribute to him, we realized that his is a body of work less about hours than moments, less about films or shows than particular scenes. His career trajectory has been an unusual one: though he was initially pegged as a marquee leading man, he never quite found success as one. The good stuff came later, when he reinvented himself as a character actor, the kind of gunslinger who could parachute in for a supporting role, crush it in a couple of scenes, and slip out the back door. So to mark his 55 years, we’ve rounded up our ten favorite Alec Baldwin scenes, from film and television, for your consideration.
“Always be closing.” (Glengarry Glen Ross, 1992)
The king mother of all great Alec Baldwin scenes came fairly early in his career, with a one-scene role in James Foley’s electrifying film adaptation of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross. It was the only new scene Mamet wrote for the adaptation (which is otherwise, with a few minor exceptions, pretty much the same script as the play), perhaps to set the scene and the tone, perhaps merely to get the rather short play up to feature length. When the film came out in 1992, it was a surprise to see Baldwin in such a small part — albeit in such a distinguished cast — because he was still considered a leading man (this was only two years after The Hunt for Red October). But in that once scene, Baldwin showed a power and brute force only suggested in his earlier films, mouthing some of the endlessly quotable script’s most famous lines and hinting at the kind of work that would become his bread and butter in the years to come.
“I am God.” (Malice, 1993)
Baldwin had top billing in Malice, the twisty thriller from director Harold Becker and writers Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank, but his most iconic moment was the one closest to the Glengarry speech a year earlier — and while it’s always tricky to guess who wrote what in a collaborative situation, the Mamet-esque style of Sorkin’s early work (and its resemblance to his later barnburners) makes this speech’s author pretty easy to pin down. The question, being asked at an inquest into cocky doctor Baldwin’s malpractice suit, is whether he has a God complex. He gives an answer. Boy, does he ever.
Introducing Dignam (The Departed, 2006)
The Departed was Baldwin’s second time working with Martin Scorsese (he also does a memorable turn in The Aviator), and he fits easily into the film’s vast ensemble cast. It’s not a showy role — he’s got a few scenes and several good lines (including a thumbs-up for the Patriot Act that’s as funny as Jack Donaghy’s conservatism, given what we know about the actor’s politics). Many of them come in this brief scene, one where most of the dialogue is handled by Mark Wahlberg’s Dingnam. But their early back-and-forth is priceless, and the unforced sound of those chuckles at the end of the scene make us suspect that Baldwin’s closing lines were ad-libbed.
Car crash (State and Main, 2000)
When Baldwin and David Mamet reunited for the 2000 moviemaking comedy State and Main, the actor’s best moment wasn’t a lengthy monologue, but a line with three simple words. It comes from the mouth of Bob Barrenger, the leading man with an unfortunate taste for jailbait — which is how he finds himself in a crashing car with a very young girl (Julia Stiles). When he emerges, well, his reaction to the situation is admirably Zen-like.
Shangri-La (The Cooler, 2004)
Baldwin got his first and (so far) only Oscar nomination, as Best Supporting Actor, for his outstanding turn in Wayne Kramer’s 2003 drama The Cooler. It’s a difficult character to play — he’s ostensibly the antagonist, a cold, ruthless pit boss who has kept our hero (William H. Macy’s title character) in a kind of indentured servitude for years. But he also represents a dying breed of Sinatra-style Vegas men, as seen in this scene, where a total renovation of his casino is unveiled to him by the snide new kid on the block (Ron Livingtson).
Canteen Boy and the Scoutmaster (Saturday Night Live, 1994)
Baldwin has hosted Saturday Night Live 16 times (more than any other performer), first in 1990 and most recently in 2011. The explanations for his durability on the show are multifold: he’s versatile, he can do impressions, he’s funny, he’s got a sense of humor about himself, and — perhaps most importantly for an SNL host — he’s up for anything. Exhibit A: the manner in which he throws caution to the wind and goes all out for this notorious sketch from a 1994 appearance, as an amorous Scoutmaster with eyes for Adam Sandler’s “Canteen Boy.”
Schweddy Balls (Saturday Night Live, 1998)
But Baldwin’s finest (and most iconic) SNL moment came in a 1998 Christmas show, when he played a guest on their faux-NPR talk show “Delicious Dish.” The man’s name was Pete Schweddy. You know the rest.
Therapy, Jack Style (30 Rock, 2008)
Baldwin won two Emmys and three Golden Globes for playing Master of the Universe Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock, and deservedly so; the combination of the show’s smart writing and Baldwin’s savvy playing transformed what could have been a broad stereotype into a funny, beloved character. Most of his work on the show was of the team-player vintage (he could bounce around the dialogue with Fey or Krakowski like a champ), but his single best scene of the series was one where he took most of the roles himself: a loopy, hilarious therapy session with Tracy Jordan/Morgan.
Wedding Toast (Along Came Polly, 2004)
Look, there’s no use pretending that Along Came Polly is one of Baldwin’s best films, or even most accomplished performances. But there’s just something about the deep voice and wildly inappropriate manner he adopts as Stan Indursky, boss to Ben Stiller’s leading character, that remains in the memory far longer than this forgettable 2004 comedy.
Opening narration (The Royal Tenenbaums, 2002)
As we’ve seen throughout this rundown, Baldwin’s bass voice is one of the best in the business, so it seems appropriate to close out with a scene that he improved greatly without even appearing onscreen. As the narrator of Wes Anderson’s 2002 masterpiece The Royal Tenenbaums, he helps early on to establish the filmmaker’s unique world; he’s our storyteller and confidante, almost whispering the family’s secrets and preparing us for the chapters ahead.
Those are our favorite Baldwin scenes — what are yours?