Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Death of a Character Actor

You might not recognize the name of Maury Chaykin.

Well, you might — if you happen to be a fan of A&E's production of the Nero Wolfe mysteries. Chaykin was a supporting actor through most of his career, but Nero Wolfe was one of his few leading roles and, arguably, gave him his greatest professional exposure.

However, I think Chaykin, who died yesterday on his 61st birthday, may be remembered by more people for his performances in the smaller roles he played throughout his life.

He had a recognizable face, the kind of face that makes one instantly think it has been seen before even if you can't quite place it. Chaykin's face had an almost cartoonish quality, deceptive in the sense that it makes one associate him with comedy.

And Chaykin did appear in his share of comedies — including what I have always regarded as one of his most memorable roles, the witness in "My Cousin Vinny" who asserts that "No self–respectin' Southerner uses instant grits."

But to dismiss Chaykin as strictly a comedic actor would do his memory a disservice, for Chaykin — in addition to 20 episodes as the detective — often appeared in dramatic films and TV series.

For that matter, Chaykin's performance in "Vinny" gave folks an in–depth glimpse into his skills as an actor, even if they didn't realize it at the time. He was born in Brooklyn to an American father and a Canadian mother. He was raised in New York, then moved to Toronto where he lived until his death.

Needless to say, a Southern accent did not come naturally to him.

But, speaking as someone who grew up in the South and considers himself pretty adept at spotting a faux Southern accent (Hillary Clinton, who was raised in Chicago, was, after all, the first lady of my native state), I must say that I found Chaykin's accent to be convincing.

He was a capable actor, believable in everything I ever saw him in.