The more you watch the Coen brothers’ movies, the more your eyes drift to the periphery, drawn to those peculiar souls who pop into the action for a scene or two, then return to the dark recesses of Joel and Ethan Coen’s imaginations. Few of them could possibly exist in the real world, but even in the world of a Coen brothers film, it’s funny to think about what their origin stories might be — how one came to man the elevators at the Hudsucker Building, say, or entertain lonely men in the hotels and cabins around Moose Lake, Minnesota. The films themselves don’t usually provide such answers, but just make the questions more intriguing, and for this list we focused on the intriguing above all other considerations. The one major criterion for inclusion on this list is that the actor or actress must appear at least five places down in the cast credits. Otherwise, here’s a rough ranking of the Coens’ most memorable supporting oddballs.
20. Board Member 3 (I.M. Hobson), The Hudsucker Proxy
The eight board of directors at Hudsucker Industries are a largely interchangeable lot: The old, pasty, doughy white face of corporate power, all gathered in support of Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), the pastiest and doughiest one of all. But when Mr. Hudsucker, upon hearing reports of soaring profits, dives out the 44th floor window — not counting the mezzanine — it’s Board Member 3 who makes the strongest impression. With his Martin Scorsese eyebrows fluttering in panicked incomprehension, he weeps, “Why? Why did he do it? Everything was going so weeeelllllll!” As the other board members immediately shift to discussion of how news of Mr. Hudsucker’s suicide might affect stock prices, Board Member 3 is the lone, sad flicker of conscience. Poor bastard.
19. Communist Writer #4 (David Krumholtz), Hail, Caesar!
Chief among the many fires studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has to put out in Hail, Caesar! is the abduction of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), one of Capitol Pictures’ biggest stars, by Hollywood communists. Whitlock is being held for a $100,000 ransom, but the communists, convinced of the rightness of their ideology, believe they can persuade the soft-brained star to align himself with the cause. As good communists, they more or less speak in one measured, austere voice, but in the background, Communist Writer #4, played by a mustachioed David Krumholtz, keeps piping in with invective. “Parasites!,” he screams, before getting hushed by the rest of the group. The others may be committed to the cause, but they’re not that committed.
18. Agnes Kracik (Beth Grant), No Country For Old Men
As played by scene-stealer Beth Grant, Agnes Kracik is a cartoon mother-in-law, an old Southern woman who may not know much, but will tell anyone who listens that her son-in-law, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), is two words: “No and good.” And now her daughter (Kelly MacDonald), on the run after Llewelyn walked off with found drug money, has to go to El Paso, Texas. How many people does she know in El Paso, Texas? Goose egg. And it’s 90 degrees out. And she has “the cancer.” This litany of complaints will end soon for all of them, thanks to her total lack of self-awareness. A truly lethal pain in the ass.
17. Mountain Girl (Diane Delano), The Ladykillers
When Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, a corrupt Southern dandy played by Tom Hanks, recruits five men to take part in a casino heist, it’s understood that details of the scheme shall never leave the root cellar from which it’s hatched. And yet Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), their demolitions expert, “brings his b*tch to The Waffle Hut.” The b*tch in question is Mountain Girl and Garth will thank you for not referring to his better half in such derogatory terms. In Garth’s defense, she looks like she can be trusted, an earnest woman with a bright smile and “Swiss Miss” braided pigtails. They met in an Irritable Bowel Syndrome support group. They need each other.
16. Knox Harrington (David Thewlis), The Big Lebowski
When artist Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore) summons the Dude (Jeff Bridges) to her loft for a second time, he’s greeted by Knox Harrington, an absurdly mannered video artist with black attire, a shaved head, and a pencil mustache. The Dude is immediately put off by his impertinent questions, but it’s Knox’s ceaseless, mannered, condescending cackle that finally does him in. As The Dude argues with Maude over the legitimacy of a kidnapping scheme, Knox’s laugh becomes the gnat that buzzes in his ear. “What the f*ck is with this guy?”
15. Hooker #1 (Larissa Kokernot) and Hooker #2 (Melissa Peterman), Fargo
The hunt for Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) yields a pair of friendly prostitutes who offered their services to the men. Marge Gunderson speaks their language, a fusillade of head-bobs and “oh yah” verbal tics, and the Coens sketch them quickly but indelibly as college dropouts and best friends who now offer themselves as passable company for lonely men. But the one who had sex with Carl, “the little guy,” keeps calling him “funny-looking” and can’t get more specific than that. In this part of Minnesota, “funny-looking” is code for “not from here,” which says everything about the hostility and suspicion the locals have for outsiders.
14. “Baby Face” George Nelson (Michael Badalucco), O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Many characters in O Brother, Where Art Thou? reference a historical or mythical figure, including “Baby Face” George Nelson, an outlaw who ran with Dillinger and was nicknamed for the slight, child-like features that belied his criminal savagery. The Coens blow him up into giant, deranged toddler who picks up our three fugitive heroes (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) after a heist and opens machine-gun fire on the cops in pursuit. The lusty George then turns his animus toward a herd of cattle. He hates cows more than coppers, but what poor George really hates is being called “Baby Face.” That’ll take the smile right off his chubby, squeezable cheeks.
13. Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy (Jonathan Hadary), Intolerable Cruelty
When it looks like Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) might win a lucrative sum in divorce court, opposing counsel Miles Massey (George Clooney) calls to the stand a devastating witness in the regal form of Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy. With a pristine white toy dog yapping under his arm, the dapper Frenchman strolls confidently to the stand. His profession? “Silly man, I am a Baron.” His day job? Concierge of Les Pantalons Rouges at Bad-Gadesbourg in the canton of Uri, where Marylin requested a rich man who could be easily duped. What happens in Les Pantalons Rouge at Bad-Gadesbourg clearly doesn’t stay in Les Pantalons Rouges at Bad-Gadesbourg.
12. “Bear Man” Forrester (Ed Lee Corbin), True Grit
As he approaches Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Mattie Ross (Hailie Steinfeld) from the snowy woods, Forrester looks like a bear riding a horse. Upon closer inspection, he’s scarcely less bizarre, a hirsute beast of a man draped in a bear pelt, claiming to practice dentistry, “veterinary arts,” and “medicine, on those humans who will sit still for it.” Bear Man also gave up two dental mirrors and a bottle of expectorant for the dead man hanging over his second horse. Rooster and Mattie get directions for shelter and head on their way. For his part, Bear Man has extracted a set of teeth from the dead man and will wander the cold looking for offers for the rest of him.
11. Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), Fargo
Gaear Grimsrud likes pancakes. He’ll eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He doesn’t like his partner-in-crime, Carl Showalter, who does all the talking and then some. He doesn’t seem capable of joy or empathy. And he’s the guy who sits in the back of Marge Gunderson’s cruiser at the end of Fargo, betraying no emotion—much less shame—as she contemplates the full horror of the crimes others have committed over “a little bit of money.” He is the mirthless face of evil. And as often as possible, the mirthless face of evil is stuffed with pancakes.
10. Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg), A Serious Man
With his marriage and his professorship in jeopardy, the domestic and occupational crises of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) have naturally manifested into spiritual ones, too. So Larry heads to the synagogue for counsel. Only the rabbi is not available. While his high-waisted protégé Rabbi Scott, “the junior rabbi,” recognizes that he may not have the life experience of the senior rabbi, he knows what it’s like to “lose track of Hashem” and he knows where to find him: the view right outside his window. On the troubling matter of Larry’s wife seeking remarriage to Sy Abelman, Rabbi Scott has no answers, but with a little fresh perspective, Larry can see Hashem’s presence everywhere. “Things aren’t so bad, Larry. Look at the parking lot!”
9. Chet (Steve Buscemi), Barton Fink
Though it’s hard to know precisely when Barton Fink (John Turturro), Broadway poet of the common man, realized his Hollywood dreams were coming to an end, the appearance of Chet, the bellhop at the Hotel Earle, surely gives him an inkling. “Welcome to Los Angeleeees, Mr. Fink,” says Chet, before speeding through the particulars of this dim, surreal purgatory for Tinseltown’s less fortunate creatures. “My name is Chet,” he repeats multiple times before slipping him a piece of paper with “CHET” in capital letters. It’s an unsettling first encounter for a New Yorker still trying to get his bearings, but Chet makes good on his promises of complimentary shoeshines and full-service personal availability. The same could not be said of the studio’s promises.
8. Freddie Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub), The Man Who Wasn’t There
With his wife Doris (Frances McDormand) on the hook for embezzlement and murder, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) enlists the services of high-priced attorney Freddie Riedenschneider, who subsequently drains Ed’s defense fund on the hotel and incidentals. Freddie never even gets a chance to take the case to trial, but jurors would have surely been wowed by his attempt to use the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as a murder defense. The act of looking at something — the evidence, say — changes it, and the more you look at it, the more it changes. Within that fog of uncertainty, Riedenschneider believes, is reasonable doubt. “Sure it sounds screwy,” he says, “but even Einstein said the guy’s onto something.”
7. Menelous “Pappy” O’Daniel (Charles Durning), O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Loosely based on a conservative Democratic Texas governor who had a popular radio show in the late 1920s, the Coens’ Pappy O’Daniel is a Mississippi governor running for reelection in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, looking every bit the image of a pandering incumbent trying to seize on the populist trends of the day. For Pappy, that means granting full pardons to the Soggy Bottom Boys, the fugitive trio responsible for the hit single “Man of Constant Sorrow.” As played with cigar-chomping brio by Charles Durning, Pappy spends much of his time berating his political advisors — who suggest perhaps a smaller midget to counter the midget-and-a-broom tactics of his challenger — but his opportunistic savvy really comes through when he hoists himself on stage and dances a jig to “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Anything for a vote.
6. Al Cody (Adam Driver), Inside Llewyn Davis
Inside Llewyn Davis is about a Village folk singer who missed the historical window that Bob Dylan would slip through, relegating him to obscurity. But Llewyn (Oscar Issac) is not alone in hauling around a box of remainder LPs. He meets Al Cody in a studio session at CBS records, where Al sings the loooowwww notes on the novelty hit “Please Mr. Kennedy” and agrees to let Llewyn sleep on his couch. Llewyn discovers his host’s box of unsold records, but by appearances, the easy-going Al doesn’t carry his commercial failure as heavily. He seems like a cool guy. And he probably didn’t sign away his “Please Mr. Kennedy” royalties, either.
5. Buzz (Jim True), The Hudsucker Proxy
“Hi, my name’s Buzz. I got the fuzz. I make the elevator do what she does.” Always cheery in his pillbox hat — not so cheery, though, to disguise a trace of malevolence — Buzz runs the elevator at Hudsucker Industries. It’s the only thing he’s got, buddy!
For Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a slow-witted business school graduate from Muncie, Indiana, Buzz is one of many big-city motormouths talking circles around him and an easy, low-wage target once Norville rapidly ascends to power. But good ol’ Buzz is just trying to ingratiate himself, buddy, with the overly emphatic greetings, the rhymes (“Please step to the rear, here comes the gargantuan Mr. Greer”), and the inappropriate jokes about the demise of Waring Hudsucker. (“What takes 50 years to get up to the top floor and 30 seconds to get down?”) Please don’t fire him.
4. Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb), Raising Arizona
Appearing in their second feature, the character of Leonard Smalls marked a significant step forward for the Coens, who for the first time allowed a true abstraction to enter into their work. For Hi McDonnaugh (Nicolas Cage), the deranged bounty hunter starts as a figment of his imagination, like a nightmare triggered by his guilt over kidnapping a baby and his worries over his family’s safety. But Smalls becomes a tangible threat to the baby’s real father (Trey Wilson) and the McDonnaughs, blazing out of Hi’s dreams on a motorcycle and ambushing him with guns and grenades during a bank robbery. Hi gets the better of him, but any parent has some anxiety-fueled version of “the lone biker of the apocalypse” hovering over their familial bliss.
3. Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub), Barton Fink
The head of Capital Pictures can sit behind a desk, declaring himself a friend to the writer and asking for “that Barton Fink feeling,” but it’s Ben Geisler who has to translate that rhetoric into actual movies. Barton, too, can offer soliloquies about writing theater for the common man, but the common man wants to see a Wallace Beery wrestling picture and that’s what Geisler is pleading with his new scribe to write. Geisler may not have an appreciation for the finer points of art — W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), Barton’s idol, is dismissed emphatically as “a souse” — but without him, it seems unlikely that Capitol Pictures would ever have a movie to release. He’s a practical man, animated by resentment for the precious writers wasting studio money. When Barton asks for help over lunch in the studio commissary, Geisler advices him to seek out another writer: “Throw a rock in here, you’ll hit one. And do me a favor: Throw it hard.”
2. Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), The Big Lebowski
“Nobody f*cks with the Jesus.” Jesus Quintana doesn’t play a significant role in the byzantine plot of The Big Lebowski. He’s just a guy on a rival bowling team. But the Coens nonetheless devote ample screen time to the purple-outfitted, hairnet-capped intimidator, who’s introduced by the Gipsy Kings’ version of “Hotel California” and given an entire backstory about doing time in Chino for exposing himself to an 8-year-old and introducing himself to neighbors as a “pederast.” Jesus is the ultimate in rec-league braggadocio, and yet another in a long line of figures who seem to exist to harsh The Dude’s buzz. That creep can roll.
1. Mike Yanagita (Steve Park), Fargo
The Mike Yanagita scene is perhaps the single most talked-about in the Coen brothers’ oeuvre, largely because in the diamond-sharp plotting of Fargo, the scene could be excised completely without anyone noticing. While Marge’s awkward meeting with her old high-school acquaintance at a Twin Cities Radisson reveals something crucial about human nature that colors her thinking later, the audience is left to wonder what her exchange with this sad, lonely man is all about. Where’s he coming from? What’s her interest in seeing him? And what to make of his pathetic narrative about losing his wife to leukemia? There are answers to some questions and room for speculation on others, but in Mike Yanagita, the Coens leave a little mystery within a mystery — one we’re still trying to solve.