Actor Alec Baldwin has been back in the public eye lately for his hilarious recurring role as Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live.
And, with Trump’s win in the presidential election Tuesday night, we may be blessed with Baldwin’s masterful Trump caricature for some time to come.
However, while he’s a strong actor, Baldwin fascinates me because he has essentially crafted a solid career out of B-list talent and matinee idol looks.
Put another way, It’s no surprise to discover he essentially got his start on the daytime soap opera Knots Landing.
But what stands out to me about Alec Baldwin is how he has evolved into a legitimate A-list character actor, rather than languishing in B-list hell like some of his contemporaries.
For me, the defining reason for his long-term success is simple: he has consistently chosen roles – even bit parts and cameos – that have allowed him to work with world class writers and directors.
The lesson here for all of us?
Even moderate talents can shine if they choose their mentors well.
For example, Alec Baldwin somehow secured himself two of the most iconic movie monologues of the last 25 years:
“Brass Balls” from Glengarry Glenn Ross, and “God Complex” from Malice.
Glengarry Glenn Ross (*warning: harsh language)
Note that the above scene in Glengarry Glenn Ross consists of Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Jack Lemmon and Alan Arkin.
Today, those other four actors have an average of four Oscar nominations each. Collectively, those four actors share 5 Oscar wins for acting or supporting acting, and a whopping 18 nominations.
Alec Baldwin? A single nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” — Richard Tirendi.
The point is, rather than go for a flashier lead role, Alec Baldwin stole the show by choosing to cameo in a film filled with current and future acting legends. He surrounded himself with A-list talent.
And, of course, It doesn’t hurt that the film was written by acclaimed playwright David Mamet.
While Alec Baldwin played a lead role in Malice, by far the most memorable thing about that film was the “God Complex” monologue.
The key talent here? Not fellow actors Nicole Kidman or George C. Scott, but screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.
Among Baldwin’s other hits?
Supporting roles in Beetlejuice, Working Girl, Pearl Harbor, The Departed, and The Aviator.
He also portrayed the best version of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October. This assessment has only gotten stronger in recent years as we’ve seen the role tackled by no less than Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine.
The common denominator here?
Alec Baldwin chose amazing mentors.
By being selective about the talent with whom he has worked – Baldwin has forged an A-list career.
A partial list of that talent?
- Screenwriters David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin.
- Directors Martin Scorsese. Cameron Crowe, Mike Nichols, and Woody Allen.
- Actors Anthony Hopkins, Robert DeNiro, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio.
Part of the secret here is somewhere along the way Baldwin realized he was better off as a supporting actor – a character actor with leading man looks, rather than as a lead and box office draw on his own.
Baldwin enjoyed a brief foray as a leading man 20 years ago, headlining roles in would-be franchises The Hunt for Red October, Heaven’s Prisoners, and The Shadow – alongside a remake of the Steve McQueen classic The Getaway.
But nearly all of those films fell flat, failing at the box office.
The Hunt for Red October was a notable exception, but he was cast over author Tom Clancy’s objections from the beginning. Clancy, who had pushed for a bigger name, won out – and Harrison Ford took over the Jack Ryan role in Patriot Games two years later.
Then, five years after he stole the show with a single scene in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glenn Ross (against such talent as Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino and Kevin Spacey), Baldwin turned in a formidable performance in another David Mamet movie, The Edge.
The film is almost brilliant in its simplicity – following a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness, a billionaire and photographer must fight their way back to civilization, while eluding a man-eating bear. Along the way the two men engage in a psychological battle of wits, when it becomes evident that the photographer has been sleeping with the billionaire’s wife.
Baldwin (as the photographer) shares almost all of the screen time with Sir Anthony Hopkins (as the billionaire) and more than holds his own.
To gauge the difference that working with top-tier talent can make, it’s useful to consider two counter-examples —good-lucking actors of Baldwin’s generation who failed to break out.
Consider Gary Cole and Tim Matheson.
Tim Matheson burst on the scene in 1978, when he starred opposite John Belushi in comedy classic Animal House. He later had a pivotal role as the antagonist in the Chevy Chase action comedy Fletch.
However, he would languish for the rest of the 1980s and 1990s mostly in throw-away TV movies.
In 1999, Matheson experienced a resurgence with the iconic role of Hoynes, the Vice President on TV’s The West Wing (notably, also written by Malice scribe Aaron Sorkin). He later starred in TV’s Hart of Dixie.
Despite this success, Matheson never really succeeded as a movie star, even in supporting roles – the way that Baldwin has. And Baldwin arguably matched Matheson’s late career resurgence when he starred for 7 seasons as the co-lead in 30 Rock.
Gary Cole’s status as acting legend would be solidified forever if were remembered for nothing other than his role as Lumberg in the cult comedy Office Space.
But, like Tim Matheson, he’s spent the majority of his career languishing in TV movies of the week and in short-lived supporting roles on TV.
Ironically, like Tim Matheson, Cole starred as a Vice President on The West Wing, succeeding Matheson’s John Hoynes as VP Bob Russell. Matheson also secured a long role on Veep and was notable with small roles in films like Dodgeball and In the Line of Fire.
But other than that, you’re as likely to recognize him from his cartoon voice acting as his dramatic roles. He’s voiced characters on cartoons ranging from The Family Guy to Bob’s Burgers, Archer to Kim Possible.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg once said Sergey Brin convinced her to join Google in a more junior role than she’d hope for by emphasizing the opportunity afforded by the company’s strong growth:
“If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat! Just get on.”
While it may be counter-intuitive, sometimes taking a brief step backwards to cultivate a key mentor who is at the pinnacle of your profession could accelerate your career growth in the long run.
For actors, often it’s better to shine in a cameo or supporting role surrounded by the best possible writers or directors than be the lead in a mediocre production.
Alec Baldwin’s willingness to do just that – humility combined with an exceptional eye for talent – has allowed him to shine in some of the best supporting roles of the last 25 years.