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The earliest known use of the term character actor is from the 9 November 1883 edition of The Stage, which defined it as "one who portrays individualities and eccentricities, as opposed to the legitimate actor who [...] endeavours to create the rôle as limned by the author".
Career paths 
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There are many reasons people might become character actors. Actors may also simply seem better suited to character roles than to leading roles. While any film has a handful of leading roles, it may also require dozens of smaller supporting roles, and there are arguably more opportunities for professional success as a character actor than as a movie star. Although some actors become character actors by choice, others find character work because they are seen as typecast (strongly identified with, or only suitable for certain types of roles), often due to an early success with a particular role or genre. J. T. Walsh and Dennis Hopper both made careers playing villainous characters and Steve Buscemi has made a career of playing scheming deadbeats and offbeat villains. Some actors may become character actors because casting agents believe they lack some of the physical attributes usually associated with movie stars: they may be regarded as too tall, too short, unattractive, overweight, or somehow lacking that indescribable "star quality".
Some actors may have a perceived over-the-top style or presence that overwhelms or threatens to upstage other actors, which means that directors often choose to limit their screentime, in effect giving more power and value to their performance. An example of strong screen presence is Peter Greene, an actor with a unique look. Some other well known examples include Christopher Lee due to his physical presence and distinctive voice and Malcolm McDowell due to certain idiosyncrasies associated with his style dating back to A Clockwork Orange. Actors may be deemed too old or too young for leading roles.
Some character actors have distinctive voices or accents which limit their roles. Actors such as James Earl Jones, Tim Curry, Gilbert Gottfried, Selma Diamond, and Julie Kavner have been able to turn this to their advantage, often in voice-over work. Sometimes character actors have developed careers because of specific talents that are required in genre films, such as dancing, horsemanship, or swimming ability. The stars of movies that fail badly at the box office are often considered part of the reason they failed, and they may have trouble finding work later. Character actors are almost never blamed for these failures, and can continue to find work relatively easily.
See also 
Further reading 
- Quinlan, David (1995). Quinlan's Illustrated Directory of Film Character Actors. USA: Batsford Press. ISBN 0713470402.
- Voisin, Scott (2009). Character Kings: Hollywood's Familiar Faces Discuss the Art & Business of Acting. BearManor Media. ISBN 978-1-59393-342-5.
- Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., character, n., 19.