(Why not the top 10? Because everybody argues about it. What should be there, what doesn’t deserve it, why #6 should be #1, and on and on. Taste is a funny thing, and arguing about trivia on the internet is pointless. So to make this easier for everyone here’s nine instead, in no particular order. You decide which one I’ve missed, put them in whatever order you feel is right for you, and debate with your co-workers at the water cooler.)
You know these guys. All they have to do is show up and you straighten in your seat and point at the screen and shout "sweet! It's THAT guy!". And suddenly whatever it is you’re watching has a redeeming quality. Even if whatever you’re watching is really terrible and you try to warn people away from it years later, you’re still forced to admit, “but you know, it did have that one guy in it."
These indeed are actors who elevate whatever they appear in. And they appear in a LOT. Generally actors who came up in the British way (maybe even spending time in a Shakespeare company), they view acting as a profession rather than a service of great social and political import. They act because it pays the bills, and they fearlessly embrace roles that younger, more romanticized, less emotionally secure actors would shun as beneath their supposed status (or increasingly as “not on brand”). These guys are quiet professionals, not limelight-addicted red carpet-bait. In having such "low standards", however, these stalwarts rack up a filmography often running into triple digits, which puts their faces in lots of places, which contributes to the star quality we genre-heads ascribe to them. And how we love them.
For you who may be new to genre film, or those simply wishing to trip down memory lane and remember some classics (or perhaps "classics"--not everything's classic because it's good), here's a sampling of some That-Guys who keep (or kept) showing up when we least expect them. If nothing else, now you've got a name to put to the face.
A villain for all seasons is David Warner. This is the guy who played Jack the Ripper (Time After Time), tormenting H.G. Wells, AND Dillinger/Sark the corporate sith-lord (TRON), tormenting Kevin Flynn. This is the guy who played the Evil Genius in Time Bandits, Amos Hackshaw (the evil wizard) in Cast a Deadly Spell, and Gul Madred (the evil interrogator) in Star Trek: The Next Generation. His fingerprints are all over Trek, in fact, best displayed when he took on the role of Klingon Chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (backed up by Christopher Plummer in a Shakespeare-with-forehead-ridges tag-team that only a casting director on acid would even consider, and which even the mighty Shatner needed help to defeat). Warner's been working steadily since the 60's, lending his unmistakably menacing voice to a surprising volume of animated projects in addition to his live-action fare (he's one of three people to ever play Ra's Al Ghul).
You Absolutely Must Catch Him In: Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the "Chain of Command" 2-parter, he operates essentially alone in an interrogation of Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard, who has been captured by the Cardassians. The pair of veteran actors carry nearly the entire runtime, and the performance is riveting from both men. There are four lights, dammit!
Geek of the Day Award if you saw him in: Beastmaster III: The Eye of Braxus.
Max von Sydow
Try this on for size: Max von Sydow played both Jesus Christ (The Greatest Story Ever Told), and Ming the Merciless (Flash Gordon). The swing doesn't get any wider than that. This guy was in everything, in a career running back to 1949. Consider a sampling of his three-digits-long filmography: The Seventh Seal, The Exorcist, Three Days of the Condor, Conan the Barbarian, Dune (the old one), Judge Dredd (the worse one), Strange Brew, Ghostbusters II, Minority Report, Shutter Island, and on and on and on (he even made it into a Star Wars movie and was the only good thing about it). He was a guy who worked because there was work to be done. Nobody did the "stately old man" better than von Sydow. Nobody.
You Absolutely Must Catch Him In: Flash Gordon. Ming's a villain the way they were meant to be played. He revels in pulpy evil without turning into a cartoon. You fear Ming in spite of his sequined vinyl wardrobe, because you know full well that he'll have you borewormed if you cross him.
Geek of the Day Award if you saw him in: Rush Hour III.
It's the guy from Dune (the old one)! Yeah, it's that guy. Where Max von Sydow got tapped to play monarchs, Prochnow generally got the "duke"-level roles. He's the one actually moving the plot forward, where von Sydow prefers to comment sagaciously from the wings. He's been moving the plot forward since 1970, but really made it into the ranks of Those Guys starting in 1981, with Das Boot, and then the epic Dune in 1984. If there's one guy on this list who'll really take any role offered him, it's this guy. He deserves a standing ovation for agreeing to lend a "name" to Uwe Boll's otherwise excruciating House of the Dead wherein he plays Kirk, the captain of the boat that goes to the island with the zombies. Yeah, his character is Captain Kirk. No, it’s not as funny once you say it out loud.
You Absolutely Must Catch Him In: In the Mouth of Madness. As horror author Sutter Cane, Prochnow gives us a merry glimpse of what it would look like if Stephen King had truck with things-man-was-not-meant-to-know. Of course, King might have truck with those things anyway; the jury's still out.
Geek of the Day Award if you saw him in: Wing Commander.
If you thought Jurgen Prochnow was all over the map, you haven't seen Stellan Skarsgard's body of work. Besides a metric ton of Swedish stuff running back into the 70's, this is the guy who goes from The Unbearable Lightness of Being to The Hunt for Red October to King Arthur to Timecode to Pirates of the Caribbean. He was in the lit-fuse taut Ronin in 1998, and immediately followed it in 1999 with the limp and staggering Deep Blue Sea. He seesawed from Mamma Mia! to Angels & Demons to Thor. He's everywhere. He's listed on imdb with Nine (count 'em, nine) credits in 2000 alone. Wherever he goes, however, he's usually the European with the dodgy past or the ticking bomb temper. Need somebody indeterminably Euro and more than a little intimidating? Get Skarsgard.
You Absolutely Must Catch Him In: The Hunt for Red October. It’s a small role, but Captain Tupolev is a chain-smoking nutbag, and precisely the kind of foil Sean Connery needs in a movie like this.
Geek of the Day Award if you saw him in: Exorcist: The Beginning.
Geek Bonus if you can find and watch him in: Anita: Swedish Nymphet.
Steven Spielberg called him "the best actor in the world". Beat that, Daniel Day-Lewis. To find Postlethwaite's general perception within the genre world, consider him in James and the Giant Peach. He's the quirky-looking man with the secret. And that's him nearly all the time, from The Usual Suspects to Romeo + Juliet to Alien3 to Clash of the Titans. But then he'll surprise you and show up completely different (and therefore nearly unrecognizable) in The Lost World playing a rifle-toting alpha male big-game hunter. He's got an incredibly unique look, but remains a complete cinematic chameleon, changing his entire demeanor to fit the role--in so doing, he becomes the ultimate That-Guy. Pete Postlethwaite is unmistakable when he appears onscreen, but it's incredibly hard to remember his name. Unless you're Steven Spielberg. RIP, Pete.
You Absolutely Must Catch Him In: The Lost World. Postlethwaite's all that makes this film bearable. Watch 'til his part's over, and then switch over to any one of his other hundred credits. He's the ultimate that way. You love his bit in whatever he's in.
Geek of the Day Award if you saw him in: Aeon Flux.
Sam Neill's filmography is a study in wide swings between weird (weird) genre flicks and "proper" oscar-baiting productions. Consider the following select timeline for perhaps the clearest example. In the 1990's, he appeared in (in chronological order, and among other things), The Hunt for Red October, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, The Piano, Jurassic Park, The Simpsons, In the Mouth of Madness, Restoration, Event Horizon, The Horse Whisperer, and Bicentennial Man. Maybe he doesn't have the Jesus/Ming span of Max von Sydow, but he's running a close second (moving from blue-collar insurance investigator John Trent, for instance, to King Charles II of England in the SAME YEAR). And he starred in a series of hysterically disturbing commercials for Australia's beef industry that have to be seen to be believed.
You Absolutely Must Catch Him In: You've seen Jurassic Park already, so go with In the Mouth of Madness, where he works as an investigator looking into a mundane disappearance that slowly goes as horribly wrong as possible.
Geek of the Day Award if you saw him in: Merlin.
It's all about the voice with Tony Todd. You can hear that voice from around the corner--molasses oozing down sandpaper--and it brings a fiendish smile every time. Because 9 times out of ten, that voice means someone's about to get killed in a messy way. Okay, that may be overstating it, but the fact remains that in the Big Book of Casting, if you need a big menacing black guy who's not a gangsta thug, you call Tony Todd. After coming to everyone's attention in Candyman (way to break that slash-murdering color barrier, Tony!), he's appeared in a smorgasbord of television and film properties that requires his big menacing blackness. You know, things like Pokemon, Star Trek, The X-Files, The Crow, The Rock, and including nearly every cop show known to man.
You Absolutely Must Catch Him In: Final Destination. He shows up as, of all things, a mortician who takes a few moments to pontificate on death and mortality, and will haunt your dreams.
Geek of the Day Award if you saw him in: Wishmaster.
Just when you thought you would never see him again, he was in Batman Begins. That's how Rutger Hauer worked: you would think he'd retired or died or something, and then suddenly there he would be, in that new movie you're watching. And you shouted with glee "It's Rutger Hauer! Awesome!" and your noob buddie would ask "who?" and then you’d have to slap him, because only a total noob doesn't recognize Rutger Hauer. The dude worked for decades, but starting with 1982's immortal Blade Runner through Ladyhawke and The Hitcher and into Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Batman Begins and Sin City, his is a presence with some history. He appears and you know you're in a genre flick for certain. Take note, noobs.
You Absolutely Must Catch Him In: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Joss Wheson's proof of concept for the TV show, the movie basically says "Ok, Rutger, you're a con-circuit Dracula cosplayer who thinks he’s the real deal. Go!" and lets him just chew the scenery like it's nobody's business. It's a hoot and a half.
Geek of the Day Award if you saw him in: Flesh + Blood.
He hates you. Okay, maybe not, but you sure think it by the time he's done talking to you. Mostly it's just his voice, which is gravelly and sarcastic even when he's being dead serious. He can be explaining the instructions on a frozen pizza and it'd sound like he thought you were an idiot. It's a quality. And it's a quality that's led him down a yellow brick road of roles as heavies, thugs, and bullies (try this list out: Scanners, Top Gun, Total Recall, Highlander II, McBain, Starship Troopers, Heavy Metal 2000, Terminator Salvation, AND the voice of Sam Fisher in the assorted Tom Clancy video games). He's taken on almost 300 such roles running back into the 70's. 300. Have you done anything 300 times? That won't make you go blind?
You Absolutely Must Catch Him In: V. The one from the 80s. Right when you just can't take any more of Marc Singer and his "we're fighting for humanity!" monologuing, Ironside shows up as exactly the guy we all want on our side when the alien invasion comes: the verbally abusive arms dealer with the MAC-10.
Geek of the Day Award if you saw him in: Free Willy. Yes, THAT Free Willy.