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Guess which one of these actors played Hamlet four times on Broadway.

"Thank you for that "choice" role where I die in a fiery explosion right off the bat. Truly a character with all the rich complexity of Hamlet or Lear."
The Puttmaster, Comic Jumper

The Classically-Trained Extra is an actor, often on a Show Within a Show, who feels they're stuck in a lowbrow role that's somehow "below" them, agonizes over their talent being wasted, and aspires for greater things. Whether they're a has-been or an overly ambitious newcomer to acting, they tend to come off as an uptight blowhard, especially if they boast that they're a "classically-trained Shakespearean actor".

Particularly reviled roles seem to be a character on a science fiction program, the straight man on a Sitcom, or the host of a broadcast TV kids' show. Bonus points for the last one, or any role where the Classically-Trained Extra's personality (they're usually Comically Serious) is cast against type. If they have sufficient contempt for the role, they might Hate The Job, Love The Limelight. If they express that contempt to the kids who love their character, it's Nice Character, Mean Actor.

Note, while the title is made to amplify the meaning of this trope, it happens whenever someone appears in a role that is really far, far below their ability and range. It may be a very important secondary role, but it is usually a pop culture type of production.

This trope is often Truth in Television, as even great actors can't always be picky about roles, as a side effect of skill not very often translating into popularity.

Compare WTH? Casting Agency, All-Star Cast. For actual classically trained actors, see Shakespearian Actors.

Fictional Examples


  • One of the commercials in Sprite's "Obey Your Thirst" campaign is based on this; we're presented with three streetwise, tough-talking street basketball players telling us that they drink Sprite (fictitious) Turbo Sport 7 — until the director yells, "Cut!" at which point we find out that all three of them are Classically Trained Extras. Tagline: "Trust your gut, not some actor."


  • Alexander Dane on Galaxy Quest. Although Alexander isn't exactly an extra—he's the #2 star of the show—he still regards it as a two-bit part in a two-bit piece of crap of a show. He learns of his importance to people when an (alien) fan of his dies, and he finally says his Catch Phrase (which, until then, he hated) and means it.
  • Rob in Swingers mentions having performed Shakespearean roles but finds himself auditioning for Goofy at Disneyland.
  • Malibu Gangster had two well-educated, well-trained black actors who were always typecast as thugs. Ironically, they were both somewhat effeminate.
  • In To Be Or Not To Be, about a Polish theatre company during the war, one of the characters complains about how Mel Brooks' actor-manager "Frederick Bronski" hogs the limelight as Hamlet doing the titular monologue whilst he is relegated to the part of second off-stage Nazi, despite being a classically trained actor.
  • Bob in The Real Blonde lands a lucrative role on a soap opera. Despite the fame and wealth, he hates the role and recites Shakespeare in his dressing room. Ironically, the actor playing Bob was a soap opera actor himself.
  • Played literally straight and lampshaded at the same time in Wayne's World 2 when the actor playing the gas station attendant is replaced mid-scene by Charlton Heston. His brief performance brings Wayne to tears.
  • The American features an old man who gets shot dead within seconds of appearing at the start of the movie. That old man happens to be a swedish actor who is not only a classically trained stage actor (they all are) but also well respected.

Live Action TV

  • A Frasier episode revolved around Frasier discovering his favourite Shakespearean actor as a boy was now playing Tobor the android in Space Patrol. It transpires he was actually a really bad Shakespearean actor, but Frasier was too young to know. Sir Derek Jacobi, who played the part, really is a classically trained actor and former RSC member. Jacobi won an acting Emmy Award for that role.
  • Beakman's World: Originally Lester, the guy in the rat-suit, was simply a trained actor with a bad agent, though this got played down for his more disgusting qualities later on.
  • The sitcom Cybill (1990s) was about a actress, Cybill Sheridan (played by Cybill Shepherd) who, not young any longer, only got minor roles (including voicing a singing toilet for an ad, and that was probably not her worst). She remembered her "golden age" as a scream queen, but grew to dislike the quality of her own horror movies, having done it only to pay the bills.
  • In Slings and Arrows, Ellen is a veteran Shakespearean actress who sells out by taking a lead role on a ridiculous sci-fi show.
  • Invoked in the "Gallimaufrey" episode of QI. Phill Jupitus mimics the "kind of out of work actor they would have on Call My Bluff when defining the word "grog blossom".


  • The "Weird Al" Yankovic song "Skipper Dan" is about a former up-and-coming, critically acclaimed Broadway actor... who is stuck giving shows on the "Jungle Cruise" at Disneyland.

Video Games

  • Sam And Max: Situation — Comedy features Philo Pennyworth, the stuck-up actor who plays the neurotic landlord, Mr. Featherly, on Midtown Cowboys. And did I mention he's a talking chicken?
    • Philo is actually an aversion of the trope—he is indeed classically trained, but far from thinking that his role in a critically-panned sitcom is beneath him, he believes true professionalism lies in taking any role you're given and playing it to the best of your ability.
  • Used with a series of increasingly unfortunate twists in the first Ace Attorney game with Jack Hammer, an actor on the children's Sentai show Steel Samurai. He was blackmailed out of a successful star career and into playing bad parts for very little pay, after accidentally killing a costar.
  • Claude Maginot in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is a classically-trained actor who is incredibly peeved about how he is best known as the star of the Sitcom Just the Five of Us, which he calls "commercial dross." In an interview on K-Chat, he tries to steer the subject toward his interpretive dance show, In the Future, There Will be Robots, and breaks down into a rant when Amy keeps trying to push the subject toward his show.
  • In The Movies, the radio announcer for early part of the game (1920-1950) is William MacDuff, a snooty, Ambiguously Gay stage-actor-turned-newsreader who insists that moving pictures are just a passing phase.

Web Comics

  • Freefall invokes the trope for comedy: a robot is programed with all the works of Shakespeare and has to play Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars for nearly twenty years.

Western Animation

  • On South Park, Phillip of Terrance and Phillip was like this in the episode "Terrance and Phillip: Behind the Blow".
    • In a real life example, Jerry Seinfeld expressed interest in doing a voice for the show and was offered the role of "Turkey #4" in their Thanksgiving special. Seinfeld's agent didn't quite understand the joke and turned it down.
  • While not trained as an actor, Sideshow Bob of The Simpsons fits the trope perfectly, with his high culture elitism and past as a clown on Krusty's show. His replacement, Sideshow Mel, is even more over the top with his dramatic behavior, but seems satisfied with his current role. Also, Bumblebee Man is actually an intelligent and dignified actor who approaches his absurd slapstick antics with professional gravitas, and moans about his situation to his wife.
    • Sideshow Mel was later upgraded to a full blown Classically-Trained Extra when he revealed to Lisa that he won the Entertainer of the Year award for playing "serious" roles, such as Biff from 'Death of a Salesman'. Mel also makes it perfectly clear that he is in fact not satisfied with his current role.
  • In the Looney Tunes short "A Ham in a Role", a canine actor quits Warner Brothers to study Shakespeare.
  • In the short-lived Greg the Bunny, Warren the Ape was a Classically-Trained Extra. To a lesser extent, Junction Jack is as well.
  • On the episode of The Ren and Stimpy Show where Stimpy goes on strike, one of the replacements Ren auditions was a Shakespearean actor who "played Stimpy for the Queen."
  • A recurring character in the British animated sketch show Monkey Dust is a man who can only speak in a calm, clear voice, and so mostly does voiceovers despite being a classically trained actor.
  • Mr. Pricklepants in Toy Story 3 takes his "role" as a toy incredibly seriously, even though it involves nothing more than not moving when humans are around, something every other toy can do with ease.
  • The ogre in the bloopers of Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus

Real Life examples

Real Life

  • Maurice Evans, pictured above went a slow descent from Broadway Shakespeare to Batman and Bewitched...
  • Robert Reed, who really was a serious actor and had done Shakespeare in the past, reportedly hated playing Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch because he felt the role was "beneath" him. This resulted in numerous disputes with producers over the course of the series, even to the point where Reed's character was written out of the series finale.
    • And had the show gone on to another season, they were planning to kill him off just so as to not have to deal with him any more.
  • Sir Alec Guinness felt this way about playing Obi-Wan in Star Wars. Other reports say that he enjoyed the role, but hated being inextricably identified with it for the rest of his life.
    • Another Star Wars example is Ian McDiarmid, who played Palpatine. He's a successful theatre actor, and won a Tony Award. He actually enjoyed the role, though.
      • He is a superb actor, but has never lost the capacity to look at a piece of scenery and say DIIINNNERRR!!!
    • Far more disgruntled was Temuera Morrison, who seldom misses an opportunity to explain how beneath him it was to play Jango Fett.
    • JAMES! EARL!! JONES!!!
  • Real world inversion: Patrick Stewart was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company before he went on to play Picard in Star Trek the Next Generation. He reportedly considered it good practice.
    • While with the RSC he reportedly advised Lalla Ward not to take the role of Romana in Doctor Who as doing sci-fi would damage her career, although to be fair at that time the Sci-Fi Ghetto was still very much in effect and series like Stargate SG-1 and Star Trek the Next Generation had yet to be made, or to earn any critical acclaim.
    • Stewart has noted on at least one occasion that he's glad he took the role because it drew more people in to see his performances on stage and helped teach people about Shakespeare.
    • The Star Trek series have managed to get some surprisingly talented actors over the years. Avery Brooks, aka Cpt. Sisko, has played in Othello and King Lear an extremely talented stage actor and a tenured drama professor.
    • William Shatner was trained as a classical Shakespearean actor, played several Shakespearean roles at the Shakespearean Stratford Festival of Canada, and debuted on Broadway in Tamburlaine the Great.
    • Dame Judi Dench is a similar case; she has said that she wants to continue playing M until she dies, just because the moveis are so much fun to make.
  • Similarly to Stewart, Vincent Price had a lot of Shakespearean villain in the Large Ham characters he tended to play. In fact, in one film, Theatre of Blood, his character actually is a hammish Shakespearean actor who murders the critics who panned him.
    • Supposedly, Price took that role precisely because he wanted to show everybody he could do Shakespeare. Every time he'd tried previously, he ended up being rejected because of his Typecasting as a Mad Scientist or Evil Sorcerer.
  • Werner Klemperer. Concert pianist. Broadway actor. Best known for playing the hapless and monocled crowning example of a Wacky Nazi. He genuinely enjoyed the part after initial misgivings over the premise, and even kept the monocle for years after the show ended.
  • Betcha didn't know Jim Varney, who played Ernest P. Worrell, was a respected stage actor.
  • Frank Kelly, who played Father Jack Hackett in Father Ted, was a trained stage actor, whose lines were limited to saying 'Feck' and 'Girls' whereas the two leads were stand-up comedians. Frank Kelly would often mutter "feckin' amateurs" during takes.
    • One trailer purported to show the cast rehearsing their catchphrases, while Dermot Morgan addressed the viewers. At the end, Frank Kelly interrupted him in a plummy "classically-trained actor" voice.
  • There were two of these in Are You Being Served. Arthur Brough, who played Mr Grainger in the first five seasons, was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the founder of multiple repertory companies. John Inman was both a stage actor and a renowned pantomime performer.
  • Once, while hosting Saturday Night Live, Sir Ian McKellen gave an opening about how (now Dame) Maggie Smith had once gotten Laurence Olivier to see a performance of theirs when they were in a minor stage group together, which ended up with both of them being drafted into his Shakespearean troupe, where they met "a talented young actor by the name of Anthony Hopkins." He then went on to talk about the irony that, after playing the classics, Hopkins was now famous for "eating people's faces off", Smith was now "that Harry Potter lady", and "they've made me into an action figure twice!"
    • Sir Anthony Hopkins is an interesting case, and possibly an inversion of this trope; once touted as the Next Big Shakespearean Actor, he deliberately chose to come to Hollywood to make loud, stupid movies because that's what he likes to do. In his own words, "I have no interest in Shakespeare and all that British nonsense... I just wanted to get famous and all the rest is hogwash".
    • Same for Sir Ben Kingsley. One of the most respected actors around, he says he enjoys tackling non-serious movies and big Hollywood blockbusters, comparing them to a big Roman performance spectacle. He even signed onto Blood Rayne simply because he always wanted to play a vampire and wear fangs on camera.
  • Dan Lauria, famous as the father on The Wonder Years, is a Shakespearean actor who was initially hesitant to audition for the show, or any television show for that matter. He even went as far as to correct one of the writers at his audition, when they commented on what a great role it would be.
    • Although it's possible that that's why they chose him for the role: a father whose glory days are over, who is now stuck at a dead-end job where his talents go to waste.
  • The above mentioned Abe Vigoda (famed for his portrayal in The Godfather) and his role in Good Burger.
    • Abe Vigoda was even in North, where he was sent away on an ice floe due to his age.
  • Garret Morris, of SNL and The Jamie Foxx Show, is a Julliard-trained singer. He sang a few times on the former, but felt he was being typecast.
  • Jason Narvy, best known for playing Skull on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, is a Shakespearean trained actor with multiple degrees, including PhD in Theater Studies and now works as a college professor. However he gained all this after leaving the show but this makes his role as the dim-witted Skull funny in retrospect.
    • His castmate Paul Schier (Bulk) has studied animation as well as art, directed multiple episodes of Power Rangers (as well as several episodes of the english adaptation of Hello Kitty And Friends) as well as the short film "An Easy Thing."
  • The Adam West Batman series received quite a few famous actors in roles as one-time villains. A famous example is Neil Hamilton as Commissioner Gordon, who was a contemporary and even a sort of mentor to Humphrey Bogart.
    • Adam West himself qualifies, he was initially seen as "too serious" of an actor for the role until someone saw a ridiculously silly commercial for Nestle Quik he did.
  • Samuel L. Jackson is a classically trained Thespian who is best known for being a Jedi Master who has had it with motherfucking snakes. However, he doesn't regret any of his roles and has said that he acts for the pleasure he gets from acting, regardless of whether or not he thinks the movie will be good.
    • To be fair, anyone who has seen Pulp Fiction knows just how good he is.
  • Timothy Dalton was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and had done considerably more stage acting than film acting when he was cast as James Bond.
  • Orson Welles spent plenty of time directing, starring in, and sometimes rewriting classical plays with the Mercury Theatre and throughout his career... and concluded his career by playing Unicron in the Transformers movie.
  • Robert Englund is a graduate of the Academy of Dramatic Art, has done a hell of a lot of stage acting and was given a ten-minute standing ovation after a screening of Il Ritorno di Cagliostro at the Venice Film Festival. Freddy Krueger can act you under the table.
  • Tony award winner Ron Leibman is more well-known nowadays as Rachel's grouchy father in Friends.
  • Shizuma Hodoshima. Japanese Shakespearian stage actor. If you've ever heard of him, it's because he is also the voice actor for Final Fantasy IV's Cecil in remakes and Dissidia Final Fantasy.
  • Similar to the above Shizuma Hodoshima example, Satoshi Hashimoto is a somewhat prolific actor in most fields of entertainment, ranging from stage plays (The Engineer in Miss Saigon, Jean Valjean in Les Misérables) to live-action movies to TV dramas. However the role that is most synonymous with this name is none other than Terry Bogard, the face of SNK and probably the most memetastic character in all of fighting game history. Up until The King of Fighters XII, he also voiced fellow Fatal Fury alum Kim Kaphwan. Also, did you know that he led the Autobots on one occasion?
  • While not being a Shakespearian actress per se, Junko Takeuchi (of Naruto's fame) is also a classical trained stage actress and former ballerina. according in a recent interview. And yes, just like everyone else (both in and out-universe) she also agrees that Naruto is an annoying brat at first.
  • While not classically trained, Graham Chapman was a very intelligent (he was a fully-qualified MD) and talented actor whose straight laced persona was used to hilarious effect for Staight Man roles. The other Pythons considered him the best and chose him for the lead roles in Holy Grail and Life of Brian.
    • Also In this vein, wacky British TV comic Harry Hill used to be a practicing medical doctor before changing careers.
    • Bob Mortimer, co-creator and co-host of nonsensical comedy quiz show Shooting Stars was once a solicitor (lawyer).
  • An Aversion. Jim Broadbent, a well respected Oscar winning actor, not only thoroughly enjoyed his role in Hot Fuzz, but had actually asked Edgar Wright for a part in his next film after meeting him. Timothy Dalton also appeared and gleefully made a ham of himself, and Cate Blanchett had an uncredited cameo as Nicholas' ex-girlfriend in one scene, where the entirety of her body and face was obscured aside from her eyes.
  • Alan Rickman liked Chasing Amy so much that he sought out a role in Kevin Smith's next film, Dogma.
  • In Homicide: Life On the Street, Andre Braugher, Reed Diamond and Yaphet Kotto were all professional actors, with Braugher and Diamond both having attended Julliard. Subverted in that they were not only massively acclaimed, but Homicide is cited as one of the best acted shows on television.
  • Alec Baldwin, who once wrote a 65 page thesis on method acting, was in the nineties considered one of the best dramatic actors around, mainly due to roles in Malice and - most famously - Glengarry Glen Ross. He is best known now for playing Jack on the sitcom 30 Rock. Subverted in that he is not only enormously acclaimed for it, but has spoken positively about it on numerous occasions.
  • John Laurie, best known for playing The Eeyore Private Frazer on Dads Army and rather bitter about the fact as his theatrical work was much less well known.
  • The Observer, or "that creepy bald guy who shows up in the background of every episode" on Fringe, is played by Michael Cerveris, a Tony-winning Broadway leading man who has played John Wilkes Booth and Sweeney Todd. And he doesn't even sing in the Musical Episode!
  • Believe it or not, Phil Mitchell is a RADA graduate.
  • Top British stage actor Sir Antony Sher, in a rare movie role, plays Hitler in the comedy flop Churchill: The Hollywood Years.
    • He was also virtually an extra in an episode of One Foot in the Grave (he plays a man in a waiting room and doesn't speak a single line)
  • Rupert Everett played hammy baddies in the dumb kiddie comedies Inspector Gadget and Dunston Checks In.
  • Playwright and stage veteran Steven Berkoff played 2-dimensional baddies in Octopussy, Beverly Hills Cop, Rambo II and recently The Tourist.
  • Charles Dance slums it as the dastardly Deputy Prime Minister in Ali G Indahouse where, at the end of the film, he has get into tight, skimpy womens clothes. And once before he sacrificed his dignity to play a cyborg space pirate with a chainsaw-like motorised penis (complete with rip cord) in Space Truckers (fortunately for him, it seems to be a pretty forgotten film now).