Best Supporting Character
If you’ve every had the pleasure of watching Tombstone (1993), you would be forgiven if you thought the movie was about Doc Holliday and his pal, Wyatt Earp. Nearly every memorable scene in that movie is graced by a sweaty, pallid countenance of Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) delivering a delightfully cunning line. The climactic finale of the film isn’t between Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) and Earp (Kurt Russell), but concludes, as any good Western should, with Ringo and Holliday dueling. When I walked out of the theater in 1993, I wanted to be Doc Holiday, not Wyatt Earp. I wanted to be the supporting character, not the lead.
Yes, he stole nearly every scene, but Holliday received second billing despite his nihilistic bravado and the virtuosity of his gun-play. He proclaims his supporting role clearly and concisely several times over the course of the film. “Wyatt is my friend,” he says after another member of Earp’s posse when asked why he is there and not in bed. He’s a gambler, gunfighter, killer, and terminal drunk, but held high above all those moral and physical shortcomings he is Wyatt’s friend. We, the audience, watch him stab a man over a card game as introduction to his character at the beginning of the movie. He promptly leaves with the loot he underhandedly won to move on to greener pastures. Only when the life of his friend is threatened does he become part of a greater story.
The Unassuming Type
Let me describe the next character. He’s a decorated war veteran and a crack shot. Also, he’s a surgeon, a gifted writer with a sly sense of humor, and lends his assistance to the cause of justice whenever possible. Pretty impressive. We could deduce that he’s a brave, intelligent, creative, an enjoyable person to hang around, and possesses high moral character. He’s a first-rate character. But, like Holliday, he’s a supporting character. He doesn’t embark on his own adventures, instead spending his time accompanying an eccentric, drug-abusing, intellectual that regularly inconveniences him and sometimes treats him like an imbecile. He is, of course, Dr. John H. Watson.
His honor, friendship, and discretion keep him from stepping out from Sherlock Holmes’s shadow. As a consequence, Watson appears slow-witted in contrast to the sometimes maniac genius of his partner and, as Holmes’ biographer, he’s delegated himself to aiding and recording another man’s career and life. No one has confused Dr. Watson as the main character in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, though his character, on the merits, is much more impressive than the genteel cutthroat Doc Holliday.
Show Your Support
These two types of characters seem to have little to relate them except their secondary nature to the story and the main character. But if you look closer, you’ll notice that they both, in their own way, they’re both important, nudging or cajoling their respective leads onto the right path. Doc’s death wish and unwavering friendship protect Wyatt Earp whose too invested in hunting down his brother’s killers to turn away from a gun duel he’s no hope of winning. Dr. Watson keeps Holmes’ life from derailing with a large doses of common sense and care, of which his friend’s genius seemingly strips him. To be precise, they keep the story going.
In my life, I’m the protagonist. I’m the lead that walks through the story of my days. When dealing with cancer this notion was acute, watching my family, friends, and complete strangers come to my aid. Conversely, I’m the supporting character in many, many more stories and to many, many more leads. My wife lived through my time in chemotherapy as the hero in her own story, struggling to meet the material, emotional, and spiritual needs of our family all the while taking care of me. Everyday children ride the bus I drive to school as the little hero in their own coming-of-age story. I have the greater opportunity to play an out-sized or unassuming role in the lives of others than I do in my own life.
But, like Doc Holiday and Dr. Watson, I have the opportunity to be important without it being about me.