It’s my 2,000th post on PopCult, and I thought I should celebrate it by looking at the best performances of Richard Jenkins. His birthday is on Tuesday, May 4th, and this year he’ll be turning 74. Jenkins was born in DeKalb County in Northern Illinois. His dad was a dentist, and his mother was a housewife, giving Jenkins a reasonably typical childhood in the 1950s. Jenkins discovered acting in high school and pursued it in college at Wesleyan University and then worked with a theater company in Rhode Island. Jenkins stayed with the Trinity Repertory Company until 1994, making his time with them twenty years. The last four years of that time he spent as their artistic director. What I love about Richard Jenkins is how he is a consummate character actor. He rarely steals the spotlight, but when his characters are given a focus, you are floored. Jenkins does comedy just as well as he does drama which is a rare skill in performers. Here are some fantastic performances he’s given over the years.
Most of us first came to know who Jenkins was from HBO’s Six Feet Under. He played Nathan, the deceased patriarch of the Fisher family who would appear to some members giving advice and guidance as they traversed the difficulties in their lives. In this scene, his son David (played by Michael C. Hall) has been traumatized by an experience with a carjacker. Nathan appears to David to shake him out of the spiral his life is going down.
Richard Jenkins worked with director David O. Russell a couple of times, and their first collaboration was Flirting With Disaster. Jenkins played a gay FBI agent whose partner was his work partner, played by Josh Brolin. Here they are at dinner with other people, and the circumstances of their relationship are broached.
While it was a small role, Jenkins was unforgettable as Ben Stiller’s unnamed psychiatrist in There’s Something About Mary. He’s utterly disinterested in his client’s troubles yet provides us with an interesting fact.
Jenkins also collaborated multiple times with the Coen Brothers. In the criminally underrated The Man Who Wasn’t There, he played the father of Scarlett Johansson’s character. Here Jenkins is an alcoholic lawyer whose life is falling apart. Once again, it’s a tiny role, but he brings so much to it.
Not all of Jenkins’s great performances were in great movies. That’s one of the things I love about him. He can elevate a part in an otherwise mediocre or, in this case, ludicrous film. In Changing Lanes, he plays a lawyer dealing with mistakes made by Ben Affleck’s character, who has lost an important file. In this scene, he comes up with a scheme to cover the error, which amounts to committing fraud. He is very much in control in this scene, calm & calculated.
In the next of Jenkins’ films with David O. Russell, he has a small supporting role Mr. Hooten, a working dad whose family is visited by Jason Schwartzmann and Mark Wahlberg’s characters in I (Heart) Huckabees. While the previous scene showcased Jenkins as a character in control of the moment, we see him doing what I think is Jenkins at his best, losing his cool spectacularly.
Jenkins secured his first leading role in The Visitor. This is an independent film about a Connecticut economics professor, Walter Vale, who is widowed and has lived a sad, solitary life for many years. He is asked to present a paper in New York City, and he returns to the old apartment he and his wife owned. He finds an undocumented immigrant couple, Tarek and Zainab, living there who are renting it from a con-man who realized the place was abandoned. Walter feels bad and insists the couple stay there, and he begins to get to know them, developing a love of drum playing with the Tarek. An encounter with subway cops leads to Tarek’s arrest and detainment at a migrant center. This scene shows one of Walter’s visits where he connects with Tarek through improvising playing drums.
Burn After Reading saw Jenkins reunited with the Coen Brothers. This time he played Ted, the manager of a gym in Washington DC. Ted has a crush on Linda (Frances McDormand) and gets involved in a hilariously complex series of deadly misunderstandings. This ultimately leads him to the basement of CIA agent Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), where bad things happen. Spoilers in this scene.
By this time, people who hadn’t been aware of Jenkins became very aware of him with Adam Mckay’s Step Brothers, where he plays the harried Robert Doback dealing with son (John C. Reilly) and stepson (Will Ferrell). This is a clip compilation of some of his best moments in the movie.
While Let Me In, the remake of the Swedish Let The Right One In, failed to live up to the wonderful original, Jenkins still gives a compelling performance as the worn down and emotionally broken Thomas, companion to the childlike vampire Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz). In this scene, he prepares to hunt prey for her and asks for one thing in exchange.
Eat Pray Love is not a movie I would ever list as one of my favorites, but damn if Jenkins didn’t step up and deliver an emotionally gut-wrenching performance as Richard, a man the protagonist befriends at an Indian ashram. In this scene, he tells how his life hit rock bottom, and he was forced to begin changing.
While I wasn’t overly impressed with Killing Them Softly, Jenkins does what he does best and takes a small part and elevates it into something memorable. He plays Driver, a mafioso who hires Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to kill a couple of men who robbed a poker game he runs.
Jenkins played Giles, a closeted gay man in The Shape of Water. He is a neighbor to Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and helps her in her plans to rescue an amphibious man imprisoned by the laboratory she works for. This is a more prominent role for him, still supporting but a much meatier part to work with.
Most recently, Jenkins has played Robert, the father of Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) in Kajillionaire. He has raised her to believe that participating in society is a dead end, leading to her eventual rebellion against his cold parenting methods. Jenkins plays alongside Debra Winger as his wife, and it’s a pretty perfect pairing in a wonderfully funny & touching comedy.