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10 Actors Who Always Show Up on the Best TV Shows

Kim Dickens Kevin Rankin Michael K. Williams Stephen Root
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Any actor who earns praise for brilliant career decisions will give plenty of the credit to luck. A TV series can have a killer pilot and a visionary showrunner, but you never know if all that promise will reveal itself over the course of multiple episodes. So let’s congratulate the 10 actors below on both their choices and their good fortune. It is some combination of those two factors that enabled these folks to appear as a regular or recurring character in one fantastic TV series after another (or, occasionally, at the same time). Before we get to it, there are a couple of rules for this list. To keep things current, we only dealt with series on the air since 2000. And, in most cases, actors had to appear multiple times on a series to be considered. (No, being a victim/criminal of the week on ‘Law & Order: SVU’ doesn’t qualify.) That said, if you’re watching a show and one of these men or women pops up, chances are you’re enjoying one of the best series on TV.


Titus Welliver

Shows: 'Deadwood,' 'The Good Wife,' 'Sons of Anarchy,' 'Lost'
 
 

In the world of "Hey, it's that guy!," Welliver should have his own continent. For the past 25 years, he's been not just a reliable actor, but a reliably interesting one. He's been Al Swearengen's smartest henchman, Silas Adams, on 'Deadwood' as well as Peter Florrick's arch rival, Glenn Childs, on 'The Goof Wife.' Come to think of it, he's pretty great at the whole arch nemesis thing, whether he's sporting an Irish accent as Jimmy O on 'Sons of Anarchy' or stuck in a never-ending duel as the Man in Black on 'Lost.'

 

Kevin Dunn

Shows: 'Luck,' 'Veep,' 'True Detective,' 'Prison Break,' 'Lost'
 
 

Speaking of the "Hey it's that guy" hall of fame, Dunn seems to show up in all sorts of movies and TV series -- most often as a cranky guy with a blue-collar attitude and the Chicago accent to match. In recent years, he's been all over HBO, seen as "railbird" Marcus Becker on the ill-fated 'Luck,' no-nonsense Major Ken Quesada on 'True Detective' and the burned-out, coffee-swilling Ben Caffrey on 'Veep.' He once played Bette Midler's husband on her self-titled sitcom. It's no wonder he's been a crank ever since.

 

Michael K. Williams

Shows: 'The Wire,' 'Boardwalk Empire,' 'Alias,' 'Community'
 
 

Before Williams turned a gun-toting, dealer-robbing outlaw into 'The Wire's' most beloved character, it appeared that he'd be stuck playing Cop No. 1 or Thug No. 3 for his entire career. After his acclaimed turn on David Simon's series, he graduated to more charismatic roles, including mercenary Roberts on 'Alias,' racketeer Chalky White on 'Boardwalk Empire' and the intense biology professor, Dr. Marshall Kane, on 'Community.' But no matter how many times Williams pops up, he'll always be Omar to us. "A man gotta have a code."

 

Margo Martindale

Shows: 'Justified,' 'The Americans,' 'Dexter,' 'The Riches'
 
 

During her years acting onstage, in film and on television, Martindale has shown an incredible range from goofy and grandmotherly to selfish and scheming. In the second season of 'Justified,' she combined everything into the character of Mags Bennett, which won her a supporting actress Emmy. Before her award-winning turn, she played co-conspirator Nina Burns on 'The Riches' and the Camilla, the records supervisor who Dexter Morgan bribes with donuts on 'Dexter.' More recently, she's appeared as the ruthless Claudia on 'The Americans' and matriarch Carol Miller on the sitcom 'The Millers.'

 

Danny Strong

Shows: 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' 'Gilmore Girls,' 'Mad Men,' 'Justified'
 
 

Over the course of 'Buffy's' seven-season run, Strong's character, Jonathan Levinson, went from super-nerd to super-villain as a member of the hapless Trio that wrecks havoc all over Sunnydale. Strong's subsequent roles have balanced geekiness and nastiness - from Yale Daily News editor Doyle McMaster to inept ad man Danny Siegel in 'Mad Men' to the conniving prison guard Albert Fekus in season five of 'Justified.' Amid his acting work, Strong has become an award-winning screenwriter who penned HBO's 'Recount' and 'Game Change' along with the next two 'Hunger Games' movies.

 

Keith Carradine

Shows: 'Deadwood,' 'Dexter,' 'Damages,' 'Dollhouse,' 'Fargo'
 
 

As a member of the Carradine family dynasty, Keith Carradine first earned praise for his '70s film roles (which included memorable turns in a number of Robert Altman films). In recent years, he's had a higher profile on TV. He helped launch 'Deadwood' -- with an extra dose of gravitas -- as the doomed Wild Bill Hickock, bolstered the drama on two seasons of 'Dexter' as Special Agent Frank Lundy and also had recurring roles on 'Damages' and 'Dollhouse.' Just recently, Carradine began a stint as a diner owner on FX's 'Fargo' series, putting an end to his streak of great work on shows that all began with the letter D.

 

Kim Dickens

Shows: 'Treme,' 'Deadwood,' 'Friday Night Lights,' 'Lost,' 'Sons of Anarchy'
 
 

If you're flipping through the channels and you see Kim Dickens on your screen, you'd better stop and watch. Odds are that she's part of a wonderful series that you didn't catch the first time around. Dickens was a regular on two canceled-too-soon HBO series -- chef Janette Desautel on 'Treme' and Bella Union madam Joanie Stubbs on 'Deadwood.' She also played Matt Saracen's estranged mother Shelby on 'Friday Night Lights,' Sawyer's pigeon-turned-partner Cassidy Phillips on 'Lost' and escort service owner Colette Jane on 'Sons of Anarchy.' Whether she's running whores or slinging chow, Dickens is always fun to watch.

 

Gerald McRaney

Shows: 'Deadwood,' 'Jericho,' 'House of Cards,' 'Southland,' 'The West Wing,' 'Justified'
 
 

Following his lead roles as Rick Simon ('Simon & Simon') and Major John D. McGillis ('Major Dad'), McRaney has become quite a character actor in his 50s and 60s. He's played the greed-obsessed misanthrope George Hearst down the final stretch of 'Deadwood,' stubborn town leader Johnston Green in 'Jericho' and financial power player Raymond Tusk on Netflix's ongoing 'House of Cards.' McRaney always strikes the perfect balance between affability and menace in his juicy characters, leaving viewers in fitful anticipation of when these men will explode.

 

Kevin Rankin

Shows: 'Friday Night Lights,' 'Justified,' 'Breaking Bad,' 'Six Feet Under,' 'Big Love,' 'Undeclared,' 'Lost'
 
 

The unsung hero of television's modern golden age, Rankin has perfected the art of playing weasels -- from a college dorm R.A. (Lucien on 'Undeclared') to a white supremacist henchman (Devil on 'Justified') to, well, another white supremacist henchman (Kenny on 'Breaking Bad'). But it was Rankin's performance as Herc, Jason Street's rehab roommate, that showed a sweetness beneath that gruff exterior. Even when the actor has appeared as one of his nastiest characters, he's imbued them with sense of vulnerability that makes them all the more interesting.

 

Stephen Root

Shows: 'King of the Hill,' 'The West Wing,' 'Boardwalk Empire,' 'Justified,' 'Pushing Daisies,' 'True Blood,' 'The Good Wife', '24'
 
 

Finally, there might be no better guest star working in television today than the great Stephen Root. After starring as the enigmatic Jimmy James on 'Newsradio' and providing the voice for soft-hearted (and -headed) Bill Dauterive on 'King of the Hill,' Root's phone number has been on standby anytime a showrunner needs a colorful character to appear in a TV series. So, Root's been parole officer Bill Prady on '24,' investigator Gaston Means on 'Boardwalk Empire,' the mysterious Dwight Dixon on 'Pushing Daisies' and lazy, gay vampire Eddie Fournier on 'True Blood.' But Root, who always milks the most out of his genteel Southern accent, might deliver his best guest spots on 'Justified,' where he plays Mike "The Hammer" Reardon, an off-kilter judge who carries a revolver and wears a pair of Speedos under his robe. In short, it's a character tailor-made for Stephen Root.

 

Next: Best TV Shows for Weekend Binging

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