Same Actor, Different Character

This is a side note to the spin-off future project – a few months ago I did a bit of a data mining exercise to find out where the crossovers are in the casts of Seinfeld, X Files and Twin Peaks. This was inspired by thinking about a kind of Tommy Westphall universe-in-reverse, i.e. if Westphall requires the sharing of characters between adjacent worlds, this follows the thought of Hollywood as a meta-universe, and the sharing of actors between adjacent productions. If you spend any time watching American TV from the early 90s it’s a pretty common experience to see the same faces pop up regularly playing bit-part characters in single episodes, usually playing roughly similar characters within different worlds.

The choice of Seinfeld, X Files and Twin Peaks as the data sets for this exercise was pretty much arbitrary, apart from the fact that they all have a cult following, and I have watched pretty much all of all three (X files only until the end of the Duchovny years). For Twin Peaks I just used the original 2 series, not Fire Walk with Me or The Return. On reflection using Twin Peaks for this is a bit of a false equivalence, because of its much smaller run of 30 episodes, Star Trek TNG would probably be a good contender for a fourth series to try. I assume the credited actors are just those who have a line in the show, and doesn’t include extras. I harvested the names off IMDB then used some sorting formulas in google sheets to identify the crossovers. Originally I wanted to make a Venn diagram out of this data, but out of laziness I’m just presenting it as this blog post instead.

If you want to see the raw data here’s the spreadsheet.

The headlines stats:

– 1318 named actors appeared in Seinfeld (172 Episodes)
– 2158 named actors appeared in X Files (217 Episodes)
– 176 named actors appeared in Twin Peaks (30 Episodes)

– 106 actors appear in both Seinfeld and X Files
– 14 actors appear in both Twin Peaks and X Files
– 12 actors appear in both Seinfeld and Twin Peaks

– 3 actors appear in all three.

The three who appear in all three are Frances Bay, Jack McGee and John Apicella. They’re not exactly household names but very recognisable faces nonetheless.

Frances Bay

Jack McGee

John Apicella

These kind of actors make up the umwelt (surrounding world/sense island/cognitive map – of which more in this project soon) of TV and film – faces imbued with a familiarity that might hover just below conscious recognition, maybe irritatingly and distractingly hard to place. Their status says something about the difference between ‘star of the show’ (often those whose Earth Prime identity and name is unforgettable and pierces the mise-en-scene) and ‘jobbing actor’, whose name is unknown to most, existing and appearing only within on-screen worlds, and seldom in media outside of them.

It seems obvious to say that a single actor plays multiple characters, that’s the nature of the job, and, if they do it well, we are able to suspend the real-world personage of the actor who becomes only the character – often via a sacrifice of subjectivity (i.e. method acting). The unspoken operation on the part of the viewer/watcher/fan is to understand that an actor playing a different character does not cancel out or supersede their previous roles. In Lynch we often see the same actors return to play roughly analogous but separate characters, sometimes in two or even three roles in the same production (Sheryl Lee as both Laura Palmer and her cousin Maddie, Watts as both Dianne Selwyn and Betty Elms, Kyle MacLachlan in triplicate as Dale Cooper, ‘Evil Coop’ and Dougie).


A radically credulous stance denies this repeat casting from foreclosing a shared universe reading of two works. Instead, the troupe cast opens up an opportunity to view Lynch’s wider canon, in particular the films Blue Velvet, (1986) Mulholland Drive, (2001) and the Twin Peaks three series and film as all existing in a roughly contingent universe of repeated tropes, motifs and storylines. Where Mulholland Drive is easily readable as existing in the same universe as Twin Peaks (even if no explicit crossovers are indicated), Noami Watts’ appearance in both might ordinarily challenge this notion unless we believe that either both characters are the same person, or that persons can co-exist through singular body-avatar doppelgangers.

Returning to those actors in separate universes, Frances Bay in particular is the kind of actor that Lynch uses frequently in bit-parts throughout his productions (Bay also appears in Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart) – character actors of the 1930s-50s who had faded into obscurity and were somehow still miraculously working in the 1990s. Bay started her career as a radio actress in the 1930’s, followed by a long career break and re-emergence on TV in the 1970s – her first on-screen role listed on IMDB is ‘Lady at Chapel (Uncredited)’ in a 1976 episode of Kojak. Others that spring to mind in Lynch roles include Ann Miller (more of a genuine star of golden age Hollywood, appearing as Coco, the landlady in Mulholland Drive), Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn, who both appeared in West Side Story (Some more examples relating to David Lynch casting here). Lynch’s use of these actors speaks to his position as someone who has grown up in an earlier age of Hollywood and daytime TV, but also a masterful wielding of the uncanny affect generated by the return of an unplaceably familiar face, an actor who history would prefer to confine to a neatly canonised era, somehow still alive, talking, moving and acting, propped up and held together by plastic surgery of a more experimental era. 

Author: danielseankelly

I'm a practicing artist. This blog is for me to channel my ideas into writing, through short form essays.

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