Some actors work a lifetime to perfect what Vincent Schiavelli could do with a glance.
This wasn't because of his acting ability — though he was a fine actor. Schiavelli had the countenance of a melting clock, the hooded eyes of a serial killer, the smile of someone who might be off his medication.
It was a curse he forged into a career. By the time Schiavelli died Monday, of lung cancer at age 57, he had starred in 150 television shows and movies, usually as a hit man, a madman or a mad scientist. He was name you couldn't remember with a face you couldn't forget.
You can only imagine what the audition was like for his breakthrough role in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"; Schiavelli probably just walked in, all limbs and nose, and they put him in a mental institution.
It's a credit to his talents — honed at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where he met "Cuckoo's" director Milos Forman — that Schiavelli wasn't trapped in the asylum. In fact, he played comedy more than creepy, in films like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Better Off Dead" — where he led a curious fan club of math students.
Along the way, Schiavelli became the ultimate, "Hey! It's That Guy!" — a term invented by authors Tara Ariano and Adam Sternbergh to encompass those journeymen actors we all recognize but can't identify.
"See him once, and he catches your eye," Sternbergh wrote. "See him again, and he catches your eye, puts it in a cage, gives it a name and keeps it as a pet. We don't want to say what happens when you see him a third time."
If Schiavelli begrudged this lot, he never admitted it. "I'm tall," he told the Washington Times in 1990. "Well, tall is a little wrong. I would say I'm elongated. I think I have very sad eyes. I think I have a very aristocratic nose — that means large."
His looks were at least partly attributed to Marfan Syndrome, a genetic defect that affects the connective tissue of the body. Those who have Marfan — and Abraham Lincoln is considered to be one — tend to be very tall and loose-jointed, with limbs disproportionate to the rest of the body. Schiavelli, all 6-foot-4 of him, was an honorary co-chair of the National Marfan Foundation, and would speak to youth about the disorder.
Things you didn't know about Vincent Schiavelli (besides his name): He played the first openly gay character on television, a set designer in a short-lived ABC sitcom called "The Corner Bar" in 1972. He won a James Beard Foundation journalism award in 2001 for a Los Angeles Times article on Sicilian cooking. He grew up in Bushwick and later lived in Sicily — but he said the two of them were pretty much the same. He played an alien on "Star Trek," a pagan on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and a conjoined twin on "The X-Files."
Oh, and he was selected in 1997 by Vanity Fair as one of the best character actors in America, and maybe, just maybe, more people knew him by his name, and not "that guy."
"The fact that I'm an actor is beginning to show more," he told the Washington Times. "Rather than just another pretty face."