MARTIN LAWRENCE gave the producers of Blue Streak quite a scare when he went into a coma recently -- mainly because movie stars don't generally appear on the big screen posthumously. Character actors, on the other hand, almost always have movies released after their passing; the essence of their calling is work, so when they expire there's always a performance or three in the can, still waiting to be seen.

This is by no means a bad thing. Character actors are beloved not just because they're talented, but due to the general sentiment that true talent goes unrecognized. The fan gets to feel a little superior to the masses of moviegoers who've overlooked such a fine actor; so what better validation than one last, terrific performance? Maybe then everyone else will get it too, late or not. I felt exactly that mix of sorrow and smugness when the late J.T. Walsh popped up in Pleasantville, as cowardly, self-righteous, and brilliant as ever, giving that silly film a much-needed boost. And I'll feel it again at least four times in the future, as the last films of Brion James trickle out.

A classic heavy thanks to his bulk and shark's grin, James also had a potential for confused menace -- innocence without sweetness -- only explored fully in Blade Runner ("Let me tell you about my mother"). That's the one great film of his long, busy career, but James was always a joy to watch: professional, unexpectedly comic, so comfortable in his malice you could tell he didn't take it seriously. When he died last month, he'd been in nearly 100 films, with more still to come: Arthur's Quest, a time-travel children's film; the awfully titled indie film Dirt Merchant; Farewell, My Love; and the long-in-production The Operator. These will not be very good -- or even memorable -- films, but in each of them there will come a time when the camera pans across its cast and you see James standing there, perhaps with a weapon in his hands. His eyes will light up and a grin will threaten to cross his face. At that moment, even the worst movie becomes worth watching.

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