Hollywood icon Morgan Freeman said it best: “The best way to guarantee a loss is to quit.” But for the thousands of background actors and extras continuously auditioning and facing rejection, finding inspiration to stay in the game can be tough. While many actors end up throwing in the towel, some keep slugging away. And one actor who’s been in it for the long haul is comedian Tommy Bechtold.
Bechtold took a small background role on the hit ABC series The Middle and turned it into a five-year job. He portrayed Axl Heck’s World of Warcraft-playing college roommate Kenny. The script called for Kenny to remain completely silent, clad in an overbearing amount of red hair while sitting in front of a computer screen playing video games. But Bechtold developed the role into much more.
Bechtold’s tenacity and gumption was recently highlighted with an award from the company Stanley. The 36-year-old was the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Stanley honoring background actors, chosen out of a pool of more than 1,500 nominees.
Bechtold recently shared how he developed his role in The Middle and discussed how he continues to stay in Hollywood’s competitive game.
Kenny was supposed to be a background character
Bechtold told Showbiz Cheat Sheet his character in The Middle was “glorified background” work for some time. “They finally let me talk during the second season,” he laughed. Bechtold recalled auditioning nearly eight or nine times for various roles on the comedy. He was grateful he booked his final audition because this character had longevity.
He had fun with the character with one small exception. “The wig was not my favorite, but that was fine,” he said. “They put the hair on me every morning. They would glue it to my head. And in Burbank, it can be 100 degrees out. It definitely made it a funnier character.”
Viewers initially saw Kenny as a background character, but eventually the silent gamer became more developed.
“I think what happened was I was hanging out with them enough off-camera,” Bechtold said. “They would yell cut, and they were like, ‘Oh he can actually talk. He’s not completely brain dead, and he’s not a total video game addict that just sits there and stares at the screen all day.'”
Kenny came to life when the cast and crew got to know Bechtold
Bechtold thinks daily interaction with the crew helped him to further develop his character. “So they were like, ‘Oh we should toy with maybe having [Kenny] talk,'” Bechtold said. “And a couple of people from the show would come and see me do my comedy show. So they knew I could deliver a line.”
He said producers took a leap of faith and allowed Kenny to move more to the forefront. “And gave me that first Halloween episode, and after that it just took off from there,” he said. However, Bechtold likes to believe that luck had something to do with his character’s expansion, too.
What advice does Bechtold have for other background actors?
Bechtold, who is a pretty sunny guy, said it is easy to get frustrated with rejection. But he shared that struggling actors should try to remember to stay true to themselves.
“Don’t be afraid to be yourself,” he advised. “What I tell people who come out here, I encourage them, like I was encouraged to do background. And feel it out. There’s certainly times to be quiet, but don’t be afraid to let your personality show a little bit. You never know who’s watching.”
He has shared screen time with some of Hollywood’s most respected actors, including Harrison Ford, Jane Lynch, and Ed Begley Jr. He said when he’s on set with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, he tries to act like he’s not starstruck. “But of course I am,” he laughed.
When he was working on a few Christopher Guest projects, he said, “My own internal monologue was like, ‘I cannot believe I’m here. I don’t know what I did to deserve this.’ But I tried to play it cool on the outside.”
Bechtold continues to work steadily. Fans can catch his comedy act the second and fourth Mondays of the month when he performs improv at Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica, California.