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A 'breaking character' may also refer to a line breaking character or other character that allows word wrap.
Breaking character, "to break character", is a theatrical term used to describe when an actor, while actively performing in character, slips out of character and behaves as his or her actual self. This is an acceptable occurrence while in the process of rehearsal, but is unheard of and extremely unprofessional while actively performing in front of an audience or camera (except when the act is a deliberate breaking of the fourth wall). If the breaking of character is particularly serious, it is dubbed corpsing, which in film or television would normally result in an abandonment of that take.

For example, an actor and actress may be testing out a scene in front of their director. The actress may break character half-way through to suggest that she try delivering a certain line from a different position on the stage.

Famous breaks in film

Occasionally actors in film and television can be glimpsed breaking character as they find themselves laughing or otherwise reacting to unexpected events in front of the camera.

During filming of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, while actor Viggo Mortensen was filming the scene of Aragorn kicking an Uruk-hai helmet in anguish over the apparent deaths of Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took, he broke two toes on the last take. Mortensen let out what director Peter Jackson referred to as a "godawful scream." The crew was unaware that this scream was not acting, and Mortensen finished the scene before approaching Jackson and having his toes fixed, and this take made it to the final version.

Other examples of breaking character in movies include:
  • Catherine Schell, who found it difficult to act with Peter Sellers in The Return of the Pink Panther and maintain her composure; several scenes showing her laughing at his antics remain in the film.
  • Audrey Hepburn broke character during the famous "Mouth of Truth" sequence in Roman Holiday when co-star Gregory Peck pulled a practical joke on her during filming, leading her to believe his hand had been bitten off by the statue.
  • Peter Bull briefly breaks character in the film Dr. Strangelove, as he begins to laugh at the over-the-top behavior of Peter Sellers' character (Dr. Strangelove), but regains his composure.
  • Virginia North had so much trouble trying not to laugh in a dance scene with Vincent Price in The Abominable Dr. Phibes that she had to be photographed behind him to conceal her face, although her smile is briefly visible.
  • Al Martino nearly breaks character and struggles not to laugh when Marlon Brando's character (Don Corleone) makes fun of him in The Godfather.
  • In the How do you Tell a Witch scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Eric Idle bites his scythe to keep himself from laughing at John Cleese's offbeat line reading.
  • In Monty Python's Life of Brian, an angry Pontius Pilate (played by Michael Palin) dares his guards not to laugh at the fact that he has a friend named Biggus Dickus, and the guards, played by extras who had no idea ahead of time what was going to happen in the scene, can be seen truly struggling not to laugh. Palin also breaks character by smiling at the guards' reactions.
  • In The Wizard of Oz, during an encounter with the Cowardly Lion (played by Bert Lahr), Judy Garland, as Dorothy, hides her face behind the dog Toto in order to conceal the fact that she is laughing rather than frightened as she observes Lahr's performance.
  • In the 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Christopher Lee can be seen smirking at Miles Malleson and his comic acting when his back is turned.
  • During the scene from Alien where the creature bursts out of Kane's chest, the reactions of shock on the other actors' faces is genuine, as they had not been told beforehand exactly what would happen during the scene.
  • A similar situation occurs in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In order to capture genuine reactions of shock, director Jim Sharman did not tell the cast about the disemboweled corpse (belonging to Meat Loaf's character Eddie) hidden within the dinner table.
  • In the film A Knight's Tale, Mark Addy broke character in the first sword fighting scene after Paul Bettany's character gives a rousing speech and no one responds. The crowd were actually Czech men and women who did not understand the speech, only after Addy yelled did they remember to cheer.
  • A well-known early scene in The Usual Suspects has the main characters forming a police lineup, where they are all asked to say the words, "Hand me the keys, you cocksucker!" in order to help a witness identify a suspect. The scene was originally supposed to be played straight, but the actors couldn't do it without cracking up, so it was decided that the characters would laugh over the line.
  • In the 2000 comedy film Scary Movie actor Shawn Wayans breaks character at the climax of the film itself. Mentioning the show that he starred in, the Wayans Brothers never got a final episode (because it was cancelled a year before the film was released.)He went on to say that "cancelling shows kills people" while stabbing another character in the film.
  • In Midnight Cowboy, Dustin Hoffman, trying to cross a road, is nearly hit by a car and shouts, in character, "I'm walking here" to the unscripted driver.
  • In Scary Movie 2 When Dwight and Hanson are insulting each other, Actor Marlon Wayans lets out an over the top laugh which the rest of the people at the dinner are obviously laughing at.
The advent of DVD players, with the use of their precise pause and slow-motion functions, has made it far easier to spot breaks in character in motion pictures.

On Television

Andy Kaufman had an infamous appearance on Fridays where he broke character in the middle of a sketch, prompting fellow cast member Michael Richards to grab the cue cards and throw them on a table in front of Andy. A fight also erupted on camera before the show cut to commercial. It was later revealed that this was a gag prearranged by Kaufman and the show's producers in collusion with Richards, although not everyone on set was aware it was a joke.

Harvey Korman was infamous for breaking character on The Carol Burnett Show when he would start laughing during sketches, usually due to the antics of Tim Conway, who would deliberately try to crack Korman up.

In Fawlty Towers, John Cleese's antics could cause others to break character. In particular, "The Wedding Party" features an exceptionally long tirade by Cleese as Basil Fawlty, during which several other actors and actresses can be seen breaking character as they laugh.

A sketch on Britishmarker sketch show A Bit of Fry & Laurie had an instance of breaking character. The sketch involved Stephen Fry playing a journalist who interviews a racecar driver played by Hugh Laurie and becomes increasingly infuriated by the whiny, self-pitying attitude he displays even though he's just won a race. The sketch ended, as was not unusual on A Bit of Fry & Laurie, with Fry's character punching Laurie's in the face. In this instance his fist actually connected, and although Laurie is knocked out of frame, Fry can be seen reacting with shock and then covering his face to hide a grin.
Many instances of breaking character occurred on Saturday Night Live, such as a sketch where Christina Applegate and David Spade could not stop laughing at Chris Farley's motivational speaker character, Matt Foley, as well as the band members in the "More Cowbell" sketch reacting to Will Ferrell's antics. Jimmy Fallon broke character in almost every sketch he participated in , which became one of his trademarks. Michael Jordan broke character, laughing, in a Stuart Smalley (Al Franken) sketch as he attempted to say the line, "I don't have to be a great basketball player".

In Blackadder Goes Forth, Stephen Fry, who was cast as Gen. Melchett would improvise his character by giving the impression Melchett had piles and groaning every time he sat down. In the episode "General Hospital" Melchett sits next to Capt. Blackadder and Nurse Mary and groans, forcing Rowan Atkinson to hide a smile.

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Symbiosis," as the cargo bay doors close on her character's last appearance in the episode, Denise Crosby breaks character and waves at the camera. Although it was in the next episode, Skin of Evil, where her character Tasha Yar dies, this was the last scene of her that was filmed as a series regular, so she wanted to "wave bye-bye" to her fans.

In episode 5 of the Doctor Who story Frontier In Space, there is a scene in which the Master (Roger Delgado) leads captive Jo Grant (Katy Manning) through a rocky terrain. Despite his typically soulless nature, the Master audibly tells Jo to "be careful down here" - an out-of-character statement from Delgado to aid Manning, who is very nearsighted.

The members of Monty Python's Flying Circus could occasionally be seen trying not to laugh during sketches, most noticeably during the "Burma" or "Exploding Penguin" sketch, where Graham Chapman suppresses laughter while listening to the "death of Mary, Queen of Scots" on the radio, and later almost causes John Cleese to crack up when he shouts the line, "Intercourse the penguin!" Self-referential character breaks were also often written into the sketches themselves, with characters suddenly deciding that a sketch had become "too silly" to continue.

On The Daily Show, there have been countless instances of Jon Stewart or one of the correspondents losing it during a segment. The most infamous example was a piece on an allegation of a homosexual relationship involving Prince Charles and the British tabloids' shameless use of innuendo and euphemisms to spread the rumor while avoiding libelous statements. The segment had Stephen Colbert "reporting" from Britain and explaining, in terms laden with homoerotic imagery, that it would be journalistically irresponsible to go into detail about the story. He then peeled a banana and took a huge bite of it in imitation of fellatio, causing himself to smile and Stewart to begin giggling off screen. By the end of the segment, Colbert—normally one of the most composed of the show's correspondents—was laughing so hard he could barely speak.

On Colbert's own show The Colbert Report, he has made numerous character breaks when performing alone, giggling over things such as his own suggestion of "Filliam H. Muffman" as a tabloid nickname for the relationship of William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman; a news story about a giant inflatable dog turd that escaped its moorings and wrought destruction in England; and various prop malfunctions, including a condom he blew up and then accidentally popped and a bottle of Manischewitz spilled behind his "news" desk.

Laura Prepon constantly broke character on That 70's Show as Donna Pinciotti. During humorous scenes where the characters are supposed to be concerned or upset, Prepon can constantly be seen giggling.

In live theater

See also: The show must go on


Performers of live theater are renowned for never breaking character, even under dire circumstances. An extreme example of this occurred in Washington, D.C. in the year 2000 when Nana Visitor and Vicki Lewis starred in the Broadway tour of Chicago. Lewis broke her ankle halfway through the third number, and the other dancers completed the number around her while attempting to cover the injury as Lewis was escorted off stage. Then, as the dancers exited, another actress seamlessly pranced onto stage and announced, in character, that a "sexy new fox is gonna be playing Velma Kelly, but don't you cats get confused."

Virtual and gaming environments

Breaking character or corpsing is also being used more frequently to describe a user-player who, having assumed the role of a virtual character or avatar and is acting within a virtual or gaming environment, then breaks out of that character. For example, this could be either a player-character behaving inappropriately within the social-cultural environment depicted by the virtual or gaming environment or the player ceasing to play (momentarily or entirely) leaving the character suspended and/or lifeless.

Professional wrestling

Breaking character is not solely limited to performances in traditional theater, television, and film; the phenomenon is not unheard of in professional wrestling, which is normally highly scripted. WWE commentator Jim Ross once famously broke character during a match in which WWE wrestler (and friend of Ross) Mick Foley took a 16 foot "bump" (fall) through the roof of a steel cage structure known as Hell in a Cell. Ross exclaimed, "Will somebody stop the damn match?!" While phrases such as that are often used by professional wrestling commentators to make matches seem more legitimate, Ross later stated that he made the comment out of character, being seriously worried for his friend (who had, indeed, suffered a severe concussion as a result of the fall). Later on in the match, Ross nearly broke character by calling Mick "the toughest son of a bitch he had ever seen, period," before covering himself as Stone Cold Steve Austin is pushed as that type of character - instead added "...in this sort of environment (aka the Cell itself)." Much of the WWF roster broke character in 1999 when Owen Hart fell to his death from the rafters of Kemper Arenamarker in Kansas Citymarker; much of the onscreen drama of the WWE was similarly shunted aside in 2005 for some weeks after the death of Eddie Guerrero. In 2007, after the death of the Benoit family, Vince McMahon was forced to abandon the storyline of his "death," appearing out of character to speak about the incident and its repercussions. In 2008 the night Ric Flair retired on WWE Raw, numerous wrestlers broke kayfabe, including Edge, Randy Orton, Paul "Big Show" Wight, as well as The Undertaker broke character when they sobbed and hugged Flair after the show.

See also



References

  1. 'Saturday Night' Friction



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