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Magnolia: What Happened To The Cast?

As the book says: We may be through with the past, but the past is never through with us.

1999's "Magnolia" was an epic of ordinary lives intersecting, brought together by connections and catastrophes. Since the film is focused on both coincidences and the power of the past over the present, it has an unusual and indelible combination of miraculousness and psychological realism. After all, this is a movie that starts with a dead scuba diver trapped in a burned-up tree and ends with a rain of frogs — but in the middle, it's full of disillusioned child prodigies, misogynistic pick-up artists, dying men, hopeless love, humiliation, and trauma.

That's a lot to tackle, even if you're P.T. Anderson. So it's unsurprising that the film also sports an unbelievably stacked cast, with even the most minor of roles filled by some fan favorites. Narrowing things down to the movie's most memorable characters — big or small — in the spirit of "Magnolia" itself, let's talk a little about how this shared bit of their cinematic past helped lead to their different futures.

Patton Oswalt as Delmer Darion

Delmer Darion is one of the best oddities of "Magnolia": the scuba diver who, through a bizarre but logical chain of events, winds up dead and tangled in the branches of a burned tree. "Magnolia" is full of blink-and-you-miss-it performances by great actors, but worth mention is Patton Oswalt's work as Delmer. The role is too weird and too essential to the movie's themes to be forgotten.

Oswalt has gone on to have an incredible, genre-spanning career that hopped around effortlessly between styles and platforms. He's best known for his comedy — stand-up or otherwise — and has had memorable roles on everything from "The King of Queens" to "Veep" to "MODOK." But don't skip his dramas, either. As unexpected badass Constable Bob Sweeney, he was one of the most memorable guest stars on "Justified," and he gave a startlingly powerful performance in the unsettling film "Big Fan." Oh, and don't forget "Ratatouille," quite possibly the most underrated of all the Pixar films. His talent for combining humor with raw pathos makes Oswalt an asset wherever he goes — and much of that began with "Magnolia," one of his first big roles.

Cleo King as Marcie

In a 2000 interview with Nitrate, Paul Thomas Anderson explained that he chopped out most of a planned plotline but left in certain parts, including Marcie and the dead body in her closet. He's glad he did: "The movie needs something that has mystery." You can't help wondering about the rest of her story, but the enigma of it all makes Marcie stand out.

Then again, she may stand out just because of Cleo King. King made numerous guest appearances on TV shows both before and after "Magnolia," managing to work steadily and widely while also developing connections with some excellent high-profile directors like David Milch ("NYPD Blue" and "Deadwood"), Lars von Trier ("Dogville"), and David Gordon Green ("Pineapple Express"). She possesses an instant but complex charisma that makes you notice her and want to see more. Fortunately, there continues to be regular new work to see — most recently, King has appeared on episodes of "Grey's Anatomy," "Mom," and "Young Sheldon," and she had a recurring role on the Netflix adaptation of "A Series of Unfortunate Events."

April Grace as Gwenovier

Gwenovier has the unfortunate task of trying to interview the deliberately provocative Frank T.J. Mackey. She's a woman who has to quiz a man about a life spent trying to "seduce and destroy." But she tackles the job skillfully and with aplomb, owing much of that poise to her actress, April Grace.

After "Magnolia," Grace went on to supporting movie roles and guest-starring spots. You can spot her on a lot of TV crime dramas — she tends to get law enforcement roles a lot, even on non law-enforcement-focused shows like "Joan of Arcadia," "Fringe," or "Pretty Little Liars." When she doesn't have a badge, she's often either a doctor ("Criminal Minds" or "Joker") or a lawyer ("Boston Legal" and "Family Law"). Clearly, there's something about Grace that suggests quiet, astute professionalism — and Gwenovier was an early opportunity to showcase these skills in one of the '90s most distinctive films.

Alfred Molina as Solomon Solomon

Alfred Molina turns in a one-scene wonder of a performance in "Magnolia" as Solomon Solomon, Donnie Smith's utterly (and hilariously) fed-up boss. Laying out the reasons Donnie has to go, it's hard to not agree that William H. Macy's sad-sack former quiz kid needs to be canned.

Molina's had a long and storied career, and rightly so. Not too many actors could embody both Spider-Man villain Doc Ock and the sweet, quietly tragic George in 2014's "Love Is Strange." He deserves all the lead parts he can get, but "Magnolia" shows why he's one of cinema's best scene-stealers even in minor roles: No matter who he's playing, he brings incredible charisma and nuance to the floor. Accordingly, he's done some of his best work in supporting parts, gathering up multiple nominations for playing a belligerent but loving father in "An Education."

It's worth noting that Molina is in the process of becoming one of the few actors to reprise a role across two different series: he is Doctor Otto Octavius in both 2004's "Spider-Man 2" with Tobey Maguire and the upcoming "Spider-Man: No Way Home" with Tom Holland. It's a unique career distinction for one of the most dependable supporting actors of his generation.

Felicity Huffman as Cynthia

Felicity Huffman was well-equipped to play Cynthia, a brisk TV station employee. So well-equipped, in fact, that she was right in the middle of starring on Aaron Sorkin's underrated and gone-too-soon dramedy "Sports Night," which focused on the travails of a late-night sports show. After it went off the air, she landed significant roles in indie dramas like "Transamerica" and TV shows like "Desperate Housewives," where she starred for 8 seasons as the intense, slightly frazzled Lynette, a driven corporate woman out-of-place in the world of stay-at-home motherhood.

In recent years, she's had some knockout dramatic roles on "American Crime" and especially "When They See Us," where she played prosecutor Linda Fairstein — both parts where she showed she wasn't afraid to get dark and viciously unlikable. Unfortunately, Huffman was part of a college admissions scandal alongside her husband and "Magnolia" co-star William H. Macy (they married two years before the film was released), putting a significant stain on their reputations.

Michael Murphy as Alan Kligman, Esq.

Anyone who knows Paul Thomas Anderson knows that he loves Robert Altman — and anyone who loves Robert Altman knows that he loved Michael Murphy.

In "Magnolia," Michael Murphy plays Alan Kligman, the lawyer to the Partridges. He was a prolific actor for years before, however — most notably acting for Altman in twelve films, TV series and miniseries including such classics as "M*A*S*H," "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," "Nashville" and the groundbreaking political mockumentary "Tanner '88." Beyond Altman, he has forged the career of a  great character actor, performing in a little bit of everything: "Law and Order," "The Bridge," "White House Down," the indie heartbreaker "Away from Her," and more.

He's tried to keep his career fresh, and he likes letting it lead him to new things. In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine in 2015, Murphy explained how doing narration for multiple PBS documentaries turned him into a little bit of a history nerd: He gets sidetracked geeking out about 1800s coal mining. Sampling his career will indeed get you a fair number of history docs — but it will also get you a lot of great snapshots of TV and movie classics, dating all the way back to the '60s.

Henry Gibson as Thurston Howell

With a self-assured, debonair sadism, Henry Gibson's Thurston Howell needles "Quiz Kid" Donnie Smith, eroding any tenuous confidence the guy might have. Yet, Gibson's performance is so wry and darkly charming that you can't help liking him — and you certainly can't help noticing him.

Such was the magic of Henry Gibson, who died of cancer in 2009. "Magnolia" fell relatively late in his career, but he still had several good years after it, and he packed them with guest star appearances (on shows like "Malcolm in the Middle" and "Stargate: SG-1"), voice work ("King of the Hill," among others), and the occasional movie ("Wedding Crashers"). This was following decades of memorable guest appearances on classic TV series like "77 Sunset Strip," "The Beverly Hillbillies," "F Troop," "Bewitched," "Newhart" and "MacGyver," breakout comedic work as a featured performer on the revolutionary "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," and a scene-stealing turn as an Illinois Nazi in "The Blues Brothers." Another Altman favorite (making him, by extension, an Anderson favorite), Gibson appeared in "The Long Goodbye," Nashville" and the little-seen "HealtH."

One of the best late-career Gibson performances was a notable run on "Boston Legal," where he played a persnickety, easily-riled judge who was always a comedic delight. Take that role alongside Thurston Howell in "Magnolia," and you can see what a gift Gibson had for injecting characters with color and life.

Emmanuel Johnson as Dixon

As explained in that 2000 Nitrate interview with P.T. Anderson, a significant portion of Dixon's plot was cut, leaving him somewhat of a loose end. But the loosely structured "Magnolia" is a movie that feels designed for such occasional loose ends, and thanks to Emmanuel Johnson, Dixon is a memorable loose end — an adorable one, even. In fact, his plot-revealing rap for Officer Jim Kurring is one of the most memorable moments of the film.

Unfortunately, "Magnolia" was Johnson's only major screen credit. He had a minor guest-starring spot on "Family Matters," then appeared as an unnamed character in a TV movie, and that's it. Like a fair number of child actors, he didn't stay in the business for very long, and he hasn't gone back to it. So, while Dixon grabbed attention in this small role, he seems content now to keep his adult life private and low-profile. Still, one can't help but wonder: if his character's role hadn't been trimmed down so substantially, would his post "Magnolia" life have included a more substantial tenure in Tinseltown?

Ricky Jay as Burt Ramsey/Narrator

Ricky Jay was an incredible character actor — an incredible magician, as this New Yorker profile recounts — and a favorite of Paul Thomas Anderson, also appearing in "Boogie Nights." He had exactly the right combination of showmanship and whimsy for his dual role in "Magnolia," where he plays both Burt Ramsey — Jimmy Gator's colleague and confidant — and the Narrator.

Jay did a lot of excellent work after "Magnolia" — much of it around his deceptively warm, commanding voice, taking on narrating gigs in films like "The Brothers Bloom" and TV series like "Teen Titans Go!" Ricky Jay was a favorite of David Mamet, masterfully executing his iambic pentameter dialogue in films like "House of Games," "The Spanish Prisoner," State and Main," "Redbelt," and "Heist." It's important to note that he did all this while serving for decades as the go-to Hollywood expert on magic, gambling, sleight-of-hand and con games — his one-man shows "Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants," "Ricky Jay: On the Stem" and "Ricky Jay: A Rogue's Gallery" played to awestruck crowds, while he served as a consultant on everything from "The Prestige" and "Ocean's Thirteen" to "The Great Buck Howard" and "Sneakers." he also held the Guinness World Record for throwing a playing card at 90 miles per hour, and his card-throwing prowess never failed to impress.

As card-dealer Eddie Sawyer on "Deadwood," he mastered a combination of a charm, shadiness, weakness, and humanity, all traits that made him a good foil for his boss. He also filmed eight episodes of the clever crime drama "Sneaky Pete," playing T.H. Vignetti, making up part of an intriguing arc, before his death in 2018. Like all great performers, he left the audience wanting more.

Michael Bowen as Rick Spector

Rick Spector never comes through for his son, Stanley. Instead, he basically uses him as a cash-generating machine and gets angry with him when he doesn't perform as expected. Michael Bowen makes him all too real, and it's a striking performance.

Bowen has made a career partly out of playing despicable-but-memorable characters. He's worked repeatedly with Tarantino, and you may shudder when you remember him as the nurse who sells off access to the Bride's comatose body. If you've blocked those scenes out of your memory, consider another of his patently-despicable bad guy roles: white supremacist gang leader and endgame villain Jack Welker on "Breaking Bad."

Those parts are definitely more spectacularly awful than Rick Spector's bad parenting, but none are as heartbreaking as the moment when Rick ignored his son's request to be kinder to him. Ouch. Even showing up Walter White on the evildoing front didn't hurt quite that much.

Jeremy Blackman as Stanley Spector

Young Jeremy Blackman was heart-wrenching as Stanley Spector, a prodigy quiz show kid who just wants a little more care and affection from the adults in his life — especially his father, who has no patience with him as anything but a prize money-generating machine.

It's one of the all-time great child acting performances that never translated into a major adult career: Blackman had a handful of roles after "Magnolia," such as a guest-starring spot on "Law and Order," but none of them were remotely as high-profile. 

But you don't have to worry about Blackman who, as it turns out, is just channeling his creativity in a different direction these days. In a 2012 interview with Indie Outlook, Blackman explained that he has changed his career path towards music. He plays five instruments and does some composing, and in college, he and some friends formed the electronic band Pink Drink. You can also find some of his music under the name William Irish.

William H. Macy as Quiz Kid Donnie Smith

William H. Macy played "Quiz Kid" Donnie Smith, a poignant character whose childhood success led to life as an adult prodigy with unfulfilled promise. Over the course of "Magnolia," he loses his job and repeatedly humiliates himself — but he does thankfully end the film on a more hopeful note.

Macy excels at that kind of down-on-his-luck pathos, and after "Magnolia," he went on to give audiences a lot more of it — along with notable performances in films like "Thank You for Smoking" and "Cellular," where he played well against type). As a veteran character actor, he often appears in supporting roles, where he gives every production a considerable boost. 

Macy is known to parents around the globe as the sweet-voiced narrator of the long-running "Curious George" TV series, and to parents who watch Showtime after they put their kids to bed as Frank Gallagher, the foul-mouthed patriarch of "Shameless" (which has afforded him multiple Emmy nominations and Screen Actors Guild Award wins). He was nominated for an Oscar for his breakthrough role of Jerry Lundegaard in "Fargo," and should have won many more awards for his masterful work in 2002's "The Cooler," which gave his poor, goodhearted schmuck character a chance to really shine. 

Like his wife and "Magnolia" co-star Felicity Huffman, Macy was implicated in a college admissions scandal, but he was not charged. Come to think of it, the whole admissions scandal feels like something a William H. Macy character would get himself into.

Melinda Dillon as Rose Gator

Melinda Dillon gave a nuanced, quietly devastating performance as Rose Gator, a woman who had to face a horrible truth about her husband.

Dillon had been in the business for decades before "Magnolia," appearing both on screen and in major Broadway productions. With a luminous face tailor-made for close-up reactions, she was an asset wherever she turned up. While "Magnolia" came closer to the end of her career than the beginning, she still had some notable work afterwards that is well-worth checking out. She's a great unexpected bonus in 2007's wistful Adam Sandler movie "Reign Over Me," and played another Rose in the well-regarded indie Western "Cowboy Up." She closed things out with a few guest appearances on the medical drama "Heartland."

Following a long, successful career, she deserves a peaceful, relaxing retirement. Fortunately, she left audiences with a lot of top-notch work to revisit.

Melora Walters as Claudia Wilson Gator

Claudia Wilson Gator was an inherently tragic character, but Melora Walters lifted her to a whole new level. Playing Claudia as a woman emotionally raw from her past, Walters made her someone deeply damaged, but who still looked for and gravitated towards goodness.

Walters is still doing amazing work. One of her most significant post-"Magnolia" roles is as a recurring cast member on HBO's dark, soapy polygamy drama "Big Love," where she played a woman who frequently used poison as her go-to problem-solving method. She was also a key component in the impressive ensemble indie drama "Short Term 12" (alongside Brie Larson, Rami Malek, Stephanie Beatriz, and others) and currently stars in the Hulu comedy "PEN15." 

Philip Baker Hall as Jimmy Gator

Philip Baker Hall gave a hauntingly unforgettable performance in "Magnolia," evoking sympathy for Jimmy Gator's crumbling life even as he revealed him to be a monster deserving of his fate. It's a powerfully emotional performance, one in service of a character as repellant as he is riveting.

Both before and after "Magnolia," Hall continued to go from strength to strength. Another Robert Altman favorite, Hall was in films and TV (including the M*A*S*H series adapted from Altman's film) for two decades before the director collaborated with him on the role that would be his breakthrough: starring as an imperiled, end-of-his-rope Richard Nixon in the astounding one-man-movie "Secret Honor."  

As a character actor, he's done a lot of his best work by taking small, interesting roles and making them remarkable. Some of the best examples include his grizzled and incredulous CIA Director in "Argo," and aging handwriting expert Sherwood Morrill in "Zodiac." He also made a sizable impression in just two guest-starring voice spots on "BoJack Horseman" as Hank Hippopopalous, a man — well, a hippo — not too far from Jimmy Gator or others of his kind, but much smoother and more comfortable with his sins. The dark confidence he injected into his voice made Hank absolutely haunting. This comes as no surprise to anyone who remembers Hall from "Magnolia."

On the verge of celebrating his 90th birthday, Hall is still working — in 2020, he filmed six episodes of the Netflix series "Messiah," and also recently appeared in an episode of the Duplass brothers' HBO anthology "Room 104."

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Phil Parma

Another triple-named acting heavyweight who "Magnolia" unleashed at the full force of his now-mythical acting talents was Philip Seymour Hoffman, cast as the compassionate, dogged Phil Parma. A nurse determined to get his dying patient the only thing he really wanted, closure with his estranged son, it was a masterful performance that was warm, funny, and deeply human — but then again, that's the only kind Hoffman ever had in him.

Considered by many to be the greatest actor of his generation, "Capote" Oscar winner Hoffman died at age 46, leaving behind an impressive legacy of timeless classics including "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "The Big Lebowski," "Moneyball" and "Almost Famous." Perhaps equally as impressive, Hoffman took an out-of-left-field supporting schlub role in the 2004 Ben Stiller vehicle "Along Came Polly" and displayed a scene-stealing flair for humor that could probably have made him a Jack Black-sized star if he had chosen that path instead.

Hoffman was one of those actors who seemed to immediately disappear into a character, whether it was a blockbuster villain (the icy Owen Davian in "Mission: Impossible III"), a vivid supporting character (in "Charlie Wilson's War," "25th Hour," and the "Hunger Games" trilogy, among many others), or a multifaceted, morally-ambiguous lead ("Doubt," and — most iconically — "The Master"). Even in seldom-seen flicks like "The Savages," "Owning Mahoney," "Flawless" and Todd Solondz's masterful "Happiness," Hoffman never gave the viewer anything less than his full heart and soul. 

He was also a foundation of the Paul Thomas Anderson stable, giving stand-out performances in not only "Magnolia" but also "Hard Eight," "Boogie Nights," "Punch-Drunk Love" and "Master." He's still greatly missed, and the amazing body of work he left behind shows why.

Julianne Moore as Linda Partridge

Julianne Moore is a legend, one particularly adept at capturing the passion and brittleness characters like Linda Partridge require. Linda fell in love with her much-older husband just in time to be wracked with guilt over past mistakes, and it makes her an emotionally fragile ticking time bomb throughout much of the movie.

Moore does both intensity and fragility well, and she often combines the two, including in films like 2002's complex period dramas "Far From Heaven" and "The Hours" (2002 was a great year for Moore fans). It's hard to list the highlights of Moore's career, when almost everything feels like a high point, but it's fair to say that her take on Sarah Palin in the HBO movie "Game Change" is legendarily good: She deservedly made a clean sweep of the awards that year, landing recognition and acclaim from multiple organizations. She also finally snagged a Best Actress Oscar in 2015 for her heartbreaking work in "Still Alice," where she played a professor slowly succumbing to Alzheimer's. 

Unsurprisingly, she continues to excel. Recently she appeared in the Stephen King adaptation "Lisey's Story," an excellent miniseries streaming on Apple TV+.

Jason Robards as Earl Partridge

Watching Jason Robards in "Magnolia" now is a bittersweet experience. Robards was fantastic as the fading, regret-laden Earl Partridge, the emotional linchpin of a very complex film (one fan theory is that the entire film is told through his character's point of view, explaining the film's more hallucinatory elements and why the frogs rain when he succumbs to his cancer), and most of that is due to Robards' own immense talent. But his acting here owes a little to special circumstances, as well. Like his character, Robards was dying of cancer. He would pass away a year after the film's release, in December 2000.

"Magnolia" was his final film, and as a professional athlete might say: he left it all out on the field. Cigarettes & Red Vines, a P.T. Anderson website, has the film's original production notes, including a quote from Robards saying, "It was sort of prophetic that I be asked to play a guy going out in life. It was just so right for me to do this and bring what I know to it." What he brought with him was an invaluable sense of gravitas and sincerity, intangible elements that made his performance in "Magnolia" unforgettable. 

Capping off a brilliant, if sometimes troubled, career that included commanding work in classic films like "All the President's Men," "Once Upon a Time in the West," "Tora! Tora! Tora!" and "Parenthood," this may rank as one of the all-time great final screen performances.

John C. Reilly as Officer Jim Kurring

John C. Reilly is always good at playing characters like Officer Jim Kurring, ones who may not always be the quickest on the uptake but whose earnest goodness makes him heroic.

After "Magnolia," Reilly went on to an even higher — and Oscar-nominated — profile with movies like "Chicago." He also moved further into comedy: If you haven't seen him in the musician biopic parody "Walk Hard," you're seriously missing out, and "Step Brothers" and "Talladega Nights" are modern comedy classics. He has become a welcome and almost ubiquitous presence, popping up in animated movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, critically acclaimed indie films, and TV series. Somewhere between "Magnolia" and "Chicago," Reilly first perfected the simple-and-sweet character, then made it clear it was just one move in a vast repertoire of winding-road talents that would somehow lead the Oscar nominee to Dr. Steve Brule. Check it out!

As he said in a 2018 interview with Saturday Evening Post, "I guess I'm sort of a chameleon. I don't really know who I really am. I think I'm sort of a sum of my characters, to tell you the truth. I'm the Special Forces of character actors." 

Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey

Sleazy pick-up artist guru Frank T.J. Mackey is still remembered as one of Tom Cruise's best performances, channeling all his signature intensity into some strange, dark directions before startling the audience with real, raw emotion by the film's conclusion.

At the time, the role was seen as Oscar bait for Cruise, one of the biggest movie stars in the world but one who did not have an Academy Award on his shelf (21 years later, he still does not). In "Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor," film critic Amy Nicholson reasoned that the sheer emotional heft of the "Magnolia" role — which hit especially close to home for Cruise — not translating into an Oscar win was perversely freeing for the superstar: "He'd ripped his life open for a tightly crafted, stunningly raw performance. And it still wasn't enough. Cruise was done chasing Oscars — now it was time to have fun."

Since "Magnolia," he's had a lot, most noticeably as the powerhouse behind the "Mission: Impossible" series. He's done off-the-wall bit parts in films like "Tropic Thunder," he's been the face of inventive standalone blockbusters like "Edge of Tomorrow," and he's been known to jump on a couch every now and then. Between regular "Mission: Impossible" appearances and fan-rewarding projects like the soon-to-release "Top Gun: Maverick," Cruise's presence is still a strong sign that audiences are about to have a good time at the movies.