When Willie Garson stepped on camera in a TV series, the line between the leads and the supporting cast had a way of getting blurred.
Garson, who died Tuesday of undisclosed causes at the cruelly young age of 57, spent his career as a “character actor,” meaning he played important roles in a show, but was less prominent than the stars.
Garson appeared in dozens of TV shows and movies, but most famously in two: the original Sex and the City, where he played Carrie Bradshaw’s gay male buddy Stanford Blatch, and White Collar, where he played the brilliant and neurotic hustler Mozzie.
Stanford was a perfect fit for Carrie. Of course she’d have a gay best male friend, and he played the role with the right mix of camp and style.
Mozzie was a little more. Here he was the best pal of Matt Bomer’s Neal Caffrey, a smooth white-collar criminal and hustler who was now working off his debt to society by helping Tim DeKay’s special agent Peter Burke bust some of his former colleagues and competition.
Mozzie was Neal’s ongoing connection to that shadowy world of art forgers, jewel thieves and assorted other well-dressed miscreants. While this made Garson technically a supporting actor, it didn’t take many episodes for him to start stealing scenes.
Drawing a bit on a recurring character he had played in NYPD Blue, the perpetually nervous Henry Coffield, Garson turned Mozzie into a fascinating mix of paranoia and smooth confidence.
He trusted no one except Neal, meaning he remained suspicious of Peter even when they ended up working together. Mozzie rarely called Peter by his name, waving him off as “The Suit,” yet viewers knew Mozzie secretly kind of liked the guy.
Mozzie also couldn’t resist showing off to Peter, or anyone else. He was a genius at getting into sealed buildings, cracking impenetrable safes, looting ill-gotten financial accounts or figuring out how to hustle un-hustleable fellow con artists. Mozzie’s crimes never had victims who didn’t deserve it.
He punctuated these achievements with philosophical commentary like “Anyone who said the customer is always right never met the customer” or “Time exists so everything doesn’t happen all at once.”
Argue with that.
At the same time, Garson never let Mozzie become a two-dimensional caricature, just a wise-guy hustler dropping one-liners. He developed a close relationship with Peter’s wife Elizabeth, who found Mozzie intriguing. Mozzie also sometimes let us see that being the smartest hustler in the room didn’t always make him the happiest man in the room. Nor give him all the answers.
“This is a guy who never liked other people,” Garson said in a 2012 interview. “He has never thought he needed people around. But Neal brought him out of his shell and now he’s not so sure.”
While Mozzie wasn’t quite the third lead in the show, he made White Collar livelier and better in a way that the supporting cast rarely gets the space to do. The writers gave that shot to Garson and he nailed it.
In return he thanked the writers for providing the opportunity.
“We could be solving the case of the missing Scotch tape at the North Pole and it wouldn’t matter,” he said in 2012, “because the characters are so well-drawn.”
Bomer wrote a long, emotional tribute to Garson after his death was announced, suggesting that the White Collar cast had remained close.
That’s rarer than fans would like to think, just because acting is such a mobile business. But fans of White Collar, or Sex and the City, would love to think that the actor who created such endearingly neurotic friends on the screen with Stanford and Mozzie enjoyed similar camaraderie in his off-screen life.
He was a character actor whose characters won’t be forgotten.