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Bit part is an idiomatic phrase used to denote someone who has a small role to play. This usually refers to an actor in a play, television show or movie. It is also used to refer to someone who had a small part in a project or to a sportsman or woman who made a small contribution to the team. In some cases, the term is used to denigrate someone or is used by the bit part player in order to complain about his or her relatively small role.
Idioms such as “bit part” and “kick the bucket” are non-literal phrases. Native language speakers often understand idioms when second language learners do not. This is because idioms are often culturally specific, and learners lack the contextual awareness to understand them.
The term, “bit part” comes from Old English and proto-Germanic. A bit refers to two things: a drill piece that makes holes and the small bits such a drill or implement create. Over time, the small parts created came to be known as bit parts, and this collocation was attributed to other areas such as actors with minor roles.
There are various types of bit part roles and actors. Some actors are able to make a career out of such roles, while others do it as a hobby or as a means of funding college or to get themselves noticed for larger roles. Bit part actors are sometimes called Under Sixes, meaning they have fewer than six lines; other supporting actors may have more lines, but would still not be considered a main actor or character.
Supporting actors often have more than six lines. Such bit parts are more important than extras, but are far less important than the major characters. They can still make a big impression as a major character. Some important minor characters include Pete Hornberger from “30 Rock” and Tariq Masood in “Spooks.”
Cameos and extras are also different than bit parts. A cameo is a guest appearance, often a small part played by a famous actor or celebrity. Examples of cameos include Peter Jackson playing Santa in “Hot Fuzz.” An extra has a non-speaking background and in no way affects the story.
Such bit part actors often hope to secure better parts in other shows, films and plays or hope their character will be promoted to the rank of a major character. The term “bit part” is often used in this context as a form of complaint. Some supporting characters do gather an online following, with viewers wanting to know more about them. This is most true of television shows that have the opportunity to grow and develop over time.
In sport, bit part players, in soccer, for example, tend to be bench warmers. They spend a lot of time on the sidelines watching games and playing a small role as a substitute. When such players ask to leave the team, they tend to express their frustration at being a “bit part player.”
I think there's a rule in the actors' union about the number of lines that a non-union actor can perform in a movie. That's why bit parts go to actors who are not part of SAG or AFTRA. Once they speak more than a certain number of lines in a film, they become eligible for union membership and can no longer be hired by local filmmakers without signing a lot of paperwork.
A friend of mine had a bit part in a movie that flopped, but he included the scene on his audition reel. He actually booked a few national commercials based on that one small part in a movie hardly anyone saw.
A friend of mine was trying to break into the acting business, so she went to an open audition for a major movie that was filming near our town. The ad said they were only looking for extras in non-speaking roles, but she thought it might give her an opportunity to meet some real professional actors and get some advice.
The casting director knew there was a bit part available for a waitress in a diner, and my friend had that kind of look, apparently. She was sent over to a trailer to get a waitress uniform, and then get her hair and make-up done. She only had two lines, but she got to deliver them to the actor Richard Gere. She still talks about it, and every time that movie shows up on TV, she points out her big scene.
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