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In his early movies, John Carroll Lynch was lucky if he got a name.

The actor's eight-year stint in the Guthrie Theater company, in such plays as "As You Like It" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner" in the late '80s and early '90s, overlapped with a boom in Minnesota filmmaking. He was often cast in roles that were as rewarding as their anonymous characters sound: Moving Man ("Grumpy Old Men"), Skipper #1 ("The Cure") and the Major (TV movie "In the Line of Duty"). Lynch characters started to get names in 1996 with another Minnesota movie that featured a breakout cast, "Beautiful Girls" (Frank Womack), but the one that changed everything was Joel and Ethan Coen's "Fargo," in which he played Marge Gunderson's supportive, duck-stamp-painting husband, Norm.

The defined-by-his-job thing has continued for Lynch, who grew up in Colorado and made his debut in a high school production of "Guys and Dolls." His post-"Fargo" roles include characters listed in the Internet Movie Database simply as Shopkeeper, Priest, Driver and Prison Guard Walton, but once moviemakers saw the vivid impression he created in just a couple of the sweetest "Fargo" scenes, he started to become one of Hollywood's go-to character actors.

Lynch has done a wide variety of TV, including memorable appearances on "American Horror Story," "The Americans" and the current ABC mystery "Big Sky," but he has ventured beyond Skipper #1 in the movies, too. He directed "Lucky," a tender tribute to Harry Dean Stanton that starred Stanton as a version of himself. And unlike many a character actor, Lynch managed to make the switch to a lead in "Anything," a drama about a widower's relationship with a trans woman (the movie is problematic but Lynch is understated and disarmingly funny).

Unlike many actors who get slotted into a certain kind of role — bland uncles, say, or principled judges — Lynch has surprised us throughout three decades of movie roles. Often deployed as a kind of secret weapon, Lynch may not get top — or even sixth — billing in a movie's credits, but he's just as convincing playing the voice of conscience as he is plumbing uncharted depths of evil. Or, as these five films demonstrate, anything in between.

The Invitation (2015)

Karyn Kusama's riveting thriller is best enjoyed if you don't know a lot about it going in (and if you have a taste for the extreme). So let's just say that it is set at a very surprising dinner party and that, as a late-arriving guest, Lynch's inventive performance is can't-take-your-eyes-off-him great.

Zodiac (2007)

DNA evidence exonerated Lynch's character from being the titular California serial killer, but the actor's teasing, minimalist performance as Arthur Leigh Allen (three names!) was so convincing that he seemed guilty anyway.

The Good Girl (2002)

Although Lynch has done quite a bit of comedy on TV, he hasn't done much in the movies. His small but indelible role in this melancholy farce didn't even make the trailer, but he's hilarious as the kind but diffident manager of a discount outlet store, especially in a scene where he has to announce the death of a beloved colleague whose name he can't remember.

The Founder (2016)

A fantastic, underrated film from an equally unsung director, John Lee Hancock, who also made "The Rookie" and next week's Denzel Washington thriller, "The Little Things." It seems to be a standard rags-to-riches biopic about McDonald's CEO Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), but Robert Siegel's script turns darker and more complicated, which has a lot to do with Kroc's relationship to restaurateurs played by Lynch and Nick Offerman. Their pride in their product they created and their pain when it all goes south help make "The Founder" fascinating. (Bonus local angle: Kroc's third wife, Joan, played by Linda Cardellini, was from West St. Paul.)

John Carroll Lynch, left, in 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' with Jeremy Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen.
John Carroll Lynch, left, in 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' with Jeremy Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen.


The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Aaron Sorkin's fact-based drama feels phony in its fictionalized courtroom scenes, but gets an enormous lift from Lynch's decency and intelligence. He plays David Dellinger, one of seven men tried for inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It's Sorkin, so there are a lot of words, but Lynch cuts through them with plain-spoken integrity that reminds us what was at stake at both the convention and the trial.

Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367