Pete Hammond

The race for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars this year is shaping up to be another impossibly competitive contest. Jared Leto, Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Steve Coogan, Harrison Ford, Geoffrey Rush, Daniel Bruhl, Chris Cooper, Bradley Cooper, Jonah Hill, Casey Affleck, George Clooney and so many others already are staking a place in this crowded field. Fox Searchlight alone has viable contenders in its fall films with 12 Years A Slave’s Michael Fassbender and Enough Said’s James Gandolfini, who could grab a rare posthumous nom for one of his final film performances.

But Searchlight also has another contender who might be forgotten since his film came out way way back in June. Right. June. Can we remember back that far? When The Way Way Back was winning acclaim at the beginning of summer, the one name pundits found to ignite a nascent Oscar supporting contest was the wryly funny, smart and memorable turn from the criminally never-nominated Sam Rockwell as Owen, the wisecracking manager of Water Wizz Water Park and mentor to 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), who has one unforgettable summer working there. Rockwell, who easily could — and should — have been nominated for last year’s Seven Psychopaths or his extraordinary work in another Searchlight film, Conviction (2010), always has been good. He’s an actor’s actor who first gained major notice after more than a decade acting in TV and films by playing game show host and CIA looney Chuck Barris in Clooney’s Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind (2002). Mainstream moviegoers probably know him best as Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2, while he has also gained a cult following for 2009′s Moon, a low-budget predecessor to Gravity (a film Rockwell says he loved). But his performance in The Way Way Back (which also deserves recognition for the sharp original screenplay from writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash of Oscar-winning Descendants fame) was a real standout — and that’s in a cast that includes fine work from Steve Carell, Toni Collette and Allison Janney, among others. No one pitched Sam Rockwell to me in this endless season of pitching. I sought him out to talk about it.

Related: ‘The Way, Way Back’ Slides Into A Hot Holiday Opening

In the scheme of things, films and performances from the year’s first half tend to get overshadowed by the onslaught of Oscar-bait films coming out in the fall and holiday period. It would be a shame if Rockwell is forgotten this awards season, but the actor has a realistic attitude, as I discovered when I caught up with him on the phone from Vancouver, where he is shooting the remake of Poltergeist. “What’s the phrase? ‘Always a bridesmaid, never a bride?’ Actually I’ve never even been a bridesmaid. So whatever, I don’t take much stock in that. I’ve almost been to the prom so many times,” he laughed.

Perhaps Rockwell is also at a disadvantage because his is a very comedic role, and Oscar doesn’t always recognize actors getting laughs in a big way. He’s aware of that but thinks this role has definite shades of gray. “I don’t know. It’s really strange,” he said. “I think this is a mixture of comedy and drama, dramedy if you will, but who knows? I think they’re both hard to do. I’ve done both [comedy and drama], and they’re both challenging.”

His inspiration for the role probably won’t help Searchlight’s campaign as he says Owen is really an homage to Bill Murray in Meatballs, a 1979 comedy and performance the 45-year-old actor grew up loving. And one that’s decidedly not Academy-friendly. Couldn’t he say he was more inspired by Brando or Pacino in order to enhance his Oscar chances? “I mean you’d have to be blind not to see there’s homage to Meatballs there,” Rockwell said. “It’s like Ordinary People and Meatballs or This Boy’s Life and Meatballs.” He added that other influences were Walter Matthau in the original Bad News Bears  and Richard Pryor, among others.

Related: ‘The Way, Way Back,’ Others Counter Fourth Of July Tentpoles

Rockwell’s lack of recognition from the Academy thus far, despite being beloved by his peers, could come from the fact that he’s always going for something different in the parts he takes. There’s no clear idea of what makes a Sam Rockwell performance. That’s intentional. “I think the main goal is you don’t want to get typecast, get labeled,” he said. “You want to be versatile and play good guys, bad guys, weird guys, and now I’m shooting a film where I am the all-American dad. Who knew? I never thought I would be.”

But The Way Way Back remains a special part of his filmography, and one this observer thinks deserves to be remembered. Searchlight already has sent screeners to the HFPA and the Broadcast Film Critics, both of which have comedy categories, hoping to get some traction that could translate to the more humorless Academy. Rockwell is just happy people saw it and will continue to see the film. It recently hit DVD.

“It’s an absolute highlight for me. I guess it’s nice people saw it,” he said. “There are movies of mine that I’m proud of that nobody saw. This is one I am proud of that people saw.”

And Academy members — if you are among those who haven’t seen it yet, check it out.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.