By Amy Ryan
December 02, 2008 at 12:00 PM EST

It was Jack Nicholson versus four veteran character actors in the 1983 Best Supporting Actor race, and perhaps no big shock, the grinning Oscar ceremony front-row fixture won the trophy. Surprisingly, however, Nicholson’s Terms of Endearment character, retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove, wasn’t even in Larry McMurtry’s novel, and the actor was the filmmaker’s fourth choice for the part (after Burt Reynolds, James Garner, and Harrison Ford turned it down). Nonetheless, Nicholson made the lecherous spaceman one of his signature characters and earned the second of his three Oscars to date. It’s certainly impossible now to think of anyone else in that part. (Harrison Ford? Really?) So I think his win was deserved, but it’s too bad the all-star supporting players who were his competition couldn’t get some recognition; indeed, none of them has been nominated since.

This was the year that Sam Shepard earned his only Oscar nod to date, for his thoroughly convincing portrayal of laconic test pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. (Having met Yeager myself when he was older but not the least bit slower, I’d say Shepard got him just right.) Rip Torn also earned the only Oscar nomination of his career for his role in Cross Creek, a film that was up for four trophies in 1983 but is almost forgotten today. (Indeed, we couldn’t even find a clip of it online.) Charles Durning, who earned a lifetime achievement prize last January at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, picked up his second and (to date) last Oscar nomination, for his broadly cartoonish role as a Nazi colonel in Mel Brooks’ remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s satirical farce To Be or Not To Be. And Nicholson costar John Lithgow earned the second of his two career Oscar nods for his less showy Terms role as Debra Winger’s adulterous lover. (So much less showy that we couldn’t find a clip of this one, either.)

Looking back from today’s perspective, which of these performances doyou think was the best? Vote in our poll, and list your comments below.(For a refresher, watch the clips embedded after the jump, whichmay contain some NSFW language.) Remember, we’ll be running the Recall the Gold surveys every Tuesdayand Thursday until January, so you may go back at any time and vote inthe other polls (click hereto see them all), reexamining the Oscar races of 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25years ago. On Thursday, Dec. 4, we’ll look at the 1988 Best Supporting Actorcompetition. Watch also for commentary and context throughout,including on Dave Karger’s Oscar Watch blog.

addCredit(“Image Credit: Julian Wasser/Getty Images”)

Charles Durning in To Be or Not To Be

Jack Nicholson in Terms of Endearment

Sam Shepard in The Right Stuff