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Ed Lauter, 74; actor with thin face often played the heavy

Ed Lauter (left), as Big Jim, with Michael McGlone in “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas,” directed by Edward Burns.

William Rexer/Tribeca Film Festival

Ed Lauter (left), as Big Jim, with Michael McGlone in “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas,” directed by Edward Burns.

LOS ANGELES — Veteran character actor Ed Lauter, whose long, angular face and stern bearing made him an instantly recognizable figure in scores of movies and television shows during a career that stretched across five decades, died Wednesday. He was 74.

Mr. Lauter died of mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer most commonly caused by asbestos exposure, said his publicist, Edward Lozzi.

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Whether he was an irascible authority figure, a brutal thug, or a conniving con man, Mr. Lauter’s presence made him all but impossible to miss in any film he was in. That was so even on those occasions when he was playing a character more bumbling than menacing, although menacing was clearly his forte.

He was the brutal prison guard who was Burt Reynolds’s nemesis in the 1974 comedy-drama ‘‘The Longest Yard’’ and the sleazy gas station attendant in Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, ‘‘The Family Plot.’’ In ‘‘Death Wish 3,’’ he was the violent cop who teams with Charles Bronson’s vigilante to rid New York City’s streets of criminals, not by incarcerating them but by killing them.

More recently he was the butler to Berenice Bejo’s French ingenue in the 2011 Oscar-winning film ‘‘The Artist.’’

Mr. Lauter described himself in a 2010 interview with Cinema Shock magazine as a ‘‘turn’’ actor, someone who shows up at some point in the film and suddenly turns the plot in a different direction.

He credited the cast of real-life characters he grew up observing in his native Long Beach, N.Y., as inspiring many of the characters he would go on to portray.

He laughed at being someone frequently recognized in public for his roles.

‘‘But sometimes people don’t know my name,’’ he said. ‘‘ ‘Oh, yeah! There’s that guy! You were in ... you were in ...’ ’’

He was in ‘‘Trouble With the Curve’’ in 2011 with Clint Eastwood and in ‘‘Born on the Fourth of July’’ with Tom Cruise. He was also in ‘‘The New Centurions’’ with George C. Scott and in ‘‘My Blue Heaven,’’ “Revenge of the Nerds 2,’’ and ‘‘Not Another Teenage Movie,’’ among many other films.

Television appearances included ‘‘The Office,’’ “ER,’’ “Murder, She Wrote,’’ and ‘‘The Rockford Files.’’

Among his favorite roles, he said in 2010, was ‘‘The Longest Yard.’’

He recalled that director Robert Aldrich told him he didn’t have to read for the part but would have to accompany Aldrich to a nearby park so the director could ensure that he could throw a football like a quarterback would. When he hit former NFL receiver Pat Studstill, who was a stuntman in the movie, right in his jersey number with the first pass, Mr. Lauter said, Aldrich told him he had the job.

Mr. Lauter, who continued to work until a few months ago, had completed roles in several films still to be released.

He leaves his wife, Mia, and four children.

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