From Succession to Barry, Stephen Root is an HBO MVP

Thanks to major roles on both Barry and Succession, Sunday night on HBO is becoming a very Stephen Root affair.

Stephen Root in Succession
Photo: David Russell | HBO

This article contains spoilers for Succession season 4 episode 4.

Succession season 4 episode 4 “Honeymoon States” represents a monumental occasion in the show’s history. This is the first hour of the HBO series to not feature media titan/bad daddy Logan Roy, following the character’s sudden death in episode 3.

As such, much of “Honeymoon States” is fittingly jarring. Logan Roy’s surviving family members and business accomplices sleepwalk through his palatial Manhattan penthouse as they all halfheartedly scheme in their own various ways, trying to anticipate what could possibly come next after the death of a giant. Then, like a lightning bolt through the clouds, arrives a sudden and unexpected presence: Stephen Root!

At this point in its run, Succession is no stranger to the out-there cameo (see: last week’s brief Jamie Chung appearance). But anytime consummate character actor Stephen Root pops up on a TV show it’s enough to make the audience lean forward and pay extra close attention. In all the excitement, one may have forgotten that Root’s character is an already-established part of the Succession canon.

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Root previously appeared in Succession season 3’s sixth episode “What It Takes” playing conservative operative Ron Petkus. Petkus is a political donor who hosts the Future Freedom Summit in Richmond, Virginia that Logan pays a visit to to operate as a presidential kingmaker and select his party’s candidate (which ends up being the loathsome fascist Jeryd Mencken). Despite that being our only previous exposure to Petkus, here he is again at a very critical moment in the Roy family’s lives to eulogize their father in a way that none of them recognize.

According to Succession showrunner Jesse Armstrong in HBO’s post-episode featurette, the return of Root’s character serves to illustrate a phenomenon he’s researched in the real lives of the rich and famous.

“Suddenly a guy who we’ve only really met once or twice before on the show is suddenly giving a speech about your dad as you watch on. I’ve heard about such events around the deaths of public figures – how the family can sometimes get edged out.”

Why choose Stephen Root for such an important, yet small and thankless role? Because “important but small and thankless” is often Root’s specialty. Hell, pretty much everything is Root’s specialty. The 71-year-old Florida-born actor is one of the most prolific performers of his generation. His credited appearances on IMDb number 273 and counting. A fun game you could spend an afternoon playing is thinking of any movie or TV show that comes to mind then looking up to see if Stephen Root is in them. Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Root. Seinfeld? Root. Get Out? Root. Finding Nemo? Root. Most Coen Brothers movies? Root.

Blessed with simultaneously specific yet somehow universal features and talents, Stephen Root is simply a jigsaw piece sent down from the entertainment gods to fit into every puzzle. Literally hundreds of writers, directors, and producers have realized as such over the years. But recently, no media entity has understood the appeal of a little Root moreso than HBO.

Succession isn’t the only HBO property Root has acted in. Hell, it wasn’t the only HBO property in its fourth and final season that he acted in that night! On dark comedy Barry, Root plays the titular assassin’s handler named Monroe Fuches. Sunday’s two-part season 4 premiere runs Fuches threw the emotional ringer as he successfully reconnects with his surrogate son in prison before falling out with him once again for the umpteenth time. Other HBO series that Root has appeared in include Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, and Perry Mason.

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With scenes at Logan Roy’s funeral having reportedly been shot, this might not be the last time we see Ron Petkus on Succession. Either way, it certainly won’t be the last time we see Stephen Root on HBO.