Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Isiah Whitlock Jr. Credit: Getty Images

There are plenty of “Hey, it’s that guy!” actors. Those are the people you see in small roles over countless movies and TV shows, the ones whose names you learn over the years. Isiah Whitlock Jr. is a different kind of “Hey, it’s that guy!” actor. He’s best known for one role — really, for one word. We can’t print that word here. But when you see Whitlock — in “Cedar Rapids,” in “Pete’s Dragon,” on the forthcoming “The Mist” — you probably think of him as corrupt senator Clay Davis on “The Wire,” the guy who likes to spend several seconds drawing out the s-word.

 

You only hear Whitlock in “Cars 3”; he’s the voice of a retired racecar. And being in a movie rated G means he can’t drop his signature word. That’s fine by him; like most hard-working actors, he contains multitudes. And being a longtime actor means he identifies with the main crisis in “Cars 3”: the notion that our hero, superstar speeder Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), may be old enough to retire, to make way for the new. These are heavy ideas for a movie aimed at kids.

 

“It’s about change. It’s about hitting that crossroads in life,” Whitlock says of the film. “I got to admit, towards the end, I was having to keep myself from tearing up.”

 

Whitlock, 62, recalls hitting that point when he was no longer offered younger characters.

 

“I’d say, ‘I want to play this guy,’ and they say, ‘Well, you look a little older,’” he recalls. “You spend time in the mirror looking at yourself. It’s hard.”

When he first started acting, one thing Whitlock wasn’t prepared for was watching his movies or TV shows years later, and being forced to look at his younger self.

“You say to yourself, ‘Did I ever really look that young?’ It almost makes you not want to look at it, because you’ll start having conversations with yourself: ‘When did I start losing my hair? When did I get these bags under my eyes? Was I ever that fit?’ I mean, I look like I’m 12 years old in ‘Goodfellas.’”

Yes, Whitlock was in “Goodfellas.” It was one of his first movie roles, and it’s a blink-and-miss part; he’s the doctor who, during the film’s dazzling climactic section, forces a coked-up and frazzled Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) to undergo a quickie medical exam. But even a tiny role means he’s part of one of the most beloved films ever made.

“I remember right after I did that movie, I could walk into any Italian restaurant and get a free meal. On the 25th anniversary, GQ said everybody in the movie is a made guy now. So nobody can mess with me unless they want to get the same fate as Billy Batts,” he says, referring to the doomed mobster played by Frank Vincent.

Since “Goodfellas,” Whitlock has been a journeyman actor, popping up on everything from “The Good Wife” to “Louie” to “The Carmichael Show” to “Veep,” on which he played presidential candidate George Maddox.

For the record, his signature s-word line — which is so popular it’s inspired bobblehead dolls — didn’t originate on “The Wire”; he first did it in Spike Lee’s “25th Hour,” and again in later Spike movies like “She Hate Me” and “Chi-Raq” (which contains the longest version of it). He improvised it during auditions for “25th Hour. When they went to film the scene, Whitlock didn’t want to do it.

“I didn’t quite get it. I wanted to come up with something else,” Whitlock reveals. But Spike insisted on it. It was such a hit that, when he was cast on “The Wire,” the writers kept putting in into the scripts, which is when it really took off. “All that started with Spike. I have to give him some credit here.

“There are days when I still don’t get it,” he adds. “I’m glad people are amused by it. It’s one of those things I have to live with. If it makes people happy, I’m OK with it. Never in my wildest dreams did I think something that just came out of my mouth would be my thing.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge