The idiom "bit player" is used to describe an actor who takes on small or unimportant roles in a plays, films, or television programs. The use of the word bit, which has connotations of something very small, modifies the word player, a term sometimes used to describe stage actors. A bit player typically does speak lines in the production, unlike walk-on actors or extras. The term may also be used to describe an individual who has little influence or importance in a particular community, business, or situation.
While some acting scripts specify that a play or show have only one or two characters, many productions rely on numerous characters in order to tell a complete and entertaining story. When casting the show, the director will want to match the various roles to the talents and personal characteristics of the auditioning actors. A bit player may have only a very small presence and but a few spoken lines in a production, but her role may be necessary to its integrity. There is often more focus on the role of a bit player than that of extras or walk-on actors, who may simply act as a part of a crowd or group of people. The bit player may also receive more in the way of financial compensation than extras or walk-ons.
Some actors begin their careers as bit players before going on to take more significant supporting or even leading roles. An actor can gain valuable experience working in these small parts and can make important connections within the industry that he can use to further his career. In some cases, however, an actor may never rise above his work as a bit player and may never be cast in a substantial part. Such actors may decide to act only part-time and take a job in another field so that they can support themselves and their families with a more regular and reliable source of income.
When describing scenarios, situations, or ongoing activities, the media or other commentators may describe involved individuals or entities as bit players if they are not perceived to have a significant amount of political or other types of power. These individuals or entities are nonetheless acknowledged as having some role in the story or situation. Often, a so-called bit player in a news story is distantly connected to one or more of its more involved or noteworthy participants.