100 Memorable TV Characters…Part 2

I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can’t stop eating peanuts.  –  Orson Welles

 

 

 

Welcome back!! If you haven’t checked out Part 1 yet please do. I think you’ll enjoy it.

As I’ve been working on this project I’ve been amazed just how varied & wide-ranging my television watching habits have been, and the span of time we are covering. I certainly have a preference for comedy and am an undeniable child of the 80’s, but have been fortunate to have been exposed to a wide variety of things in my lifetime. Syndication has helped me to appreciate programs that I may have otherwise been too young to have seen, and I can’t help but think about how kids growing up today have the advantage of streaming, which is cool on many levels. At any rate, we reach the halfway point today. Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 

75     The Castaways (Gilligan’s Island)

Gilligan’s Island is probably best remembered these days for its catchy theme song, but a funny show has to have more than that, right?? However, that tune does do a great job of introducing us to the group of folks who are aboard the SS Minnow for “a three hour tour” when they become shipwrecked on a remote Pacific island after a tropical storm. The eponymous Gilligan is the ship’s first mate, a bumbling screw-up (FYI…remember Jerry Van Dyke?? He also turned down the role of Gilligan. Oops.). Captain Jonas Grumby…simply known as The Skipper…served in the Navy with Gilligan, who once saved his life. The Skipper often becomes exasperated with the other castaways, especially Gilligan, but he’s also a good friend and big brother figure who affectionately calls Gilligan “Little Buddy”. Thurston Howell III & his wife Lovey are eccentric millionaires who hilariously try to retain their affluent lifestyle despite being stranded on an island. Ginger Grant is a famous movie star clearly based atleast somewhat on Marilyn Monroe. She insists on wearing expensive gowns at all times. Mary Ann Summers is a beautiful Kansas farm girl who won her “three hour tour” in a contest. She is the classic girl-next-door, much more practical & less haughty than Ginger. Professor Roy Hinkley…referred to as The Professor by the others…is a high school science teacher who joined the “three hour tour” to do research for a book about botany. He has a list of college degrees a mile long, and uses bamboo & coconuts to construct all kinds of creature comforts for the group…but can never come up with a way to get them rescued.

 

74     Denny Crane & Alan Shore (Boston Legal)

Boston Legal is an underrated dramedy that aired on ABC more than a decade ago. It was a spinoff of The Practice, which was another overlooked show. Two of the attorneys on Boston Legal are Denny Crane & Alan Shore. This was William Shatner’s big TV comeback after the 80’s cop show TJ Hooker, and James Spader’s initial foray into television after a mildly successful film career that included 80’s classics Pretty in Pink, Mannequin, Less Than Zero, Wall Street, and Sex, Lies, & Videotape. Denny Crane is a senior partner and a self-proclaimed legend in the legal profession. He’s also nuttier than a damn fruitcake, which he attributes to mad cow disease. He has questionable ethics, enjoys shooting a pistol in his office, and loves to say his own name. Alan Shore is a brilliant legal mind who, like his colleague, also has dubious ethical standards. He is neurotic and routinely finds himself in hot water for his unconventional courtroom antics. At the end of each episode Alan & Denny relax on the balcony outside of Denny’s office smoking cigars, drinking scotch, & discussing the events of the day. Alan & Denny are one of the most peculiar duos in television history, but despite the show winning its fair share of awards it never got great ratings and only lasted five seasons. That’s a shame, because even to this day I’d enjoy seeing more of Alan & Denny.

 

73     Jack & Rebecca Pearson (This Is Us)

I am violating my own rule. Usually, when compiling a list such as this, I refrain from being a prisoner of the moment. I typically opine that greatness takes time and we shouldn’t assign hyperbolic superlatives to something that is still in the present, that hasn’t had time to percolate and be viewed thru the unforgiving prism of time. However, if you aren’t watching NBC’s This Is Us…only in its second season…then you are missing out on one of the finest television programs of its generation. The premise is brilliant, the performances reside in their own stratosphere, & the writing is superb. Jack & Rebecca are the parents of three children that we get to know both as children & adults. The show time jumps between different intervals from 1980 thru the present…and on occasion even provides a glimpse of the future. We know that Jack is dead in the present, but in the past he is seen as an ideal husband & father. Yes he does battle alcoholism, but seems to successfully tackle the problem when faced with the prospect of losing his family. Rebecca in the present is reserved & tough, while in the past she is extroverted & approachable. Viewers are just beginning to understand her evolution, which is kind of the point of the whole show. Why are we the way we are?? How do events…big & small…in our childhood/youth/young adulthood shape who we become later in life?? Jack & Rebecca aren’t extraordinary. They aren’t wealthy. They don’t have cool & exciting jobs. They are average middle class parents from Pittsburgh who adore their children and do the best they can navigating the obstacles of life. And that’s exactly why we love them.

 

72     Barney Stinson (How I Met Your Mother)

HIMYM and I suffered a bad break-up. Many fans were angered & felt misled after the series finale in 2014. I vowed to never watch a rerun and have abided by that, which is a damn shame because it was a cool show up until that horrific dénouement. Having said that, I will reluctantly give proper credit. Viewers of a certain age may remember Neil Patrick Harris for his early 1990s portrayal of Doogie Howser, a prodigious 16 year old doctor, but Barney is no Doogie. He is a thirtysomething bank executive in a clear state of arrested development, described by his best buddy as a high functioning sociopath. He’s a suit wearing, catchphrase spewing, manipulative & self-absorbed ladies’ man who fancies himself an expert on women. In reality most people would hate a guy like Barney, and within the context of the show even his friends aren’t too sure about him. However, as a sitcom character his outlandish shtick is entertaining, and NPH’s performance is all the more remarkable given the fact that he is actually a flaming homosexual in real life.

 

71     Coach Ernie Pantuso & Woody Boyd (Cheers)

Cheers had a true ensemble cast so it is difficult to choose some characters over others. However, each is so different that it seems natural that fans would have their favorites. One of the cool things about the show is that even when there were departures new arrivals plugged right in and kept the laughs coming for 11 seasons, making Cheers one of the longest running sitcoms of all time. Coach is an original cast member. He is a former baseball coach & current bartender who is an amusing blend of senile & naïve. Nicholas Colasanto passed away after Season 3, therefore Coach also died and was replaced with the equally simpleminded Woody, an Indiana country boy whose charming innocence is in direct contrast to the neurotic cynicism of his colleagues. Whether intentional or not casting directors pulled off a neat trick. They filled the void left by Coach’s death with a character who is by no means a carbon copy but nevertheless retains many of the quirky traits that fans loved about his predecessor.

 

70     Dan Fielding (Night Court)

Smarmy. That’s the word that comes to mind about Dan Fielding, the night shift prosecutor for Manhattan’s criminal court. Dan is a greedy, narcissistic horndog who looks at his colleagues & the criminals they all encounter on a nightly basis with contempt. Dan is always quick with an insult and constantly seeking opportunities to make easy money or score with easy women. He’s the kind of guy few would want to deal with in real life, but as a sitcom character he adds a layer of joviality to what is obviously meant to be good old-fashioned slapstick.

 

69     The Church Lady (Saturday Night Live)

Her name is Enid Strict. Did you know that?? Dana Carvey’s interpretation of an elderly, sanctimonious, pejorative congregant has its basis…like all of the best impersonations…in truth, or atleast our preconceived notions of it. Thankfully most churchgoers I’ve known in my life aren’t quite as harsh as The Church Lady, but one can choose to see the character as a cautionary tale. The sketch…in which Enid hosts a show called Church Chat…also serves as a vehicle to poke fun at various celebrities with dubious scruples & the assorted scandals they find themselves in. I’m a little surprised that there was never a Church Lady movie, but that’s probably just as well. Too many SNL based films have proven that a little bit goes a long way, and I’m glad the legacy of this particular character wasn’t besmirched that way.

 

68     Toby Ziegler (The West Wing)

Toby is the Communications Director in the Jed Bartlet White House. He is a soft-spoken, morose, idealistic, prickly man with a profound sense of morality and extremely high standards. He is one of the President’s most trusted advisors and rarely backs down from an argument. I’m not sure I could be friends with Toby because we would likely clash over contrasting bedrock principles and he’s way too tightly wound for my taste, but he’s the kind of person one can’t help but deeply respect.

 

67     John Walton Jr. (The Waltons)

One of the cooler aspects of The Waltons that many might forget is its framing device. The series is essentially a reflection of the past by John Walton Jr….aka John Boy…whose older incarnation does a rather lyrical opening & closing narration for each episode. Depression Era John Boy is who we see onscreen, and he is the eldest of six siblings that live with their parents & grandparents at the foot of a mountain in rural Virginia. John Boy is quietly ambitious and eventually leaves Walton’s Mountain to pursue a career in writing. Amongst the most endearing traditions in television is the end of each episode when all of the various family members lay in their beds in the darkness and tell each other goodnight. To contrast wholesome, sentimental shows like The Waltons with much of what passes for entertainment nowadays is like comparing filet mignon to scrapple. Goodnight John Boy…thanks for the memories.

 

66     Arnold Horshack (Welcome Back Kotter)

Who remembers Welcome Back Kotter??

Ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh!! I do!!

Horshack is the nerdiest Sweathog, the class clown always ready with the perfect one-liner. In contrast to the others, who like to believe they’re way cool & above it all, he is kind of whiny and not really a hallmark of machismo, but that’s okay because he’s seems genuine and, rather than beat him up like tough guys usually do nerds in high school stories, at James Buchanan High School in Brooklyn, NY Horshack is just one of the guys.

 

65     Howard Wolowitz (The Big Bang Theory)

I suppose I’m going against my own philosophy again, but since TBBT is in its 11th season I think it’s fair to say that we have a big enough sample size for a knowledgeable analysis of the character. Out of everyone on the show Howard is the one who has undergone the greatest amount of growth, evolving from a clueless lecher, mama’s boy, & wannabe ladies’ man to a devoted husband & father. Oh sure he still has quirks (I don’t understand why any man would voluntarily wear a dickey) and he’s still one of the most idiosyncratic & comical parts of the ensemble, but I like the fact that he has developed & matured instead of playing the kind of oblivious buffoon that never grows up. With TBBT certainly in its last couple of seasons I would be all in on a Wolowitz spinoff.

 

64     The General Lee (The Dukes of Hazzard)

Yes, I know…it’s a car. Yet I submit to you that The General Lee is just about as important as any other character on The Dukes of Hazzard. I was part of one of the key demographics…pre-teen boys…that made the show successful back in the early 80’s because guys love fast cars, especially ones that can leap over things like Superman. Plus it had that really cool horn!! And let’s not overlook the fact that it’s the car and only the car that has made the show “controversial” the past few years, decades after its original run. There is absolutely nothing else that anyone can point to about The Dukes of Hazzard as being “offensive” since it is about the least provocative television program ever produced. I read somewhere that 300+ General Lees were used in the course of seven seasons, and that only about 17 still exist. PGA golfer Bubba Watson owns one of the 17, but during the “controversy” a few years ago he indicated that he was going to paint the American flag over the Confederate flag. I don’t know if he actually followed thru or was just saying the politically correct thing in the midst of the storm, but either way he’s a moron that I haven’t cheered for since and never will again.

 

63     Dwayne Schneider (One Day at a Time)

One Day at a Time was a preachy sitcom…sporadically funny, but the kind of show that took itself way too seriously, an afterschool special with a laugh track about a single mother starting over in the big city with bratty teenage daughters. Of course I was in grade school when it was on, so it’d be reasonable to assume that I just didn’t “get it”. At any rate, levity (and testosterone) was provided by building super Schneider, whose pornstache & tool belt make him look like the love child of Clark Gable & Batman. He’s an affable windbag, the kind of neighbor that can be annoying but you miss him when he’s not around.

 

62     Felix Unger & Oscar Madison (The Odd Couple)

The Odd Couple is a 1968 Neil Simon play that begat a 1968 feature film starring the incomparable Jack Lemmon & Walter Matthau. The concept came to television for five seasons beginning in 1970, with Tony Randall & Jack Klugman in the lead roles. Though its original run ended before my 3rd birthday the magic of syndication allowed me to appreciate Felix & Oscar throughout my childhood. Felix is a persnickety fussbudget who works as a professional photographer. Oscar is a laid-back disheveled sportswriter. When Felix gets tossed out by his wife he shows up at Oscar’s door needing a place to live. The two are oil & water…they couldn’t be more different. The word sitcom is short for situation comedy, meaning that the laughs are theoretically generated by the situation, but it is clear to anyone who’s ever watched much TV that characters matter more than the situations they are put in, and The Odd Couple is a prime example. The legacy of Felix & Oscar is a formula that screenwriters for television & movies have been trying to copy for decades, but it really is difficult to measure up to the original.

 

61     Sam Malone (Cheers)

The foundation of Cheers is bar owner Sam, a former Boston Red Sox relief pitcher and recovering alcoholic. He is supposed to embody the dumb jock stereotype, but doesn’t appear to be all that unintelligent. He’s a somewhat vain ladies’ man who uses his fading celebrity to score with women. The first five seasons of the show focused largely on Sam’s antagonistic romance with erudite waitress Diane Chambers, and her departure freed him up to grown ever so slightly in the latter half of Cheers’ decade+ on the air. In hindsight one may choose to look at the show’s regulars as kind of sad…losers who waste away hours of their hollow & futile existence in a bar. Sam is their pack leader, a lonely man desperately holding on to remnants of past glory and trading in alcohol for sex to satisfy an unhealthy addiction. However, since I was a teenager the majority of the years Cheers was on I remember it as a funny, well-written show and recall Sam Malone as a cool & amusing guy who is good to a group of friends with whom he engages in humorous hijinks.

 

60     Larry, Darryl, & Darryl (Newhart)

Vermont isn’t typically the first place that comes to mind when one ponders rednecks, but three of the funniest to ever appear on television lived there…and two of them never uttered a word in 8 seasons (until the legendary series finale). They always introduce themselves the same way…”Hi, I’m Larry. This is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl.” I believe the characters were supposed to be a one shot deal, but were such a hit with the audience that they became a regular part of the cast, even running the neighborhood café. They remind me a little bit of The Darling Family, who guest starred in several episodes of The Andy Griffith Show back in the 1960’s.

 

59     Major Frank Burns (MASH)

Frank Burns was originally portrayed by Robert Duvall in the 1970 film, but I think the character is actually funnier on the TV series. Frank is an uptight & inept surgeon who doesn’t appreciate the sophomoric antics of some of his colleagues, and he is on the receiving end of a lot of insults & practical jokes. He carries on an allegedly secret affair with Hot Lips Houlihan that pretty much everyone at the 4077th knows all about. When she gets married to another soldier Frank has a nervous breakdown and is discharged from the army, eventually landing an administrative gig at a veteran’s hospital in Indiana. After Frank’s departure at the end of Season 5 I feel like MASH lost much of its wit and became a little more sanctimonious than originally intended.

 

58     Vinnie Barbarino (Welcome Back Kotter)

It is really easy to blur the lines between character and actor, especially when that actor is a megastar. Kotter is responsible for launching John Travolta’s career into the stratosphere. His role in the show led to being cast in Saturday Night Fever, which of course led to Grease. The rest is history. Vinnie is the apparent leader of the Sweathogs. He’s cool, good looking, confident, popular with the ladies…and dumb as a box of rocks. After Travolta’s film career took off he didn’t completely leave the show, but was only in about a third of the final season’s episodes. High school shows are tenuous anyway because eventually the characters are no longer credible as teenagers, but many such programs have found a way to evolve. However, losing Travolta meant losing Vinnie, and Kotter couldn’t survive without him.

 

57     George & Weezie Jefferson (The Jeffersons)

The Jeffersons was a spinoff of All in the Family that approaches racial issues from a slightly different perspective. George is a prosperous businessman who owns a chain of dry cleaning stores, and his success allows he & his wife Weezie to move from their house in Queens to a swanky penthouse apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan. They even have a maid. George is a fast-talking smartass, while Weezie is the classic exasperated wife who understands her husband’s faults and is often irritated by his antics, but loves him anyway.

 

56     Gordon Shumway (ALF)

The titular Alien Life Form from the planet Melmac has a name…Gordon Shumway. The show is a unique fish-out-of-water story, and Gordon is a sardonic yet good-hearted jokester who looks like some sort of Dr. Seuss/Jim Henson mashup. He’d really like to eat the family cat, but of course never does, and is purportedly working on fixing his spaceship so he can return home, but that process takes the entirety of the show’s four seasons. In what ended up being the series finale we get a cliffhanger in which Gordon is captured by the government before he can escape to Melmac, which is a pretty crappy conclusion for a memorable character.

 

55     Johnny Drama (Entourage)

By far my favorite HBO series was Entourage, about a Queens, NY born actor and his buddies living the high life in Hollywood. The movie star in the show is loosely based on the life of Mark Wahlberg, aka early 90’s hip-hop rapper Marky Mark, who of course went on to star in movies like Boogie Nights, The Perfect Storm, & The Departed. You may recall that Mark has an older brother named Donnie, who achieved success as part of 80’s boy band New Kids on the Block but then fell into relative obscurity before starring in the TV show Blue Bloods, which has been a modest hit at best. It is fair to say Mark’s stardom eclipsed that of his older brother long ago. The older brother on Entourage is Johnny Chase, aka Johnny Drama. He found success starring in a sci-fi fantasy show called Viking Quest, but then his career stalled as his little brother Vince’s star rose, and now he is ostensibly employed as Vince’s personal chef & bodyguard. Johnny outwardly displays bravado & confidence in his ability as an actor, but he is obviously insecure and all too aware that his brother is much more talented. He loves Vince and isn’t really jealous of his success, but hilariously seizes every opportunity to ride his coattails. Johnny, as my grandmother used to say, has more BS than a Christmas turkey, so while everybody likes him no one really takes him seriously.

 

54     Dick Loudon (Newhart) & Dr. Bob Hartley (The Bob Newhart Show)

How can anyone not love Bob Newhart?? He is quietly & subtly hilarious, as opposed to many loud & obnoxious comedians. He essentially played himself…or comparable versions of his stage persona…in two different sitcoms. In the 70’s he was Dr. Bob Hartley, a mild-mannered psychiatrist dealing with a zany group of patients & colleagues. In the 80’s he was Dick Loudon, a mild-mannered writer & innkeeper dealing with an entire town of eccentric oddballs. I think I like the second show a little more than its predecessor, but that’s probably because I was a little older when Newhart was on and remember it better.

 

53     Latka Gravas (Taxi)

Andy Kaufman was more of a performance artist than a stand-up comedian, and he definitely marched to a different drumbeat than everyone else. His most enduring creation is a character called Foreign Man, a staple of his comedy club act. That persona was the basis for Latka, a timid mechanic at the Sunshine Cab Company who has multiple personalities, a concept that allowed Kaufman to portray different characters. Kaufman was famously reluctant to sign on for Taxi and didn’t really enjoy playing Latka, but nevertheless created an enduring character that was a welcome addition to the ensemble.

 

52         Dawson Leery & Joey Potter (Dawson’s Creek)

I am not ashamed to admit that I loved Dawson’s Creek!! High school shows are a tried & true television staple, and occasionally they appeal to age groups other than teenagers. The early seasons of Dawson’s Creek overlapped with the final years of the ostensibly cooler and unquestionably glitzier Beverly Hills 90210, a program to which I never really became all that attached. The kids in Capeside, MA seemed much more relevant & grounded than their left coast counterparts, and the writing was crisp & astute. The eponymous Dawson is an aspiring filmmaker whose hero is Steven Spielberg. Joey (a female for those not in the know) is the beautiful yet shy & awkward girl next door. Their relationship is the cornerstone of the show, and it’s one of those on again/off again will they or won’t they deals. Ultimately Joe ends up with Dawson’s best friend Pacey (and boy did that relationship cause some angst), while Dawson finds happiness with his true love…a writing gig in Hollywood.

 

51     Jack Tripper (Three’s Company)

Could you imagine a show like Three’s Company in the 21st century?? It would never fly. First of all, a guy and a couple of women living together is something most people wouldn’t raise an eyebrow about these days. And secondly, the idea that Jack has to lie to his landlord and say that he is gay to be allowed to stay in the apartment wouldn’t be politically correct now, no to mention the reactions of Mr. Roper & later on Mr. Furley to Jack’s alleged orientation. But this was four decades ago and the world was a different place. At any rate, Jack is the comedic cornerstone, an aspiring chef who hangs out with his lascivious pal Larry down at The Regal Beagle (a local watering hole), but respects the boundaries set within his living arrangement with roomies Janet & Chrissy (and later Cindy then Terri). Jack is a clumsy screw-up whose pratfalls provide many of each episode’s laughs.

 

 

 

Let’s take a break. We’ll dive into Part 3 tomorrow. Or the next day *lol*.

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