Although anthology series were once common on American television, for the majority of its history TV has been dominated by series with regular characters. I suspect that there are two basic reasons for this. First, American television was modelled after American radio. On American radio the dominant format for shows were those with regular characters. Or at least regular hosts. Second and perhaps more importantly, I suspect most people take comfort in being able to tune into the same characters week after week. I suppose to a degree it is like visiting old friends for many people.
In its nearly sixty years of existence, American television has produced its fair share of memorable characters. I've been trying to think of what characters I would number among the greatest television characters of all time. I've narrowed it down to ten indiividual characters and two emsembles of characters. I've arranged the list of ten characters by chronological order, as it was difficult enough deciding on the ten greatest, let alone deciding how they would rank....
1. Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball, I Love Lucy): There were sitcoms on televison before I Love Lucy, but it was the first major hit of the genre. And much of the reason for the sitcom's success was its central character, Lucy Ricardo. Married to Ricky Ricardo, Lucy (whose only talent seemed to be a flair for comedy) was constantly trying to get into her husband's shows. And she would do nearly anything, no matter how ludicrous, to accomplish accomplish that. Of course, she also had other hair brained schemes as well. Lucy was the lovable goof that all of sometimes believe ourselves to be, always hopeful but somehow never quite getting things right.
2. Brett Maverick (James Garner, Maverick): Before Maverick, the hero of the average television Western was brave, honourable, trustworthy, and quick with a gun. Brett Maverick was none of these. A professional gambler and master swindler, Maverick preferred to get out of situations with his wits rather than guns. In fact, while he was cunning as a fox, Maverick was not particularly brave. At a time when television was overfilled with brave, trustworthy heroes, Brett Maverick was a breath of fresh air.
3. Barney Fife (Don Knotts, The Andy Griffith Show): If it wasn't for the fact that Barney was the cousin of Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, it seems highly unlikely he would have ever had a career in law enforcement. High strung, hot tempered, not particularly brave, and with a tendency to go too much by the book, Barney would seem an unlikely canidate for a deputy sheriff. Indeed, Andy demanded that Barney keep one bullet in his pocket because he could not be trusted with a loaded gun! And yet it is hard to picture Andy with anyone else as deputy or to picture Mayberry without him. A wonderful bundle of nerves, occasional bravado, and an obsessive compulsion for rules, The Andy Griffith Show seemed emptier when Don Knotts left the show.
4. Hoss Cartwright (Dan Blocker, Bonanza): Each of the Cartwrights had his own distinct personality. For the most part, however, they were fairly typical of Western heroes of the time. Ben Cartwright was the father and the centre of the clan, the stable voice of reason for his sometimes strong headed sons. Adam was the sombre, serious son who was quick with his wits and his gun. Little Joe was the romantic of the group, a bit too quick with his temper and also quick with his gun. On the other hand, Hoss stood out. Part of this was due to his size. Hoss was fairly large and very strong. But most of it was due to his personality. Hoss was not stupid by any means, but he did seem to lack a good deal of common sense. Very gullible, he was an easy mark for any con man to come along. At the same time, however, Hoss was perhaps the best hearted character on television. He was always willing to help those in need, a personality trait which sometimes caused no end of problems for his family. Hoss was easily the most popular character on Bonanza. In fact, many TV historians think it was more due to Blocker's untimely death that Bonanza was cancelled rather than its change in time slot. As a fan of the series, I can believe it.
5. Jed Clampett (Buddy Ebsen, The Beverly Hillbillies): I've often thought that there were three basic formats for sitcoms. The first is what I call the I Love Lucy format, in which there is a cast of relatively sane people centred around a slightly left of centre goofball. The second is what I call the Gilligan's Island format, in which the entire cast is slightly left of centre. The third is what I call The Beverly Hillbillies format. This is the exact reverse of the I Love Lucy format. Instead of a cast of sane people centred around a goofball, in The Beverly Hillbillies format, one sees a cast of lunatics centred around the sane voice of reason. In The Beverly Hillbillies, Jed was that voice of reason. His mother in law Granny was an unreconstructed Confederate with a hot temper and a passion for bootlegging (although she brewed rheumatism medicine, not liquor...). Nephew Jethro was as stupid as a box of rocks and had a tendecy to latch onto every fad and craze that came along. Daughter Ellie Mae was a tomboy who preferred animals to people. Banker Milburn Drysdale was totally obsessed with money. Out of everyone, only Jed was sane and reasonable. When things got out of hand, it was always Jed who reined things in, acting as both the voice of reason and the voice of morality. He was the perfect straight man for a whole posse of gagmen.
6. Endora (Agnes Moorehead, Bewitched): If ever there was a wicked mother in law, Endora was it. An ancient and powerful witch, she was very unhappy that her daughter Samantha married mortal Darren Stephens. In fact, she put Darren through no end of trials. She shrank him. She aged him into an old man. She made it so he could only tell the truth. And while Endora may have been unhappy with her daughter's choice of husbands in the beginning, one got the sense that after time Endora grew to love Darren. While she might make his life miserable, she seemed to take exception to any other witch or warlock who did so. For all her arrogance and strong headedness, Endora did have a soft spot in her heart after all...
7. Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn, The Wild Wild West): Quite possibly the greatest villain to ever appear on television, Dr. Miguelito Loveless was hardly the largest. In fact, as a midget he stood shorter than everyone else. But he made up for his small size with a gigantic intellect and a large dose of megalomania. In The Wild Wild West: the Series by Susan Kesler, Loveless' creator John Kneubuhl explained the back story for the mad doctor. The son of an upper class, Mexican woman, Loveless' father robbed him of his rightful inheritance and even his heritage and culture. Furthermore, Loveless was angry at God for compounding matters by making him a midget. Although this back story was never spelled out on the show, it made perfect sense, for Loveless sought world conquest with a vengence. He created a powder that would drive anyone exposed to it insane. He attempted to create a war between the U.S. government and Native Americans. He developed a substance that killed all animal and plant life. It is safe to say that had it not been for Secret Service agents James West and Artemus Gordon, the United States might well have become the nation of Loveless...
8. Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy Star Trek): Alongside Lucy and Gilligan, Mr. Spock may well be one of the most recognisable television characters of all time. Even people who have never seen an episode of Star Trek can recognise the Vulcan. The reason is simple. Spock is one of the most complex television characters of all time. The son of Vulcan Sarek and Earthwoman Amanda, Spock followed his father in accepting the Vulcan philosophy of total logic. To this end, he surpresses his emotions in an attempt to live a life of total reason. And though Spock shows little emotion, there can be little doubt of his love of and loyalty to his fellow crewmen. A character often in conflict over his heritage, Spock was certain in his friendships.
9. Detective Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach Law and Order): Television has seen many police detectives, but perhaps none were as beloved as Lenny Briscoe. Briscoe was always ready with the glib remark or sarcastic comment, and yet he remained compassionate towards others. This is perhaps because Briscoe himself was fallible. In fact, what little we know of Briscoe are his failings and failures. He was a recovering alcoholic, who had been divorced twice. His only child, a daughter, died during the course of the series. If anyone had reason to be angry at life, it would be Lenny Briscoe, yet he finds reasons to go on and even to laugh at life. For all his disappointments, Briscoe seemed to love his job and to truly love life.
10. Jim Profit (Adrain Padar, Profit): Profit only aired for four weeks during April 1996, yet anyone who had the fortune to see it cannot forget its protagonist (who was also its villain), Jim Profit. Profit was the Junior Vice President of Acquisitions at Gracen and Gracen, a large multinational corporation. He is also perhaps the most evil character to ever appear on television, willing to do anything to get ahead at Gracen and Gracen. In the first episode alone, Profit framed Jack Walters for the "murder" of Wayne Gresham, who actually died of natural causes! The origin of Profit's evil rests in his childhood. Profit's father took so little interest in him that he made the child (born Jimmy Stokowski) sleep in a pen made out of a cardboard packing box. Indeed, even as an adult Proft still sleeps in a cardboard box. It would seem that under the lupine exterior of one of television's vilest predators was the broken heart of a little boy. Profit was cancelled before the character could be fully explored, but in the four episodes that aired viewers got to see one of television's greatest villains. Fortunately, the complete series (all ten episodes) is available on DVD on August 9, this year!
As I said above, I was also going include two ensembles of characters on this list. The first are the castaways of Gilligan's Island. It has been argued that the castaways of Gilligan's Island are more stereotypes or archetypes than fully fledged characters. There is the village idiot (Gilligan), the stuffy millionaire (Thurston Howell III), the pretty girl (Mary Ann), and so on. Despite this, for many the characters of Gilligan's Island seem more real than those seen in more serious TV shows. I suspect the reason is simple. In being played broadly and simply, the characters of Gilligan's Island often remind us of ourselves. All of us have felt like bumbling idiots like Gilligan at times. And all of us have known people like the Professor or even the Skipper. In making his characters as broad as possible, creator Sherwood Schwarz made it possible for nearly everyone to identify with at least one of them.
The other emsemble of characters are The Monkees from the sitcom of the same name. There have been very few TV sitcoms that have focused on young men in their twenties. And too often on more "serious" shows young men in their twenties have been little more than cardboard pretty boys for girls to swoon over. The Monkees were guys that young men could identify with. An often down on their luck rock group, The Monkees each had their own distinct personality. Mike was the leader of the group and the intellectual, blessed with a dry sense of humour and a skewed view of the world. Micky was the crazy one, with a penchant for celebrity impersonations and off the wall humour. Davy was the romantic of the group, constantly falling in love with some girl or another. Peter was the Gracie Allen of the group, not terribly bright but terribly kind hearted. The four of them played off each other perfectly, taking turns playing gag man and straight man. In fact, they were so perfect an emsemble that it is impossible to picture the group without any one of them.
I have to say that this was a difficult list to create. In fact, among the ensembles of characters I could have included are the cast of The Simpsons (although there is probably enough written about them on the internet already). Although television is derided as a simplistic, even debased medium, and there is a little truth to that, it has created a number of memorable characters over the years. I have no doubt that it will continue to do so.
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