Creating one iconic television character is rare enough; to accomplish that feat twice is nearly impossible. Once an actor is identified with a character that audiences have enjoyed for years, subsequent portrayals almost always suffer by comparison.
Some actors are content to repackage their signature role under different guises. Lucille Ball remained Lucy Ricardo even as her last name changed in The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy. James Garner established his charismatic but cowardly con man persona in the western series Maverick, and then brought many of those same traits to Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files. And while Newhart enjoyed a long and successful run, the shadow cast by Bob Newhart’s previous series was so influential, it was acknowledged in the series' final episode to universal acclaim.
Which TV stars achieved the most successful two-fers? Here’s my top 12 in reverse order:
12. Jack Klugman
The comedy-drama combo platter can be particularly tough to pull off, but Jack Klugman followed a terrific portrayal of Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple with a long, Emmy-nominated run as a Los Angeles medical examiner in the crime procedural Quincy. Both characters were cranky but lovable.
11. Bill Daily
Yes, you can see a bumbling second banana through-line from Roger Healey (I Dream of Jeannie) to Howard Borden (The Bob Newhart Show), though Roger was more lecherous and Howard more clueless. But Bill Daily was always a reliable punch-line generator within each ensemble.
10. Robert Wagner
Robert Wagner was television’s Cary Grant, a dashing leading man equally credible in drama, comedy and action. He was rarely off TV from the 1960s through the 1990s, and one could argue that his best series, Switch, was also his most unheralded. But he makes the list by following a roguish turn in It Takes a Thief with a role that perfectly suited his debonair persona in Hart to Hart.
9. Gavin MacLeod
After seven years on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Gavin MacLeod’s transition to the critically reviled Love Boat was perceived as a backward step. But it also gave him more interesting things to do than sit at the same desk and trade insults with Ted Baxter and Sue Ann Nivens. As Captain Merrill Stubing he played everything from slapstick to romance to drama. No matter what you thought of Vicki, MacLeod played those first steps into full-time parenthood with more delicacy than you’d expect from such a breezy series.
8. Ron Howard
The transition out of child stardom is always fraught with peril, but Ron Howard made it look easy. Growing up on The Andy Griffith Show, where he held his own at age 6 amongst a stellar cast, Howard was top-billed in Happy Days then graciously ceded the spotlight to The Fonz. But it was the departure of Richie Cunningham that really made that series jump the shark.
7. Bob Denver
He is Gilligan to generations of TV fans, but prior to that three-hour tour he introduced a far more interesting character in a better series that never made the same splash in syndication. As Maynard G. Krebs on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Denver played television’s first beatnik, putting a friendly face on an alternate lifestyle that was widely scorned in the 1950s.
6. Betty White
After winning an Emmy as the Happy (and slutty) Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the easy option would have been to cast Betty White as the equally decadent Blanche Devereaux in The Golden Girls. Instead, White played against her recently established type as the more sheltered Rose Nylund. Then she won the Emmy for that role, too.
5. Michael Landon
To praise Michael Landon as a successful two-show actor (three if you add Highway to Heaven to Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie) is to do him a disservice. Taken together, Landon was a familiar and welcome presence in 29 seasons of principled family entertainment (remember when TV used to strive for that?). He also wrote and directed several episodes of each of his shows – and when he did they were usually better than the ones left to the full-time professionals.
4. Bill Cosby
Barriers seemed to fall every time Bill Cosby appeared on television. In I Spy, he became the first African-American actor in a starring role on a dramatic series. Twenty years later, The Cosby Show felt like a new window into black culture that was different – and more authentic – than Good Times or The Jeffersons.
3. Robert Young
There weren’t many memorable second acts for the first generation of TV dads. Ozzie Nelson never found another role as interesting as himself, and Hugh Beaumont settled for guest spots on other shows after Leave it to Beaver was canceled. The exception is Robert Young, who followed up Father Knows Best with seven years as television’s favorite general practitioner, Marcus Welby. Welby personified a medical ideal – compassionate, knowledgeable, patient, and understanding – that seems sadly distant in this era of healthcare debacles and disappointments.
2. Larry Hagman
Typecasting? What typecasting? While I Dream of Jeannie aired daily in syndication across the country, Larry Hagman moved from Cocoa Beach to Dallas and created one of the most prominent television characters in the medium’s history. There is not even a trace of J.R. Ewing in Major Anthony Nelson, both fully-realized, classic TV characters that will be with us as long as there is television.
1. Mary Tyler Moore
Every list of the ten best situation comedies of all time should include The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. If it doesn’t, it was written by someone who is either 12 years old or not very smart. Both series were intelligent, sophisticated trailblazers that blended workplace and homefront humor with equal proficiency; both featured flawless ensemble casts, multiple classic installments, and produced more than 150 episodes with no discernible drop in quality from first to last.
And both shows starred Mary Tyler Moore. As a sophisticated suburban housewife or a career gal trying to make it on her own, Mary was never less than captivating. As Laura Petrie she launched a Capri pants fashion trend, and set pulses racing as one of TV’s sexiest wives and mothers – all while sleeping in a separate bed from her husband. As Mary Richards, a single 30-ish woman who didn’t need a man to complete her, Moore struck a blow for feminism without ever getting as strident as Marlo Thomas, or letting the message obscure the comedy. No one else on television has ever created two more indelible characters.