Monday, May 19, 2014

Seeing Double: Comfort TV’s 10 Best Dual Role Performances – and the 5 Worst

The longer a TV show runs, the greater the temptation to indulge in one of the medium’s most time-honored clichés – having one of its stars take on a dual role. Most of these occasions are little more than one-shot gimmicks, but some shows have elevated this dubious set-up into something unforgettable.

Here, in reverse order, are ten of television’s best double takes, followed by five from actors who should have been content with just one character.

10. Tina Louise as Ginger Grant and Eva Grubb
Gilligan’s Island
Bob Denver and Jim Backus also played multiple roles during the show’s three seasons, but Tina Louise’s dowdy performance as Eva Grubb was the series’ most memorable departure from the usual monotony of foiled island escapes. The episode “All About Eva” also earns bonus points for blending two classic TV chestnuts into one story – the dual role and the “plain Jane becomes a knockout” transformation.

9. James Best as Rosco P. Coltrane and Woody
The Dukes of Hazzard
James Best appeared in more than 80 films prior to Dukes of Hazzard, and was often cast as villains far more menacing than the sputtering Sheriff Rosco.  In “Too Many Roscos,” Best dusted off that steely expression and hardcore persona that served him well in those serious stories.  

8. Barbara Eden as Jeannie and Jeannie II
I Dream of Jeannie
It has taken awhile but of late I’ve been more impressed with Barbara Eden’s one-woman sister act. Beyond the brunette wig and the switch from pink to green harem costume, I think the contrast between her wide-eyed Jeannie and the character’s more sultry, scheming sister is still underrated by classic TV fans. Eden played both roles in several episodes, beginning with 1967’s “Jeannie or the Tiger.” 

7. Patrick Troughton as The Doctor and Salamander
Doctor Who
The Doctor Who adventure “The Enemy of the World” qualifies as a recent addition to any dual role ranking, though the story in which it took place first aired back in 1967. Only one episode of this 6-part story had been known to survive, until the other chapters were recently discovered in a vault in Nigeria. Now reassembled and released on DVD, the story does not disappoint, particularly in the distinction between Troughton’s whimsical, almost childlike Doctor and his portrayal of the brutal dictator Salamander.

6. Lindsay Wagner as Jaime Sommers and Lisa Galloway
The Bionic Woman
You know who really likes actors in dual roles? Emmy voters. In the first-season Bionic Woman episode “Mirror Image,” Lindsay Wagner played Southern belle Lisa Galloway, altered by plastic surgery to look like Jaime Sommers so she could steal some top-secret documents. She won the Emmy for Best Actress over what many felt was more distinguished competition, including Michael Learned (The Waltons) and Sada Thompson (Family). The Los Angeles Times reported there were boos in the pressroom after the winner was announced. With her bionic ear, Jaime probably heard them too. 

5. David Canary as Adam and Stuart Chandler
All My Children
The evil twin story is a mainstay of daytime drama. Fans still recall easygoing doctor Grant Putnam (Brian Patrick Clarke) squaring off against psycho killer Grant Andrews on General Hospital, or Natalie Marlowe (Kate Collins) being thrown down a well by Janet Green, a.k.a. “Janet from another planet,” on All My Children. But David Canary’s work as brothers Adam and Stuart Chandler had more heart and less histrionics than most twin stories. It also won him five Emmys.

4. Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen and Kid Collins
The Adventures of Superman
Viewers used to Jack Larson’s amiable “Gosh, Mr. Kent!” persona had to be shocked at his transformation into a vicious mobster in “Jimmy the Kid.” His twisted, grimacing smile, clenched teeth and intense stare are a complete departure from that of Superman’s pal. Larson fondly recalled the episode when I interviewed him in 1996: “I’ve had the ultimate compliment of people asking me, ‘where did they get that actor who looked like you?’”

3. Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha and Serena
As is often the case with Bewitched, you can enjoy the show for what it is, a still-funny supernatural sitcom, or you could look just beneath the surface and discover a series that had a little more on its mind. The episodes featuring Serena encapsulate the social and generational conflicts of the 1960s, with Elizabeth Montgomery convincingly playing both sides. Note the contrast between Sam, the sophisticated New England suburbanite who dresses formal for country club dinners, and her free-spirited, flower child cousin who wouldn’t be caught dead with all those stiffs. Note also the barely-hidden glance of admiration Sam betrays toward Serena’s bohemian lifestyle, and consider if Darren is holding her back in ways that have nothing to do with magic. 

2. Brent Spiner as Data and Lore
Star Trek: The Next Generation
It’s the tale of two android brothers, only one of whom can experience emotions. Unfortunately, that’s also the one that needed a factory recall. All of Lore’s appearances are series highlights, but Brent Spiner was never better than in the season 4 episode “Brothers,” in which he played Data, Lore and their creator, Dr. Noonien Soong.

1. Patty Duke as Patty and Cathy Lane
The Patty Duke Show
There’s no way this couldn’t be #1. The dual role here was no gimmick – the entire series was built around the concept of identical cousins, both played by a teenage actress who had already earned an Academy Award. Hardly surprising then that she was able to create two fully realized characters and keep them both interesting through 104 episodes.

Several stories called for Patty to imitate her cousin Cathy, or vice versa, and the modulation that Duke employs here is pretty astonishing. Just by the way she holds her eyes, or the suggestion of a mannerism that doesn’t quite fit, she depicts the character she is playing, and the character her character is trying to play. Even with the sound off, you can always tell what’s going on.

Watch the breakfast table scenes, where Duke makes Cathy left-handed and Patty right-handed, or how natural the conversational rhythm seems when the two characters are talking to each other – after awhile you completely forget the novelty of what’s happening. This is one (or two of) the very best performances in the Comfort TV era. 

The 5 Worst Comfort TV Dual Roles

Christopher Knight (The Brady Bunch)
“Two Petes in a Pod” aired late in the series’ fifth and final season, when everyone seemed to already be phoning it in. Christopher Knight’s transformation from Peter Brady to lookalike student Arthur consisted of nothing more than putting on a pair of glasses. 

Lucille Ball (Here’s Lucy)
One of the strangest episodes in the entire Lucy canon is “Lucy Carter meets Lucille Ball,” in which Lucy, in her usual Here’s Lucy character, wins a Lucille Ball lookalike contest. The show was a 30-minute commercial for Ball’s upcoming film Mame, which was one of the biggest bombs of her career.  Now, if Lucy Carter had met Lucy Ricardo, that might have been something special.

Leif Garrett (Wonder Woman)
Stretching those acting muscles, teen pop star Leif Garrett plays…a teen pop star and his twin brother, who also becomes a teen pop star. “My Teenage Idol is Missing” was an inauspicious start to the series’ last season.

David Hasselhoff as Michael Knight and Garth Knight (Knight Rider)
A classic slice of ‘80s cheese, in which Hasselhoff plays his evil twin by donning facial hair that made him look like Barry Gibb. Rumor has it that The Hoff put an end to Garth’s appearances because the makeup took too long to apply. Ah, nothing like dedication to one’s craft.  

Liberace (Batman)
The flamboyant entertainer seemed right at home as acclaimed pianist Chandell, but as Chandell’s crooked brother, Harry? Let’s just say we’ve seen more intimidating mobsters in our time – like these guys. 

1 comment:

  1. How often did you watch "All My Children," Mr. Hofstede? It's worth noting that Marcy Walker's Liza Colby character was married to Adam Chandler more than once. Marcy appeared with Lindsay Wagner in the 1990 telefilm "Babies." No offense, Mr. Hofstede, but I can't say I didn't get a charge out of seeing David Hasselhoff as Garth. BTW, do you remember seeing Thaao Penghlis as both Tony DiMera and André DiMera on "Days of our Lives"?