Sunday, February 28, 2016

A Tribute to Occasional Characters

When a series introduces a character that the audience embraces, what often happens is said character is promoted to series regular. Think Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show; Corporal Klinger on M*A*S*H; Norman Buntz on Hill Street Blues; Spike on Buffy The Vampire Slayer

But many shows create popular characters that are content to stop by every so often, turn ordinary episodes into memorable ones, and then disappear for months or even years. 

It’s a challenging assignment – how often is too often for a visit? Is the script always going to be there to make the outing worthwhile? Is the performer’s schedule always open when another return is requested? Still, examples of memorable recurring characters abound in the Comfort TV era, so whatever the hurdles they were not enough to keep some wonderful actors from adding to our viewing pleasure.

Who are your favorite occasional TV characters? Here in no particular order are some of mine, presented with apologies to runners-up Professor Pepperwinkle (The Adventures of Superman), Uncle Tonoose (Make Room for Daddy), Homer Bedloe (Petticoat Junction) the Log Lady (Twin Peaks), Sam the Butcher (The Brady Bunch) and of course, the scrootch gun-toting Moon Men Gidney and Cloyd (Rocky and Bullwinkle). 

Cliff Murdock (Tom Poston)
The Bob Newhart Show (5 episodes)
One of the perks of recurring characters is how they can reveal new facets of the characters viewers see every week. That was certainly the case with Cliff Murdock, aka “The Peeper,” whose practical jokes brought out a sillier side of the usually sedate Bob Hartley. 

Dr. Loveless (Michael Dunn)
The Wild, Wild West (10 episodes)
As the most formidable adversary of Secret Service agents James West and Artemus Gordon, the diminutive Miguelito Loveless always set our heroes on strange adventures. His debut in the series' third episode (“The Night the Wizard Shook the World”) may still be the show’s best-remembered installment, particularly in how many admirable traits it bestowed upon its mad scientist. Among Loveless’s best laid plans: poisoning the world’s water supply with LSD (which he invented) and discovering an alternate dimension, which allows him to hide crooks inside paintings displayed in banks. 

Ernest T. Bass (Howard Morris)
The Andy Griffith Show (5 episodes)
So many of us dreamed of living in a community as quiet and traditional as Mayberry. So maybe we needed those invasions from wildman hillbilly Ernest T. Bass, as a reminder that even the most idyllic of rural towns was not immune to chaos. 

Dr. Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus)
M*A*S*H (11 episodes)
This was the first series to play comedy and drama with equal virtuosity. What made the psychiatrist played by Allan Arbus such a welcome occasional cast addition is how well he complemented every script regardless of tone. His moving sessions with a wounded soldier who thought he was Jesus (“Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler”) were as memorable as his chronicling of a mystery prankster at the 4077 in a letter to Sigmund Freud, in the very funny “Dear Sigmund”. 

Uncle Arthur (Paul Lynde)
Bewitched (10 episodes)
Bewitched had an entire stable of wonderful recurring characters, from Sam’s delightfully dotty Aunt Clara to Darrin’s sick-headache-prone mother.  Any time Maurice or Serena dropped by you were probably in for a good episode, but I always looked forward most to visits from Samantha’s Uncle Arthur. He not only brought out a mischievous streak in Sam, he had one of the most infectious laughs on television. Arthur’s second season debut (“The Joker is a Card”) is my favorite of the series’ 254 episodes, and still one of the funniest half-hours of television I have ever watched. 

Marya (Nita Talbot)
Hogan’s Heroes (7 episodes)
One of the givens on Hogan’s Heroes was that Col. Hogan was always the smartest guy in the room. What made the Russian spy Marya so intriguing is that as a tactician she was the only character capable of playing at the Colonel’s level, resulting in bemusement, frustration and admiration in Hogan, all wonderfully expressed by Bob Crane. Nita Talbot, another of those familiar classic TV faces glimpsed in everything from The Untouchables to The Monkees, was the only Hogan’s Heroes guest star to receive an Emmy nomination – and she won. 

Lance White (Tom Selleck)
The Rockford Files (2 episodes)
I’ve heard it said that the appeal of a recurring guest character on The Rockford Files is measured by the extent to which said character drives Jim nuts. That would make Stuart Margolin’s Angel the obvious choice. The problem is that Angel annoyed the hell out of me as well. I had much more fun with the two standout episodes featuring a pre-Magnum Tom Selleck as a vacuous private investigator who is loved and admired by everyone, except Jim. It’s a shame they didn’t bring him back more often – both of appearances are classics.      

Cousin Geri (Geri Jewell)
The Facts of Life (12 episodes)
I’d be lying if I said that Cousin Geri’s visits to Eastland were among my favorite shows, but I think they were important in their own way, even in a series that abused its “very special episode” privileges, and that should stand for something. 

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