Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Familiar Faces: A Salute to Classic TV Character Actors

Back when Sesame Street was fun to watch for adults as well as children (AKA the Pre-Elmo Era), it presented a series of musical segments called “The People in your Neighborhood,” in which kids were introduced to a variety of local tradespeople.

If they were still doing them today, they would feature Muppets dressed as baristas and IT guys.

“Oh, a barista is the man to see
When you want espresso or hot tea
He’ll write your name upon a plastic cup
Then call you when it’s time to pick it up”

Yes, I just wrote that. Somebody get me the Children’s Television Workshop.

But this piece has nothing to do with Sesame Street or coffee. It’s about the people who live in the neighborhood of classic TV. Not the characters in every episode, but those whose faces gradually become just as familiar from their many appearances in different roles on different shows.

Sometimes it takes awhile to learn their names, especially if you’re the type that changes the channel or stops the DVD before the closing credits. But eventually even the most casual viewer will begin to recognize the busiest and the best of them. Each has a unique quality that makes their visits to a favorite show memorable, even if they were frequently cast in the same types of roles – think of all the timid, henpecked characters played by John Fiedler, or how Reta Shaw specialized in domineering housekeepers.

Here are five actors that always make my Comfort TV viewing more enjoyable. Hope to hear about some of yours in the comments.

Jane Dulo
As soon as Jane Dulo appeared in any TV episode, you could count the seconds before she would get on somebody’s nerves. Dulo specialized in sharp-tongued nurses (McHale’s Navy, All in the Family, That Girl) and abrasive mothers/mothers-in-law (she was 99’s mom on Get Smart), but she was never as aggressively nasty as Kathleen Freeman, another familiar actress often cast in such roles. Her prodigious television career ranged from the forgotten 1951 series Two Girls Named Smith to a guest spot on The Golden Girls, 41 years later. 

John McGiver
Though he’s appeared in several westerns, John McGiver is best remembered as a persnickety, exasperated executive who may or may not be British. McGiver’s precise clipped diction carried traces of an aristocratic accent, but the actor was born and raised in New York City, where he worked as an English teacher before starting an acting career. You’ve seen him on Gilligan’s Island, The Lucy Show, The Patty Duke Show (as Martin Lane’s editor), The Beverly Hillbillies, The Fugitive and dozens of other classics. My favorite McGiver moment: as a publisher of children’s books on The Dick Van Dyke Show (“See Rob Write, Write Rob Write”), he steals a hilarious scene from both Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. 

Hilarie Thompson
Attractive but approachable, Hilarie Thompson’s career began in the late 1960s with several flower child roles, perhaps most notably in the memorable I Dream of Jeannie episode “The Mod Party.” She also played another troubled youth in a terrific two-part episode of Harry O (“Forty Reasons to Kill”) and Oscar Madison’s niece on The Odd Couple. I thought she was superb in the Charlie’s Angels episode “Counterfeit Angels,” which introduced a trio of “fake” Angels who commit a series of crimes. Thompson perfectly nailed Kate Jackson’s all-business attitude and quirky vocal inflections. But if you are a Brady Bunch fan, you probably know her best as Marge, the King’s Island carnival booth worker in the episode “The Cincinnati Kids.”

Burt Mustin
He was classic TV’s favorite spunky old codger from the early 1950s (on Father Knows Best) through the late 1970s (with recurring roles on All in the Family and Phyllis). That’s a long time to play characters that were about 80 years of age. IMDB lists more than 10 appearances for which Mustin is billed simply as “Old Man” (or in one case, “Old Man #2”). But even in the smallest role he brought an outsized personality and a contented dignity to his characters. I particularly enjoyed his performance as a retired police detective who both impresses and frustrates Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet (“Homicide: DR22”). Mustin passed away in 1977, at age 92. 

Pamelyn Ferdin
She was one of the most easily recognizable child stars of her generation, as much for how she spoke as how she looked. Pamelyn Ferdin had a distinctively tremulous voice, which made her sound like she was on the verge of tears even when she was happy. You may have first heard that voice one of several Charlie Brown animated specials (she played Lucy), or in the Brady Bunch episode where Jan wore that dreadful black wig (“Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up”). Her classic TV appearances began at age 6 with Bewitched and The Andy Griffith Show, and she would later guest-star on My Three Sons, The Monkees, Green Acres, Star Trek and Family Affair, while also appearing as a regular on the Saturday morning series Space Academy. Today, she is a prominent animal rights activist. I think that’s her best role yet. 


  1. What do you have to say about the screen presence of Belinda Montgomery, Mr. Hofstede? How about Mary Louise Weller? The latter actress looked good in a "beavertail" wetsuit in the 1978 TV movie "Hunters of the Reef." Were you ever a fan of Robin Mattson, David?

  2. Have enjoyed many of their performances in a wide range of projects - particularly Mattson on General Hospital.

    1. Mr. Hofstede, remember Ms. Mattson's Heather Webber character having an appetite for BLTs? Robin also played Gina DeMott on "Santa Barbara."

  3. Great profiles, David. Fun to see those familiar faces and learn a little more about them. I have to say, for John McGiver, I'll remember him most in the original version of "The Manchurian Candidate" as Senator Jordan. Probably the most dignified portrayal of a politician we've seen in years! I thought he just played that role very well.

  4. Thanks for this blog, which I just stumbled on! McGiver appears in one of my favorite movies, "The Spirit Is Willing," featuring a number of familiar scene-stealing actors, including Mary Wickes and co-starring Barry Gordon.