Monday, July 23, 2018

Top TV Moments: Michael Constantine

Longevity is one of the hallmarks of a great Comfort TV character actor. If there were a Mount Rushmore for such thespians Michael Constantine could be on it, alongside such stalwarts as William Schallert and Charles Lane. 

One of those actors that seemed to be born middle-aged, Constantine has played just about every type of role in a career that spans nearly 70 years (and still may not be over). I remember him best as a rumpled, world-weary bureaucrat, the kind of working-class professional that strives for positive outcomes within a system designed for mediocrity. Certainly that description fits his Emmy-winning role as Walt Whitman High School Principal Seymour Kaufman on Room 222.  

With so many performances to choose from, and so many I haven’t had the pleasure to see, I won’t say these ten shows are his best television moments – but each in its own way is worth a look.

The Twilight Zone (1964)
The Rod Serling-scripted “I Am the Night…Color Me Black” gave Michael Constantine one of his first lawman roles, which would become a regular part of his career in shows from The Fugitive to Matt Houston. Here, he’s the sheriff of a small village that remains enveloped in darkness long after the sun should have risen. Is there a connection with that day’s scheduled execution of a convicted murderer? 

This is heavy-handed Serling, with everyone standing around making speeches – the condemned man, the local newspaper editor, the reverend (Ivan Dixon, especially memorable here). But they’re good speeches, and the episode’s message about the darkness being a manifestation of hate is as timely as today’s headlines. “Don’t look for it in the Twilight Zone,” Serling says at the episode’s conclusion, “look for it in the mirror.”

Hey Landlord (1966)
It was one season and out for the first sitcom created by Garry Marshall, in which young Woody Banner (Will Hutchins, too old at 36 for this type of role) inherits a New York City brownstone, and moves in to take charge of the building. The plan was to occupy each apartment with a memorable supporting cast member, among them Michael Constantine as Jack Ellenhorn, a nerdy hypochondriac photographer. He tries out a nasally, high-pitched voice in his first series role, but that doesn’t work any better than anything else on the show.

”We didn’t cast it very well, we didn’t write it very well,” Marshall admitted in his Emmy TV Legends interview. But it wasn’t a total loss – he recycled the plot from “Testing, One, Two” into one of the very best Laverne & Shirley episodes. 

Room 222 (1969)
This show is a personal favorite of mine, though I’ve about lost hope we’ll ever get its remaining seasons on DVD after Shout! Factory pulled that plug. The series debuted in the midst of chaotic times and tackled real-world issues in a realistic manner. Walt Whitman High was a sadly accurate portrait of too many inner city schools then and now – always short on resources and fighting a losing battle against increased dropout rates. Constantine, as Principal Kaufman, was on the front line of every conflict, including some against his own faculty. 

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1971)
So many of the episodes about Mary’s love life have her going on dates with guys that are walking punch lines – too short, too busy, too sleazy, too married. Season two’s “I Am Curious Cooper” offers a more nuanced take on an ill-fated relationship. Lou sets Mary up with one of his poker buddies (Michael Constantine as lawyer Mike Cooper) but after a few dates they both realize there’s no chemistry. Now they have to break it to Lou. 

Kojak (1974)
Throughout his career Constantine played a lot of what used to be called “ethnic types,” including Italian gangsters, Hispanic dictators, and even characters that shared his actual Greek heritage. In “The Chinatown Murders Pts. 1 and 2” he’s “Cheech” Scalisi, a mafia don battling both Chinese gangsters and kidney disease. The second episode is better than the first, but Constantine helped make this a strong season opener for Kojak and company.

ElectraWoman and DynaGirl (1976)
Scenery-chewing villainy was always a treat on Saturday morning TV. But when a distinguished, Emmy-winning actor goes over the top, it’s even more fun to watch. Which brings us to Michael Constantine, who appears in two of the eight ElectraWoman and DynaGirl stories as the sinister Sorcerer, spouting dialogue like “I must get rid of those two interfering voltage vixens!” 

Sirota’s Court (1976)
What a great idea for a show: an irreverent judge hears bizarre cases in a big-city night court, weighing arguments from a crusading public defender and a smug, ambitious district attorney. Sound familiar? Sirota’s Court, starring Michael Constantine as Judge Matthew J. Sirota, was adjourned quickly by NBC, but in 1984 the network revived the concept with Harry Anderson on the bench, and it ran eight years. 

Ellery Queen (1976)
In “The Adventure of the Wary Witness,” Constantine plays a struggling attorney trying to defend a man accused of murdering a mobster. As always we get an array of all-star suspects, and a solution that Ellery invites the viewer to guess along with him. Is Constantine the guilty party?

Lou Grant (1981)
From season four, “Boomerang” is a brilliant episode featuring Michael Constantine as Sidney Kovac, a hotshot guest columnist who works with Billie and Rossi on a story about U.S. companies dumping defective medical supplies overseas. Lou demands they hold back on publishing until they have proof of the allegations (if you’re under 30 you might be surprised to learn that getting the story right was once standard procedure in journalism). Sidney proves to be a bellwether of where the profession was headed. “I remember when you were satisfied reporting the news,” Lou tells him, “and not trying to make it.”

Remington Steele (1984)
In “Cast in Steele” Constantine makes his first of three series appearances as “idea man” George Edward Mulch. It wasn’t that great of a part, but he proved here he could play dumb guys as well as distinguished educators – plus, he finally found another use for his annoying Hey Landlord voice.

Highway to Heaven (1985)
How can Highway to Heaven be 30 years old already? In “The Good Doctor,”
Jonathan Smith tries to straighten out a physician that indulges a football player’s dependence to painkillers, while fighting his own addiction demons. As always with this series you can expect formulaic storytelling elevated by a proficient cast, led here by Constantine as the troubled doctor. 


  1. I am sure I saw Constantine in some of these episodes, growing up. But the first time I actually recognized him was his guest star role in a first season episode of Friday the 13th: The Series, as Ryan's dad, Ray Dallion. He was a trouble man who was taking the wrong road to try and redeem a life of failure. But in the end, he does the right thing. Helped to make the episode quite memorable. Great character actor.

    1. I should have mentioned the episode was titled "Pipe Dream" and aired in 1988, 30 years ago this month actually!

  2. Michael Constantine appeared in a 1973 episode of "The Streets of San Francisco" entitled "A Wrongful Death." In that one, he played a man whose son was fatally shot by Michael Douglas's Steve Keller character.

  3. That "annoying Hey Landlord voice":

    In an interview, Michael Constantine admitted that he based that voice on his boss on that show, Garry Marshall.

  4. I enjoyed his 2 EW/DG appearances, and I've seen them in the last few years, as I have all EW/DG episodes either on tape or DVD (or both if I've transferred them). It was funny seeing him on EW/DG, which probably didn't pay that much, but I'm sure he had fun doing it, and I think he had some young kids at the time who would've enjoyed watching him play The Sorcerer. Fun fact: Susan Lanier, who played his henchwoman, Miss Dazzle, appeared as Chrissy in the 2nd THREE'S COMPANY pilot taped not long after these shows were taped.