Sometimes you don’t have to see that much of something for it to really make an impression on you. Over the years, as EVERYONE KNOWS, I’ve watched a lot of TV. And a few actors and performances—though, perhaps, not above the title of the series—have always stayed with me….
Valerie Mahaffey / David Hyde Pierce in “The Powers That Be” (1992-1993)
Ever fearless, in the early 1990s Norman Lear returned to the sitcom genre with this sadly undervalued sitcom set in the world of Washington, DC politics. John Forsythe played a clueless senator (imagine that!) and the always-wonderful Holland Taylor played his Evita-like wife. They had a daughter Caitlyn, played by Valerie Mahaffey, who was married to Clayton played by a pre-“Fraiser” David Hyde Pierce. Caitlyn was as unhappy as she was shallow. And in an all-out affront to political correctness, she was also borderline anorexic. For her, fainting at least once from hunger meant it had been a good day. As played by Mahaffey, Caitlyn was a bundle of nerves almost always fluttering at a fever pitch. Her shrillness was superbly contrasted by her co-star’s utterly contained, low-keyness. As Caitlyn’s husband, David Hyde Pierce wasn’t much better off…or any more PC. He’s an overtly depressed congressman whose night-time reading was the suicide how-to “Final Exit.” Yes, it was dark, but in Hyde Pierce’s uber-subdued, almost Chaplin-esque performance it was innocent, even endearing. That he would go on to such later sitcom success comes as no surprise.
Billie Bird in “It Takes Two” (1982-1983)
The daffy old lady is such a sitcom and movie cliché that it is almost insulting at this point. So it is something truly special when the archetype can be deftly reinvented and reinvigorated by skilled writers and an equally skilled performer. Certainly Estelle Getty did so with her legendary Sophia on “The Golden Girls.” And, I would opine, so did veteran actress Billie Bird on this short-lived ABC sitcom. “It Takes Two” had a fine concept (with the kids grown, mom decides to reenter the workforce) and a very fine cast that included Patty Duke, Richard Crenna and future stars Helen Hunt and Anthony Edwards. Billie Bird played Duke’s mother and, like Sophia, was so uncensored she could put her foot in YOUR mouth. But if Sophia was all blunt Italian-ness, Bird was more addled and innocent--a Gracie Allen with a thought process like a Rube Goldberg machine. Who else could pull off a line like this: “I know [things]. I’m old. But, then again, what do I know? I’m old.”
Catherine Schell in “Space: 1999” (1976-1977)
To some, “Space: 1999” was a noble but failed experiment. To others, it was effective sci-fi and an important transitional program between the outer space Western that was the original “Star Trek” and its more cerebral offspring “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” But even among the show’s most devoted fans, dissention still runs deep between which is better: the show’s first season or its second, which also seem to fall into cerebral (season one) vs. action (season two). While I can respect the opinions of all, I largely prefer season two mainly due to the addition of Catherine Schell. In season two—after the departure of actor Barry Morse—Schell was added to the series as Moonbase Alpha’s resident alien, the shape-shifting alien Maya. Maya, with her exotic name and abilities and equally exotic make-up, was a fascinating character. And Schell, by sheer force of pure STAR power was up to the task of making this character completely memorable. It takes a talented actress to make such super-pseudo-anamorphic abilities seem plausible—and she did it. She could also pull off all the necessary emotions. In the final episode of the series, “The Dorcans,” where Maya is confronted by a legendary enemy of her race, Schell is simply unforgettable in her fear and resilience.
Michael Urie in “Ugly Betty” (2006-2010)
ABC’s hour-long fashion fest “Ugly Betty” will be long remembered for many things, including America Ferrara’s star-making turn in the title role and Vanessa Williams’s wonderful reinvention as a devilish fashion editor Wilhelmina. But neither was any better than Michael Urie as Wilhelmina’s devoted whipping boy Marc St. James. The role could have been nothing more than a stereotypical throwback, but Urie made Marc pathetic enough to be lovable, original enough to be winning. Moreover, he was the perfect foil opposite Williams’s go-for-broke bitchiness. During the majority of Urie’s time on “Ugly Betty,” Emmy’s attention for supporting actors in comedies was largely focused on Jeremy Piven in “Entourage.” Sadly, I guess it’s too late for Emmy to make up for this oversight.
Ana-Alicia in “Falcon Crest” (1981-1990)
It takes quite a firecracker of an actress to hold her own against a cast of women that included Jane Wyman, Susan Sullivan, Abby Dalton, and, later, Lana Turner and Gina Lollobrigida. But Ana-Alicia as Napa Valley wild child Melissa Argetti proved she could. “Crest,” more than any of the other prime-time soaps of that era, knew that comedy and camp had to go hand-in-hand with their glamorous drama and Ana-Alicia knew how to play both sides at the same time. She was selfish delusional, sexual, blunt, and sly—often all in the same scene! Emmy never gave her any love; Emmy got it wrong.
Stephanie Beacham in “The Colbys” (1985-1987)
You gotta be pretty special to give Joan Collins a run for her money in the diva department. But that’s exactly what Stephanie Beacham managed to do as Sable on the “Dynasty” spin-off “The Colbys.” Before her ascent on American TV, Beacham was best known in the US for sexy roles in various Hammer horror films. Oh, what we had been missing out on all these years! Combining a killer diction and working a constant air of “I’m Better Than You,” Sable was a “B” for the ages! She was always happy to let the fur and the insults fly and was the ONLY reason why “The Colbys” was worth watching at all. In retrospect, it’s no mystery why, after the “Colbys” got canned, Beacham saw herself written into “The Cobly’s” parent, “Dynasty,” where, as stated above, she sometimes got to go toe-to-toe with Alexis!
Majel Barrett in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-1994)
This second incarnation of the sci-fi classic often showcased a galaxy of effective performances, most notably Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Brent Spinner as android Data. But we must include in this roster Majel Barrett in her six guest appearances as Lwaxana Troi, the imperious, Auntie Mame-like mother to the ship’s counselor Deanna Troi. The late Barrett is known as the “First Lady of ‘Star Trek’” due to her involvement in every incarnation of the “Star Trek” franchise (which dates back to “Trek’s” original, unaired pilot) and, of course, due to her off-screen marriage to “Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry. But nothing in her work in the pilot or in her earlier role as the Enterprise’s Nurse Chapel indicated what a revelation Barrett would be in this funny, lovable, madcap comedic role. And, nothing in her earlier performance as Lwaxana prepared viewers for the sheer emotional power of her work in the “TNG” episode “Dark Page” where she strips the character of her flamboyance and becomes simply unforgettable.
Sam Whipple in “Open All Night” (1981-1982)
One of the few people in the world who has probably watched more sitcom episodes than me (and that’s sayin’ something) is author Rick Mitz whose 1983 book “The Great TV Sitcom Book” is still the definitive guide in its particular genre. And in Mitz’s write-up of this ABC Friday night show of the early 1980s, he states, “[Sam Whipple’s] is one of the best sitcom performances of all time.” I concur. I discovered Whipple’s amazing performance long before I read Mitz’s book. Whipple’s character, Randy, was the stepson of the convenience store owner/central character of the sitcom. Part Valley Boy, part stoner and part savant, Randy had a personality unlike nearly any other person ever seen on sitcom…or in this mortal coil. “Open All Night,” which lasted only a season, was only the second role of Whipple’s career. Though he would go on to a lengthy career in TV, mainly in supporting roles (including the series “Seven Days”), he never got the part that made him the star he deserved to be. Sadly, he died, of cancer, in 2002 at age 41.